Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 10th November: Semyon Bychkov, conductor, Sabina Cvilak, soprano, Allan Clayton, tenor, Roderick Williams, baritone, BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus, The Choristers of Westminster Abbey
Britten told Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau that the juxtaposition in the War Requiem of his selection of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry with the Latin Mass for the Dead (Missa pro defunctis) was intended as a critical and ironic commentary on the latter. For as Justin Tackett observes, when the two texts meet, “Owen’s words rebut or satirize the words of the Missa” (see Justin Tackett, ‘Dona nobis pacem, The Ironic Message of Peace in Britten’s War Requiem’). Thus, in the Requiem aeternam, the chorus sings “et lux perpetua luceat eis” (let perpetual light shine upon them). But the concluding line of Owen’s accompanying setting of Anthem for Doomed Youth reads, “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds”. Likewise, the bells that chime in the Introit beg Owen’s poignant question from the same poem, “What passing-bells for those who die like cattle?”
“The first patriotic, sane, morally decent step for …any youth of any nation”, according to Britten, was “to withhold himself from military service”, (quoted in Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: a Life in the Twentieth Century). Politically, the maestro got certain things badly wrong, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic remarks in the Daily Telegraph (‘Benjamin Britten by Paul Kildea’). He was a pacifist in the heyday of fascism and supported CND during the Cold War. He even contemplated an artistic apology to the people of Hiroshima.
Britten, who declined to join the OTC at Gresham’s School, regarded the Christian civilisation that had at times endorsed both war and patriotism as hypocritical and bogus, although he made an exception of the Quakers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Rev. Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union. “Near Golgotha strolls many a priest…”, as Owen pointedly observed in At a Calvary near the Ancre. Indeed, in view of his well attested disdain for organised religion, the church’s decision in 1958 to commission Britten to compose music for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral (the origin of the War Requiem) seems somewhat bizarre.
Britten and Owen’s conceptions of Christianity were evidently very close. For both men it was essentially a doctrine of compassion and reconciliation:
The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.
Quotation from At a Calvary near the Ancre
The poet’s “gay sensibility”, to use Kildea’s apposite phrase, also seems to have informed his attitude to war and religion. Ditto Britten. The War Requiem constitutes something of a conflict, then, between two contrasting approaches to Christianity, between Owen’s “gentle Christ” as against the stern, unforgiving deity of the predestinarian Dies Irae, who will come to judge us on the “Day of wrath, [the] day that will dissolve the world into burning coals, as David bore witness with the Sibyl”.
I have listened to this remarkable piece many times on the radio etc but this was my first chance to hear it in a concert hall. Yet for once, the overall performance left me cold, Allan Clayton’s exquisitely elegiac rendering of At a Calvary near the Ancre and Strange Meeting notwithstanding. No matter. The War Requiem remains a unique musical commentary on “the pity of war” and it will continue to enthral each new generation.
Leslie Jones, November 2013