Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), though a life-long pacifist (he remained a conscientious objector throughout World War II), was nonetheless touched by that war, as were almost all others who lived through that time. Two of his closest friends were killed in combat, and a third, Piers Dunkerley, having survived the storming of the Normandy beaches, killed himself fifteen years later, two months before he was due to be wed. It was with these thoughts, among others, that Britten took to the composing of his War Requiem, which is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of his musical career.
The War Requiem was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, a fourteenth-century church destroyed by German bombs in 1940. Given no other brief, Britten was allowed the freedom to tell such a story as he wished through his music, and the result was a monumental, moving and epic ode to the dead and the fallen in war. Britten paired the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, sung by choir and soprano, with the heart-wrenching poetry of Wilfred Owen, performed by tenor and baritone.
The Requiem begins with the discord of the tritone – the two most musically distant notes in Western music – whispered in by the main orchestra and choir. This is a musical theme that forms the foundation of the entire work, its dissonance and subsequent resolution a parallel for the horror of war and the final peace of death. In the opening Requiem Aeternam, the full orchestra and choir, along with the second orchestra and soloists, and the organ and boys’ choir, are juxtaposed against each other, but never sound together. In fact, the separation of these elements within the Requiem persists until the closing of the whole work, with the entirety of the massive orchestral body coming together for the In Paradisum, before dissolving into a final Requiem Aeternam, and Britten’s own touch – the final words of the Requiem, sung to the same terrible discord as the opening, and resolving only to a perfect chord on the last note, are Requiescant in Pace – Rest in Peace.
Throughout the work, we are taken on a trip of sadness, horror, rage and joy, with the monumental climax of the Libera Me shuddering the very foundations of the church in which it was first performed. Yet by far the most chilling, shivering and touching aspect of the War Requiem is the poetry of Wilfred Owen, interspersed between the major sections of the Requiem and accompanied by the sparseness of a chamber orchestra:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.