Of war and music
Reflections on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem
By David Parker
In the summer of 1963, the Boston Globe published a glowing review of the American première of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Tanglewood. I had never seen so positive a review of any performance, let alone of a première of a major contemporary work. I still haven’t. I purchased the first available recording and began listening attentively at the earliest opportunity. It is a profoundly moving composition, without question one of the most significant of the 20th century.
The work was commissioned to celebrate the 1962 dedication of the rebuilt St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England, the original building having been destroyed by the Luftwaffe in a World War II bombing raid. As War Requiem received its first performances, the Cold War was heating up, with threats as immediate as the Cuban Missile Crisis and a deteriorating situation in Vietnam. A few years later I would leave the first recording of the work with the all-but-fiancée of a Navy shipmate recently killed on a river patrol boat in the Mekong Delta. In 2012, performances celebrating the 50th anniversary of this immense work are scheduled in cities throughout the world. Two of these relatively infrequent offerings will take place in Boston and Providence.
Some of Britten’s harmonies reflect the interest of earlier 20th century composers in as yet incompletely explored applications for dissonance or even atonality. Like theirs but with more specific focus, Britten’s dissonance in War Requiem creates a disturbed mood that he apparently associated with various troubling conflicts and uncertainties of his times. As a whole, however, the piece is well grounded in traditional literary and tonal structures, though sometimes in unusually innovative ways. In fact, it’s fair to say that much of the considerable impact of this great work derives from Britten’s imaginative exploitation of the tension between traditional and innovative elements that are both literary and musical.
The texts ... were chosen and arranged by the composer himself with the apparent intent to highlight not only the contrasts between their different viewpoints, but also the ... need for [liturgy and poems] to be informed in more positive or realistic ways by the other
This tension, so palpable throughout War Requiem, is a clearly a function of Britten’s deliberate compositional craftsmanship. Grounded in the literary juxtapositions and wonderfully reinforced by the musical settings, the effect of the tension is twofold. First, it calls into question some of the more comforting expectations raised by cultural traditions that have been at best misleading. Musical, literary, religious: No traditions seemed to have dealt adequately with either the anti-romantic realities of war that eventually killed soldier poet Wilfred Owen or the potentially more catastrophic threats that were emerging even as Britten worked on War Requiem. As Owen had written, “All a poet can do today is warn” — a proposition that perhaps to Britten seemed even more appropriate to the horrific destructive possibilities of the Cold War than to the trench warfare of World War I. But secondly, the tension highlights an imperative continuing need to address more effectively the same general human fears and concerns that originally gave rise to our traditions. War Requiem is thus both a warning and a protest that manages at the same time to be a fervent prayer. It is a prayer, moreover, in a musical setting that despite serious reservations of both poet and composer concerning the present relevance of tradition, nevertheless includes promising indications that someone might be listening.
By the time he received the War Requiem commission, Benjamin Britten was already internationally renowned for his work as a composer of operas with librettos based on works of serious literary merit by the likes of George Crabbe (Peter Grimes), Herman Melville (Billy Budd) and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw). The texts for War Requiem — the requiem liturgy and the Wilfred Owen poems — were chosen and arranged by the composer himself with the apparent intent to highlight not only the contrasts between their different viewpoints, but also the compelling need for each to be informed in more positive or realistic ways by the other. The liturgical text of the traditional mass for the dead provides a general structural framework for War Requiem. Its perspective is that of the religious and cultural establishment, the rituals of which have offered consolations from time immemorial to both the living and the dying in the face of death and eternity. The Owen poems that Britten sets against this liturgy, however, are intensely individual, personal, and firmly rooted in the cruel experience of early 20th-century warfare. In the context of these juxtapositions, the perspective of the establishment seems comforting at some times, but at others inappropriate or out of touch. Nevertheless, the more comforting passages of the mass text come at strategically significant locations, where, reinforced by their musical settings, they give at least some sections of the liturgy more credibility than they might otherwise have in relation to Owen’s work.
