By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
November 9, 2013
At the 11th hour on Nov. 11, 1918, "the monstrous anger of the guns" and "the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle" — to quote two of poet Wilfred Owen's indelible phrases — finally subsided. The First World War, the one to end all wars, was over.
The silence probably would not have impressed Owen, a lieutenant in the British army. He had already written about the way soldiers "walked quite friendly up to Death" and "laughed, knowing that better men would come, and greater wars."
The poet, killed by a sniper a week before the Armistice at the age of 25, left behind a collection of searing verses that would become integral to Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," a 1962 score that combines Owen's words with the text of the Latin Mass for the Dead.
Opportunities to experience the piece are usually infrequent, but this year marks Britten's centennial, and that has led to renewed attention — Britten publisher Boosey and Hawkes reports 167 performances around the world this year.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra makes its contribution to that total this week with its first presentation of "War Requiem" since 1990 (the BSO performed it one other time, in 1969). Joining music director Marin Alsop and the orchestra will be soprano Tamara Wilson, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Ryan McKinny, the University of Maryland Concert Choir and Peabody Children's Choir.
Widely considered to be among the composer's most inspired and affecting achievements, "War Requiem" is also one of the most daunting. In addition to all the vocal forces required, the work calls for an organ and two separate orchestral groupings (full- and chamber-sized). Typically, two conductors are needed to keep everything in sync.
In addition to the technical demands, there is the subject matter, which can be pretty daunting, too.
Britten, a pacifist, conducted the premiere in England at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built alongside what was left of the splendid 14th-century edifice that had been bombed by the Luftwaffe during the blitz of 1940.
"I was fortunate enough to be at the first performance," says Kathleen Munds. "It was so moving to see the ruins of the old cathedral and the words 'Father Forgive' written behind the original altar."
Munds, mother of the BSO's principal horn Philip Munds, was director of the children's choir of the Royal Opera House in London at the time. The group happened to be on a tour that included a visit to Coventry, which gave Munds the opportunity to attend the premiere on May 30, 1962.
"The feeling behind the Requiem is that we were all brothers, yet we're fighting each other," Munds says. "At the end of the piece, as a German soldier and an English soldier are dying side by side, one says to the other: 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.' Which is brilliant, I think."
That exchange between the combatants is from Owen's poem "Strange Meeting," which Britten used as part of the Requiem's tense "Libera me" ("Deliver Me") movement.
The last line of that verse, "Let us sleep now," is poignantly sung over and over by the tenor and baritone soloists, their melodic lines interwoven with those of the other choruses intoning ancient prayers for the granting of eternal rest.
Given all the horror and heartache of war strikingly conjured up in the earlier movements by Owen's words and Britten's equally searing music, the impact of those final minutes is all the more cathartic.
The effect at the premiere was intensified by the choice of male soloists — tenor Peter Pears (Britten's lifelong partner) and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
"The fact that Britten had a British and a German person singing those parts was really moving," Munds says. "I remember a long period of silence after the performance. Everybody was just bowled over."
Initial reviews in the press proclaimed a masterpiece in no uncertain terms. Then came a backlash. Britten scholar Peter Evans wrote that the glowing reactions to the premiere "were soon examined to detect flaws that reason suggested must be there."
But, Evans argued in 1980, the Requiem's "power to impress should effortlessly outlive the contempt that was a common critical second thought." By and large, that's what happened.
It would take considerable cynicism or clinical coolness to dismiss "War Requiem" today. From every angle — textual, musical, structural, emotional — it reflects a remarkable level of creativity and keen insight.
Like the great requiems by Mozart, Berlioz, Brahms and Verdi, Britten's gains its power not just from its musical inventiveness, but also a combination of universal and intimate feelings.
"Brahms really pushed the envelope by making his Requiem so personal," says BSO music director Marin Alsop. "And that Requiem leads, I think, to the one by Britten, who also personalizes it. It conveys the enormous and profound issues of someone finding his place in the world when he doesn't believe in war."
The composer must have welcomed the opportunity to make a major statement about his views at a time when the Cold War was a constant reminder of how quickly the world could be re-engulfed.
In creating the roughly 90-minute Requiem, Britten devised three separate spheres:
•The large chorus, backed by the large orchestral contingent, provides one very distinctive sound as it sings Britten's vivid treatment of the Latin Mass. The soprano soloist adds intensely expressive underlining to this texture.
•Britten gives the children's choir (originally written only for boys) some portions of the Latin text as well, but, accompanied by organ, these singers seem to be in another realm. "When you heard the children's voices [at the premiere]," Munds says, "you were thinking of future generations."
A•gainst the transparent textures of a 13-instrument chamber orchestra, the tenor and baritone sing the Owen poems, which evoke the stench and waste of war, the cannons "towering toward heaven," the individual sorrow of discovering a dead comrade and hoping "the kind old sun" might wake him once more.
Owen and Britten are at their most confrontational in a poem the retells the story of Abraham and Isaac. In this version, Abraham decides to slay his son — "and half the seed of Europe, one by one."
"That really hits me," says Phan. "Britten quotes himself in that passage, using music from his 'Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac,' which is about the original biblical story. But here the tune is twisting and distorting. It's set too fast, a little manic. I find it really disturbing."
Phan also singles out the Agnus Dei movement of the Requiem as an example of Britten's skill. The Owen poem used for this passage includes the image of a soldier limping along.
"The music makes the text come to life," the tenor says. "You really feel it. It's Britten at his best."
That same passage also contains Owen's jibe at clerics who give their blessings to war, despite the teachings of "the gentle Christ."
"There is a religious aspect to this music, but also a sort of struggle with the religion," McKinney says. "Essentially, this is a monumental indictment of war. Britten was trying to change people's minds about war."
Much has changed since 1962, but much remains the same. Adversaries may be different, and some of the causes they are willing, even eager, to fight for, but the cost is the same.
With its masterful, haunting fusion of Owen's incisive poetry against words from a solemn liturgy, Britten's "War Requiem" challenges everyone to consider why humankind must mourn so often, for so many.
"What is wrong with us?" Alsop says. "That's the perennial question."
If you go
"War Requiem" will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $29 to $84. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.
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