Consumed By Violence, With Hope For Peace: Britten's 'War Requiem'

Nov 21, 2013
Originally published on December 16, 2013 5:24 pm

I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to composer anniversaries but this year, marking 100 years since the birth of Benjamin Britten, has been absolutely fascinating for me. I am now living proof that such centenaries can indeed change the way we look at a composer and provide us with opportunities to explore their breadth and depth. In Britten I have found a new hero, a musically surprising and multi-dimensional citizen of the world.

Discovering Britten through his monumental War Requiem has been both easy and complex — a perfect summation of the man himself — but always immensely inspiring.

As Leonard Bernstein said, "Ben Britten was a man at odds with the world. On the surface his music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming ... and it's so much more than that. When you hear Britten's music — if you really hear it — you become aware of something very dark ... there are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing and they make a great pain."

In the War Requiem, from 1962, Britten took the status quo and turned it on its head in the most polite way possible, setting the stage for Bernstein's own worldly commentary in his Mass 10 years later. I feel confident that without Britten's Requiem, Bernstein's work would not be the same.

The traditional Requiem Mass, so vividly captured by Mozart and Verdi and then pushed in a new direction by Brahms — whose intimate personal hand is evident throughout his German Requiem (which he toyed with calling "A Human Requiem") — becomes the vehicle for Britten's own personal beliefs and worldview.

An avowed conscientious objector, Britten left England during the Second World War, an action that he would later have to defend vigorously. His commitment to pacifism and humanity manifest itself through his War Requiem.

The traditional sections of the Requiem Mass (Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, etc.) are interrupted by an unexpected and powerful song cycle, the texts of which express a decorated hero's nightmarish experience in the trenches. The harrowing poems Britten used were by Wilfred Owen, himself killed at age of 25 in World War I.

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 for them from prayers or bells,

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

The tension of war grows more vivid with each song, until the enemies meet at last, only to realize that they are in essence the same:


It seems that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,

Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.

And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.

"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."


"None", said the other, "save the undone years,

The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,

Was my life also; I went hunting wild

After the wildest beauty in the world,

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something had been left,

Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.

With two orchestras, three soloists, large adult choir and children's chorus, the War Requiem can at times be bombastic, but more often it achieves an unbelievable level of intimacy. Uniting these disparate forces to deliver Britten's message of peace and his clear warning against violence and war, is wholly rewarding for me, both musically and politically.

When the final section, Libera me, kicks into high gear, with the elements from the entire piece juxtaposed and perfectly balanced, I am completely awed by Britten's genius. But mostly I wish I could thank him for having such enormous courage to stand up for his beliefs.

Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.

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The world celebrated Benjamin Britten's centenary this week. The revered British composer was born November 22, 1913. He's remembered for helping revive British opera with "Peter Grimes," as an inspiration to children with "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" and finally, his crowning choral work from 1962, "War Requiem."


SIMON: This is a 1963 recording with the composer himself conducting the Bach Choir, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. His piece was also performed earlier this month by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which or course is led by our friend Marin Alsop. The maestra joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Maestra, thanks so much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: You've written a wonderful essay on the "War Requiem." It's posted on our website. And you say even at this point in your career, you've discovered a new hero in Benjamin Britten.

ALSOP: Well, in delving into the "War Requiem" and reading - there's some fantastic new biographies that have come out to celebrate the centenary - and I started understanding what an incredibly principled human being Britten was. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, in the day when that was definitely not in vogue whatsoever. He left England. He had to, of course, come back and face the government on these charges. He was openly gay in a day when that certainly was not accepted. And the crowning characteristic for me is the fact that he wrote the music he felt, at a time when there was pressure to be avant-garde or to do things that were crazy and outside of the box. He stuck to his own principles about art.

SIMON: Take us through this remarkable piece, if you could, the "War Requiem." The first section sounds to be filled with apprehension and worry. So let's listen a bit to that.


ALSOP: It does feel angst-ridden, and that's because Britten takes an interval. Now, this isn't important to know but everybody feels it. He takes an interval that we call the tritone. In olden days it was called the devil's interval because it's a very - I mean, in the scheme of things, it's the ugliest interval you can have and it requires some kind of resolution. But he dwells on it. When you hear those chimes, they're playing those two notes, the two notes outlining a tritone.


ALSOP: And everything - and there's no resolution. No resolution. So, for we human beings, since we're all hotwired to react to this, we feel uncomfortable. And, you know, those bells tolling, the gongs going. So, all of this adds to a sense of an ominous feeling and a sense of dread.

SIMON: Yeah. The tenor soloist then begins to sing. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: 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.

ALSOP: Britten has brilliantly set up the structure. He has the sections of the requiem mass, and interspersed between them is essentially a song cycle for two male soloists. And they're singing texts from a poet named Wilfred Owen. And these texts are clearly anti-war. And Wilfred Owen was a decorated soldier in the First World War, whose parents got a letter on Armistice Day saying that he had been killed, 25 years old, and, you know, writing these lines like, you know, their flowers the tenderness of silent minds and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And each slow dusk a drawing-down of those blinds...

ALSOP: You know, a requiem, it's almost like a cathedral unto itself. And yet in between these pillars, we have this intimate song cycle that speaks to Britten's devout objection to war.

SIMON: Then the second section has a military brass fanfare. Let's listen to that.


ALSOP: That's amazing, isn't it? I mean, it's so powerful and evocative. For me, and I think most people who have heard the Verdi "Requiem," it immediately brings that "Dies Irae" from the Verdi "Requiem" to mind, you know, these shouting brass sort of from the rooftops. But in this case, Britten takes that association and he also adds this element of military fanfares. And then when the chorus sings, he wants there to be some sense of discomfort. So, they're singing in a meter of seven, which is not a comfortable meter for us.

SIMON: Is that a signature in this work by Benjamin Britten, that he's not looking to always comfort the audience, but to lift us out of our seat sometimes?

ALSOP: Yes. I think, you know, he's writing music at a time - the 1960s - when, you know, you have people like Boulez and Cage writing these very avant-garde, you know, unexpected kinds of works. And he's taking a very traditional form and really just kind of bending all of the edges of it. So, he's not only trying to pay homage to everyone who's passed away and honor this new cathedral that - it was commissioned to inaugurate the new cathedral, written right next to the one that had been destroyed in the Second World War. So, he's got all of this agenda but then, of course, he's got his own personal agenda, which is trying to reach out to us and challenge us in terms of our feelings and our vision about humanity and warfare.

SIMON: And, Maestra, you led the Baltimore Symphony in performances of "War Requiem" earlier this month. I don't know if you ever turned behind to take a look, but what's audience reaction like to this work that's now half a century old?

ALSOP: You know, I didn't have to turn around. I could feel the audience just on the edge of their seats. There was no coughing. There was no movement. There was just, you know, they were completely engaged and engrossed in this compelling music and narrative. And at the end, there was just silence until, you know, everybody exhaled and the applause erupted. It's an amazing piece of music.

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALSOP: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And you can read the maestra's essay about Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" at our website,


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Amen, amen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.