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The Kennedy Center

War Requiem, Op. 66

About the Work

Benjamin Britten Composer: Benjamin Britten
© Thomas May

It hasn’t been quite three weeks since the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War was globally commemorated. Yet the urgent need not only to remember but to acknowledge humanity’s potential for destruction has hardly been laid to rest.

Not 21 years since that milestone had passed before Europe was plunged into the first stages of the Second World War. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, written to remember the devastation of the latter war and setting texts by a poet killed in the former, was premiered in May 1962—just months before the Cuban Missile threatened a fresh apocalypse.

Britten was, by this point in his career, an internationally celebrated composer. He showed no doubt about the seriousness of the undertaking when he was commissioned to write a piece as part of the upcoming consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral (destroyed during German bombing raids in 1940). Britten had previously considered writing a work to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombings in Japan and, later, the assassination of Gandhi, but those plans never materialized.

For the Coventry commission, Britten decided on something revolutionary: to combine the traditional Latin prayers used in the Requiem, or Mass for the Dead, with modern English poetry. His source for the poetry was Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), a remarkably gifted young writer who was killed on the battlefield in northern France in November 1918, only one week before Armistice. Britten, a pacifist who had faced severe criticism for his stance during the Second World War, was deeply sympathetic to Owen’s antiwar poetry.

“I was completely absorbed in this piece, as really never before, but with considerable agony in finding the adequate notes for such a subject (and such words!), and dread discovering that I’ve not succeeded,” the composer confessed shortly before the War Requiem received its world premiere.
There was political drama as well. In addition to the choirs, Britten tailored the three solo parts specifically for singers who would represent nations that were enemies in Second World War: the Soviet Union (soprano Galina Vishnevskaya), Germany (the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), and England (the tenor Peter Pears, his life partner). But political pressure from the Soviets kept Vishnevskaya, who was married to Mstislav Rostropovich (former music director of the National Symphony), from performing in the world premiere. She did, however, sing on the legendary recording in 1963, which became an unprecedented top seller as a classical album.

The War Requiem consists of six movements. Britten ingeniously interweaves the secular poems by Owen with the traditional Latin texts to provide provocative commentary on the consolations we usually expect a Requiem to radiate. As the tenor and baritone soloists sing the Owen poems, they interpolate a kind of song cycle within the Requiem that fuses ancient and modern sensibilities.

The score is also unusual in its use of the performance space to enhance the implicit musical drama. Britten divides the musicians into three groups, so there are multiple sound worlds. First is the conventional one for full orchestra and mixed chorus, which sings only the Latin texts, as well as the soprano solo. You might think of this as representing the sphere of humanity in general as we face our mortality. A boys’ choir, accompanied throughout by organ or harmonium, gives voice to eternal, angelic innocence beyond this sphere. The third group calls for a reduced orchestra and the two male vocalists to enact the all-too-real world of violence and meaningless death–innocence corrupted.

Throughout the War Requiem, Britten’s music alternates between a sense of emotional involvement and aloofness, between compassion and despair, between fear and irony. One of the great opera composers of the last century, Britten draws on that experience for his score, creating what amounts to a mini-opera in the Dies irae section (nearly a half-hour in length).

He uses the Owen poems dramatically to stage “interventions” with the religious ritual—most obviously in the response to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in the Offertorium section and in the Agnus Dei.

Nearly as long as the large canvas of the Dies irae, the final section (Libera me) provoked Fischer-Dieskau, who first sang the baritone part, to react strongly, as he later recalled: “I was completely undone; I did not know where to hide my face. Dead friends and past suffering arose in my mind.” In the very final section, Britten has his divided performing forces join together for the first time. Throughout his War Requiem, traditional words of consolation and hope are confronted by a parallel universe of contemporary horror and a quest for understanding.

—Thomas May