War Requiem, by Benjamin Britten

Going to a performance of Britten's War Requiem by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra seemed an appropriate way to end a week that began with Remembrance Day. Britten wrote it to commemorate the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in 1940 in the devastating bombing raid that killed so many. Coventry and Dresden have always stood as bookends for me of the horrors of the then-new tactic of aerial bombardment.

I want to write about the War Requiem this week instead of a book because music, too, tells a story. That's why I publish my playlist each year. We have more than music here, though. The libretto alternates the words of the requiem mass with poems by Wilfred Owen, the WWI poet who, along with Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and others, dropped the heroic classical references in order to write poems that honestly and directly portrayed life in the trenches and under fire.

Owen's work is a personal favorite; reading his poems sent me on a two-decades-long tramp through the literature of the Great War: poetry, history, letters, memoirs, novels, even a magnificent book by Rose E. B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade, that gives directions for finding the old WWI battlefields under present-day towns and farms. The world, the western world anyway, changed forever in August, 1914.

I'm a writer not a musician, but in Britten's magnificent achievement I see the same elements of structure that we look for in novels and other stories: an initiating incident, scenes that vary in intensity but ultimately build to a climax, and a resolution in which the protagonist—and we, ourselves—are changed.

In each scene we want to see the same progression in miniature. In Britten's piece, too, we see each movement varying in emotion, reaching a climax and resolution. The first movement, Requiem Aeternam, starts with the sound of the bells, a motif that will return throughout. Starting gently, with the chorus singing the mournful words “Lord, grant them eternal rest”, the tension builds with drums. Then it quiets again for to a children's choir (backed by an organ) singing of praise and homage, before the chorus returns. Next the orchestra and chorus fall away and the tenor and chamber ensemble take up the racing, angry music and words of Owen's “Anthem for Doomed Youth”: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” The poem too follows the same story progression, moving from anger to reflection, and finally to a sad and tender ending “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.” The bells signal the return of the chorus with the gentle, haunting Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon them.”

From there we move into the Dies Irae movement, the day of wrath, with Britten's score bringing to life the bugles, the shattering rifle fire. Its sections move through majesty, vengeance, and supplication, ending with the stunning Lacrimosa section. The soprano singing “On this day full of tears” alternates with tenor's impassioned delivery of Owen's poem “Futility”, which starts: “Move him gently into the sun”, before ending with the chorus singing the Pie Jesu: “Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest.”

I won't go through the whole thing, but just say that each movement weaves together these elements: the chorus, orchestra and soprano delivering the traditional requiem mass in all its glory and mystery; the tenor and baritone backed by the chamber ensemble giving us Owen's words as though he and the other grey boys stood there telling us how it really was; and perhaps most heart-breaking of all, the children's choir with their open faces, reminding us that the soldiers once were beloved babies and, at the same time, that these children will in their turn become soldiers in future wars: “Was it for this,” Owen cries, “the clay grew tall?”

I'm sure there are subtleties to the music that I'm missing. I mentioned the motif of the bells. I love the use of motifs and symbols in stories. Paul Scott is a master at their use, not just in his masterpiece, The Jewel in the Crown, but in all his novels. Another motif that Britten uses here is the tritone that the bells sound, that recurs in various ways throughout the work. A tritone is an interval between two notes: three whole tones apart; the bells here are C and F#. It is a dissonant sound, not enough to set my teeth on edge but enough to make me uneasy. The tritone was known in the Renaissance as “the devil in music”—also the name of a terrific mystery by the late Kate Ross—adding symbolic resonance.

There is a progression in Britten's selection of poems from more general to more personal, ending with “Strange Meeting”, where Owen speaks of escaping battle down a tunnel, where he encounters a man who rises from the sleepers there, a man who talks of the “undone years” and “The pity of war”. He says, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” The poem ends with the haunting line “Let us sleep now.”

The tenor and baritone repeat this line over and over, in a canon with the children, the chorus, and the soprano singing the In Paradisum: “Into Paradise may the Angles lead thee” and a reprise of the Requiem Aeternam, immensely gentle and tender, powerful in its silences. Then finally the chorus's hushed Requiescant in Pace: “Let them rest in peace. Amen.”

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