The more comforting passages of the mass text come at strategically significant locations, where, reinforced by their musical settings, they give ... the liturgy more credibility than [it] might otherwise have in relation to Owen’s work
It is certainly by design that the most jarring of these interpolations is the first, which flatly contradicts the liturgy’s opening prayer for the dead (Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine or “Lord grant them eternal rest”) with the blunt first line of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” Most central to both the structure and the message of War Requiem, however, is Owen’s Parable of the Old Men and the Young, a revised but hardly standard edition of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. The poet paraphrases most of the original but shockingly reverses the ending. Instead of offering up the “ram of pride” provided by God as a substitute for Abraham’s proposed sacrifice of his firstborn son, Owen’s version has Abraham deliberately spurn the substitution and instead carry through with his original plan: “... the old man would not so, but slew his son, /And half the seed of Europe one by one.” This unnecessary and inappropriate sacrifice thus vitiates God’s promise to Abraham (Quam olim Abraham promisisti ...) that his seed (semini eius) will be brought “from death into life” (de morte transire ad vitem), as related by the childrens’ choir in the Offertory section of the mass text. So Isaac’s death, like that of the countless young men subsequently killed in the world’s many wars, becomes a consequence of the all too familiar sin of pride that humankind, like Abraham, has been unwilling or unable to give up.
Interestingly, the phrase “Quam olim Abrahae promisisti” is presented fugally at some length immediately both before and after Parable, as if to emphasize the broken promise of the poem itself by bracketing it with the version contained in the sacred Latin text. But the brokenness of that promise is represented in other ways as well. In the iteration that follows the poem, this text, previously sung only by the mixed choir, is preceded by a passage in which the two male soloists alternately repeat the final phrase of the poem, “half the seed of Europe, one by one” in increasingly fragmented form, above which the children’s choir sings the text of the Hostias:
In the musical setting of this sacred text we actually hear the promise to Abraham breaking into pieces — “one by one” — as sung by the soloists presenting the English words of Owen’s poem. But something even more interesting goes on in Britten’s setting of the children’s choir material. Ironically enough, that choir itself, in all the innocence of youth, is repeating the mass text version of the same promise that is breaking up in the soloists’ presentation. Against the children’s voices, in the portable organ part accompanying them, we hear an incessant, slowly rhythmic oscillation between middle C# and the D just more than an octave above. This is a very wide and dissonant interval that sounds like a nightmare’s distorted version of the slowly oscillating low-to-high siren pitches of European ambulances. The distortion is compounded by the fact that this oscillation is actually set against the organ’s steady holding of a disturbing and increasingly familiar F# to C tritone chord that is extremely dissonant in its own right. These two pitches are themselves as far apart as it is possible to be within a single octave of a C major scale, and their incompatible frequencies are profoundly uncomfortable, particularly when sounded together.
We hear an incessant, slowly rhythmic oscillation between middle C# and the D just more than an octave above ... that sounds like a nightmare’s distorted version of the slowly oscillating low-to-high [sirens] of European ambulances
We first hear the F# and C pitches in the sequence of full chorus entrances at the very beginning of the piece, where, applied to the words Requiem aeternam dona eis requiem, the conflict between them suggests the urgent present need for the requested eternal rest. Later, the biting dissonance of Britten’s harmonies in his setting of the Hostias represents musical irony of the first order. Given the resemblance of the oscillating pitches to an ambulance siren, they seem to reinforce musically the troubling idea that the young people of the children’s choir (boys in the Anglican tradition with which Britten was familiar) are, all unknowingly, being conveyed to their deaths while growing up to become (as soldiers) the very “sacrifices” (hostias) that they here sing of, as Owens’ Parable has already suggested. Section 3. Offertorium ends with the subject of the reiterated Quam olim Abrahae promisisti fugue dying away from a ppp to a pppp dynamic before the words actually disappear altogether from the final five measures (a descending scale), apparently to illustrate the death process not so much of the children themselves as of the original promise to Abraham concerning them.
