Missa pro Defunctis and poems of Wilfred Owen (E-L)
Commissioned to celebrate the opening of the new cathedral at Coventry, built to replace the one destroyed by bombs, Britten used the opportunity to write a large-scale composition embodying his deeply held pacifist and humanitarian beliefs. The result, the War Requiem, is regarded by many as his masterpiece in the non-operatic sphere. Britten intersperses his setting of the traditional Latin Missa pro Defunctis with nine poems of the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, resulting in highly subtle and powerful contrasts and ironies. Written in a direct style, the War Requiem carries overwhelming conviction, and concert audiences the world over continue to respond to its timeless relevance.
Visit the War Requiem website, produced by the Britten-Pears Foundation
Choral level of difficulty: Level 5 (5 greatest)
In many ways this magnum opus, one of the 20th century’s defining works, was also Britten’s defining moment. Everything he believed in and stood for was writ large in this most fortuitous commission. Coventry had been almost obliterated by German bombs on 14 November 1940. The cathedral was destroyed although its fine tower and spire were miraculously saved. The inspirational decision was taken to build a new cathedral at right angles to the old and to connect them. The new building’s message was to be of reconciliation. A sacred ministry for reconciliation with international outreach was put in place and still partly defines the cathedral’s mission.
For a long time Britten had felt that the gap in his output was a major choral/orchestral work. He tried twice to encourage writers to give him a libretto which would fire his imagination. W. H. Auden and Ronald Duncan were both asked but although they tried neither could supply what he wanted. When Coventry mounted an Arts Festival to celebrate the dedication of its new cathedral in 1962 Britten was an obvious choice to ask for a major work. This, for Britten, was the opportunity for which he had been waiting. As a lifelong, passionate pacifist it was his opportunity to write a work which reminded its audience of the reason for the building of this new cathedral, but also, and far more importantly, to demonstrate in the most powerful way possible the horror, devastation, futility and utter waste of war.
His inspired idea was to mix the words of the Missa pro defunctis (Mass for the Dead) in Latin with the poems of one of the greatest of the First World War poets, Wilfred Owen. Owen was killed within days of the ending of those hostilities and this further emphasised Britten’s central theme of the criminal waste of human life in futile conflict. He uses nine of Owen’s poems which form a kind of song cycle which weaves in and out of the formal sections of the Latin Mass. Owen’s own statement: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity...All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.’ chimed perfectly with Britten’s own convictions and led to the writing of one of the most moving and personal works of modern times. The setting of the Latin Mass and the interspersing of solo song was a brilliant binding of public and private personas which hits the listener with extraordinary intensity.
So powerful was the first performance that The Times critic, William Mann, wrote: ‘so superbly proportioned and calculated, so humiliating and disturbing in effect, in fact so tremendous, that every performance it is given ought to be a momentous occasion’. It was a score which immediately captured the public imagination. Among 20th century British large-scale choral works only Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast had previously caused the kind of stir which the War Requiem created. Walton’s theatrical histrionics and hire-wire excitement couldn’t fail to raise the gooseflesh. Here now, however, was a deeply spiritual work on the most serious subject which caught the national mood perfectly. When Britten’s recording was released the following year it sold 200,000 copies within the first five months which was almost unheard of for a classical work, and possibly unique for a large-scale contemporary one. This was the moment of destiny for which Britten had been preparing all his adult life. The peace movements of the 1960s, the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear testing, anti-nuclear protests, the war-weariness of the seemingly endless conflict in Vietnam, all these things contributed to the public’s readiness to hear this message which Britten so powerfully addressed. The fact that the original soloists were supposed to be from Germany, Britain and Russia further emphasised the message of reconciliation. The sad fact of Galina Vishnevskaya, the Russian soprano, being prevented from singing because she was refused permission by the Russian Minister of Culture, spoiled what would have been a truly historic cast of singers (the others were Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). But Vishnevskaya did come to record the work in 1963 with Britten conducting. Her place at the premiere was memorably taken by Heather Harper.
The performance issues of the War Requiem are many and varied. Its forces are huge requiring a very large orchestra, a smaller chamber orchestra which accompanies the soloists, two organs, three soloists, main chorus and boys’ choir. There are also ideally two conductors. In the premiere performance Meredith Davies conducted the main orchestra and choir while Britten himself conducted the chamber orchestra. Another issue is the building of the whole work on the interval of the tritone or augmented 4th (C – F#) – an interval which, for centuries, has been known as the ‘devil’s’ interval. It sounds the note of warning right at the opening of the work and appears throughout. The point of the tritone, however, is its dual capacity as a discord in its melodic guise, and its harmonic role as part of a chord leading to resolution (it forms part of a dominant 7th chord, for instance). This in itself mirrors the themes of conflict and reconciliation which underpin the whole work. From a practical point of view, however, there can be serious tuning issues relating to this interval and this is just one of the many performance challenges which face the intrepid conductor taking on the work. The boys’ choir is placed at a distance and has a chamber organ or harmonium to accompany the voices. This choir still has to be co-ordinated with the main orchestra and will either need to be in the sightline of the principal conductor or given its own conductor.
Layout is a major issue for performers of the War Requiem. Because of the way in which the chamber orchestra and the full orchestra segue in and out of each other’s sections it is much better, in practical terms, for the two groups to be placed together directly under the baton of the main conductor. It is the boys’ choir and its organist who need a satellite conductor especially if they are ‘at a distance’ as Britten directs.
The next major issue is that of balance. Such a large orchestra will threaten even a big chorus at times and there is a fine line to be drawn between audibility and a possible reduction in drama, such as those moments of obliteration where it is the effect which matters. Such points occur in the Dies Irae and the Hosanna of the Sanctus and Benedictus amongst others. But much more seriously, the chamber orchestra is given such a characterful part to play that the conductor needs to be very careful that the soloists are not drowned. The most important issue is the audibility of the words. While the words of the Latin Mass are, on the whole, very well known, Owen’s poetry is not. The power of the presentation of this work is in the delivery of the message. If that message is weakened by carelessness with balance, or excessive loss of clarity due to an over-resonant acoustic, the performance will not achieve its full purpose however brilliant the playing and singing may be in itself.
After the War Requiem’s early success the critical tide in some quarters turned against the piece. This was a time when the music press was increasingly focusing on the European experimental avant-garde, and composers who extended tonal traditions, such as Britten and Shostakovich, were becoming difficult to place in terms of perceived ‘relevancy’. Of course, performers and audiences remained true to the work and commentators have progressively restored the War Requiem to its central place in the musical canon. With the passing of half a century the critical concern – obsession – with fashion, style and language has faded into insignificance and one is left with the purity of a magisterial work of genius and a message which is as powerful in today’s world of conflicts as it was in 1962.
Listeners and writers may argue about which of Britten’s many great works represent the pinnacle of his achievement. Some will say Peter Grimes, others may point to Billy Budd or his third string quartet – or whichever work speaks most powerfully to that individual. I would say, however, that between the schoolboy A Hymn to the Virgin and the mature War Requiem we have two starkly powerful works representing two absolute extremes of scale but which demonstrate with vivid clarity the all-embracing nature of Britten’s genius.
Repertoire note by Paul Spicer