Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: The poetry is in the pity

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem publicly challenged the notion that war is a necessary evil. Few major works of the 20th century have met with such unanimous and unambiguous praise from critics and audiences.

In 1945, Britten visited the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, where they gave a recital to survivors. The scene became engraved on Britten’s memory and provoked the profound conviction that inhumanity lurks beneath the civilised veneer of individuals and societies, a theme amply explored in his operas Peter Grimes (1945) and Billy Budd (1951). It was during this period that Britten discovered the poems of Wilfred Owen. It was to Owen that Britten turned for inspiration when the Coventry Cathedral Festival commissioned a work for the consecration of a new cathedral in 1962 – the old building having been bombed by the German Luftwaffe and reduced to a shell.

For several years Britten had been contemplating a large-scale work that could stand alongside monuments of the English choral tradition such as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. He had considered setting part of Auden’s “Christmas oratorio” For the Time Being, as well as poet and playwright Ronald Duncan’s Mea Culpa, a response to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. In addition, according to Alec Robertson writing in Requiem: Music of Mourning and Consolation (1967), Britten had “long cherished the wish to set Owen’s war poems but could not see how best to do this. The Coventry commission illuminated his mind and showed the way.”

At the head of the score, Britten placed words from Owen’s own preface to the poems. Owen (right) made it clear that the book was not “about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.” Britten quotes the words that follow: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity… All a poet can do today is warn.”

The War Requiem has six movements combining parts of the mass for the dead with selections from Owen’s poetry. It is set for large orchestra, chorus, boys’ chorus, chamber orchestra, and three solo voices (soprano, tenor and baritone). For the opening performance, it was intended that the soloists should be Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian), Peter Pears (English) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German), to symbolize a spirit of unity. Close to the premiere, the USSR did not permit Vishnevskaya to travel to Coventry for the event, although she was later allowed to make the recording in London. At only ten days’ notice, Heather Harper stepped in to sing the soprano role. The premiere took place on 30 May 1962 in the newly dedicated Coventry Cathedral. There was, as might have been expected, a profound silence between the final notes and the ensuing lengthy applause.

Britten (right) supervised the first performance. Music critic William Mann writing in The Times perceptively summed up the work: “It is not a requiem to console the living. Sometimes it does not even help the dead to sleep soundly. It can only disturb every living soul, for it denounces the barbarism more or less awake in mankind with all the authority a great composer can muster.”

In 1988, the British film director Derek Jarman made a screen adaptation of War Requiem for the BBC using the original recording (1963) for the soundtrack. It features the last film performance of Laurence Olivier in the role of an ageing war veteran. The film is structured around the reminiscences of Olivier’s character, the Old Soldier in a wheelchair, who recites “Strange Meeting” in the film’s prologue.

“And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.”


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