It is difficult to overstate the power of this profoundly bitter and ironic musical representation, consistent as it is with what both the poet and the composer felt about warfare. For practical purposes, war is the Dies Irae that human beings, in their pride, have brought on themselves. Much of Britten’s orchestration of his Dies Irae accordingly reflects the imagery of war through the inhuman sounds of massed musical instruments. The light of flashing shell-bursts is represented by brass fanfares, the rifle fire is sputtering snare drum rhythms, the wailing of incoming shells is rendered by a shrill woodwind choir, and heavy timpani and other percussion represent the sound of exploding shells. In effect, the day of judgment becomes ground zero of a truly terrifying orchestral artillery barrage. Against this onslaught, the plaintive massed human voices of the children’s choir, adult mixed choir and soprano soloist sing the Latin text of the Requiem, mostly prayers and pleas for mercy alternating with description of the day of judgment, while the soldier-soloists present the more realistic and immediate perspective on the horrors of human warfare that the Owen poems so strikingly provide.
Within the long Dies Irae section, transitions to the embedded Owen poems are handled by the composer with great sensitivity and care. The “last trumpet” that announces the arrival of the day of judgment morphs into the bugle calls that sadden the evening air the night before battle in the baritone soloist’s rendition of Voices, the Owen poem that follows, eventually becoming the “voices of old despondency, resigned” of that poem’s penultimate line. And the Lacrimosa text of the Latin requiem, which refers both to the lamentations associated with the day of judgment and to the resurrection of the dead to face that judgment, is heartbreakingly interwoven between the English lines of Owen’s moving poem Futility (on the discovery of the body of a fallen comrade). The Latin text, probably not coincidentally, is set in part in a rhythmic pattern reminiscent of one used by Mozart in the sobbing Lacrimosa of his own famous requiem.
In effect, the day of judgment becomes ground zero of a truly terrifying orchestral artillery barrage
The performing forces of War Requiem are grouped into three ensembles that play or sing for the most part separately until they combine to build to the final climax and resolution of this masterful work. The full orchestra, large adult chorus and soprano soloist form one unit to which is assigned the traditional Latin text of the Requiem. The second unit presents the Owen poems from the perspective of foot soldiers (the tenor and baritone soloists), accompanied by a smaller chamber orchestra. The third unit consists of a boys’ or children’s choir that sings certain sections of the Requiem Latin text accompanied by a small portable organ. This ensemble is placed at some distance from the other forces in order to enhance an effect that is sometimes of human innocence, sometimes of angelic or heavenly perspective, and sometimes of both. When these three groups combine at the end, it is to deliver what amounts to a gentle but climactically beautiful lullaby (the male soloists are singing “Let us sleep now”), not unlike the final choruses of the great Bach passions, that leads into the unaccompanied choral Requiescat in pace. Amen with which War Requiem ends.
This remarkable a cappella music actually appears twice previously in the War Requiem, but to different words: once at the end of Section I Requiem Aeternam to the words Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy), and once at the end of Section II Dies Irae to the words Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem. Amen (Merciful Lord Jesus, give them rest. Amen). The remarkable quality of these passages has to do with an harmonic device that Britten has used to good effect throughout this work, and not only in these locations: the uncomfortably dissonant tension of the same C to F# tritone, described above in connection with Britten’s setting of the Offeratorium. The frequencies of these notes are at war with each other. Sound them together at a keyboard and the dissonance, which is to say our need for relief, is palpable. The omnipresence of this dissonant tritone throughout War Requiem creates an edgy tension that appears a deliberate representation of various sociopolitical and cultural tensions that, like the tritone, urgently require resolution, but instead blossomed into two World Wars, the Cold War, and the ultimate nuclear tension of Mutual Assured Destruction. As we have seen, the first words the chorus sings — requiem aeternam and dona eis requiem – are sung first to the F# and next to the C, framing and undermining both of these pleas for rest within the poles of the unsettling tritone interval at the very outset. The musical setting of the plaintive “at all” in the memorable last two lines of Owen’s Futility (“O what made fatuous sunbeams toil/To break Earth’s sleep at all?”), involves a descent between the two poles of the tritone from C to F#. And near the end of the piece, when the two dead soldiers of Owen’s eerie Strange Meeting greet each other in the desolate landscape that passes for an afterlife in Hades, the first words addressed one to the other (“Strange Friend”) are set to C and F# respectively, so that this same inescapable dissonance musically defines the strangeness of the relationship between the two former enemies, now friends, who may have killed each other.
