"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.