The omnipresence of this dissonant tritone ... creates an edgy tension that appears a deliberate representation of various sociopolitical and cultural tensions [which], like the tritone, urgently require resolution.
One normally expects that dissonance in a musical composition will eventually resolve into harmony of some sort, but nowhere in War Requiem is there in fact such a resolution of the tritone dissonance except, quite surprisingly and suddenly, at the very end of each of the three related a cappella choral passages that we must now consider more closely. It is hardly comforting that the actual C to F# tritone chord is jarringly sounded in chimes or bells that introduce all three of these passages. For none of the three, moreover, does Britten provide an actual key signature, though the chromatic chord progressions seem to suggest that an harmonic resolution, if there is one, will involve a darker minor key more or less consistent with the chromatic dissonance that we have heard throughout. And indeed, as if to emphasize its tenacity, the C to F# tritone is sounded again in the chimes just before the last three measures of each of these three chorale-type passages. But then, just when we seem to have been forced to surrender all hope of resolution, a resolution not only occurs at the very last moment but takes the form of a simple but beautiful F major triad without a trace of dissonance! The comforting relief of the harmonic resolution comes as such a surprise that it registers strongly even upon a first hearing and even in the context of a diminuendo to a pppp dynamic that seems to make the harmonic warmth of the major triad stand out even more. It is the harmonic equivalent of a radical change from cold into warmth or darkness into light, almost like the sun emerging suddenly from a long total eclipse that did not include a corona. The warmth of the resolution is the last sound that we hear not only at the end of the first two a cappella prayers, but also at the end of the entire piece. In all three cases, it seems to come unexpectedly but nevertheless in answer to a prayer.
The British conductor Andrew Massey, for a time music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, remembers listening to the BBC broadcast of the War Requiem première as a teenager:
Consistently starting with, and returning to, the tritone; then suddenly, completely unexpectedly, granting us the balm of the F major triad. An interrupted cadence indeed. But what a difference! Instead of the hoped-for, expected resolution being frustrated (as in ... the last movement of Mahler 9), here we have given up all hope of true rest or resolution — the tritone is the central thematic fact of the work – and then, interrupting our acceptance of denial, suddenly, from nowhere, peace is granted. It occurs to me that it is a musical depiction of the doctrine of grace. ... I was just a kid in High School, but with my musical friends ... sat around an AM radio and heard it, and within days we had all worked out and memorized that awesome a cappella cadence. It amazed us.
— Andrew Massey (blogged, 2005)
Maestro Massey may very well have something here. In Christian theological tradition, grace is a divine gift, and as such, totally beyond human ability to control, earn, anticipate, or expect. Yet we depend upon it absolutely: Its power is beyond measure, and once unexpectedly (indeed, undeservedly) received, it makes all the difference. If this remarkable cadence is indeed associated with Divine Grace, the facts that it both involves a single harmonic triad and occurs three times within War Requiem could even be construed as suggesting an association with the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). At the very least, however, these three musically related passages serve the simpler but essential practical function of providing structural binding power to hold the vast architecture of War Requiem together, both by their spacing and by their unique reiterations of the warmth and comfort of that unforgettable cadential resolution.
If this remarkable cadence is indeed associated with Divine Grace, the facts that it both involves a single harmonic triad and occurs three times within War Requiem could even be construed as suggesting an association with the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity
I too was and still am amazed not only by this cadence, but also by too many other striking features of War Requiem to explore fully here. The title, however, deserves at least passing mention. No doubt familiar with Joseph’s Haydn’s well known Mass in Time of War, Britten nonetheless chose the simpler title War Requiem. Could this reflect a hope that his work might become a requiem not just for war dead, but even for war itself? An over-reaching, perhaps, whether his or ours, but still a consummation devoutly to be wished.
David Parker, a member of the Providence Singers bass section, is a founding member of the organization. He wrote this essay in December 2011 and January 2012 as the Singers approached its rehearsal cycle for Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.