Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Past and the Future: Britten's War Requiem

The fifth volume of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, edited by Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke, will be published soon. In this post, Reed examines one of Britten's most controversial and impressive works, the War Requiem:

The most public and indisputably most popular of Britten’s works from the period covered by volume 5 of Letters from a Life is War Requiem, commissioned by the Coventry Cathedral Festival in October 1958 to mark the consecration of Basil Spence’s uncompromisingly modern building, which sought to be a symbol of peace and reconciliation in a city that had been flattened (including the destruction of the ancient cathedral) by German bombers in the Second World War. Spence’s building incorporated significant works from leading artists of the day, including John Piper, Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland. The arts festival celebrating the new cathedral’s consecration in 1962 was inspired to emulate the building’s artistic environment by commissioning new music from some of the most distinguished British composers of the day. Tippett and Bliss, as well as Brian Easdale, a colleague from Britten’s pre-war days at the Group Theatre, had new works performed at Coventry.

The Festival gave Britten a free hand in his choice of the genre of work, and he took the opportunity to fulfil a long-term general scheme to write a major choral work that had been at the back of his mind since the late 1940s. Mea culpa, his planned oratorio with Ronald Duncan from 1945 in protest at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the projected ‘Gandhi Requiem’ of 1948, both fed into the ideas behind War Requiem. So, too, must Britten’s plan, realistically aborted owing to lack of time, to write a choral-and-orchestral Mass setting for Lord Harewood’s Leeds Centenary Festival in 1958. Of greater personal significance for Britten, however, was the platform the Coventry commission gave him to make a public statement about his strongly held pacifist beliefs. In War Requiem, Britten could speak out in opposition to war, violence and inhumanity.

It seems likely that Nocturne, the orchestral song-cycle Britten wrote for the 1958 Leeds Festival instead of the Mass setting Harewood had originally hoped for, was the source of the idea for Britten’s incorporating the sequence of Wilfred Owen settings into War Requiem. Among its typically Brittenesque anthology of poetry on the theme of sleep and dreams, Nocturne included a setting of Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Kind Ghosts’. The song-cycle was written quickly in the late summer of 1958, but Britten was considering the shape and content of the piece earlier in the year, when he read widely in his search for possible poems to set. Interestingly, many of the texts he selected for inclusion in the BBC Radio programme Personal Choice broadcast in July 1958 reflect his current compositional preoccupations. ‘The Kind Ghosts’ was not chosen for the BBC programme, but another of Owen’s poems was – ‘Strange Meeting’, in which dead soldiers from opposing sides in the conflict confront each other and are reconciled. A setting of lines from this poem forms the final, cathartic duet for the male soloists in War Requiem. Owen’s poetry therefore was very much in Britten’s mind before the letter came in October 1958 inviting him to write a piece for Coventry Cathedral.

Unless directly collaborating with a librettist such as William Plomer, Britten is generally circumspect about his current projects in his letters. Readers looking for revelations about War Requiem will be disappointed: apart from arrangements concerning the commissioning of the work, and the inevitable consultations over the engagement of singers and the conductor for its premiere, there is little to be read about the piece other than an occasional progress report. Britten’s letter of 16 February 1961 to the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in which he invites him, ‘with great temerity’, to sing in the premiere of War Requiem, summarizes his own view of the work at a point only a few weeks before he began work on the composition draft:

I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass for chorus and orchestra (in memory of those of all nations who died in the last war), and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of a great English poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the First World War. These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass; they are, of course, in English. These poems will be set for tenor and baritone, with an accompaniment of chamber orchestra, placed in the middle of the other forces. They will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity and sincerity.

Otherwise, Britten’s decision to incorporate Owen’s poetry, its selection and its mapping into the timeless Latin of the Mass for the Dead, where it forms an integrated Owen song-cycle, is seldom mentioned in the correspondence beyond mere reporting of the fact.

Much of the impact of the anti-war message of War Requiem lay in Britten’s strategic placing of his Owen settings in relation to the Latin Mass, where the horrors of the poet’s experience in the trenches are used to undermine the ritual mourning of church and state. The immediacy of the musical expression of the work – for example, its obvious allusions to the Requiem of Verdi – touched the wider public in a way that no work by Britten had previously, with the possible exception of Peter Grimes in 1945. Against the background of contemporary anxieties about the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the expansion of hostilities in the Vietnam War, and the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1964, Britten’s lament for the dead of two world wars and the consequences of war could not have been more timely, and the socio-political climate of the early 1960s undoubtedly made its own contribution to War Requiem’s international success. Such unprecedented acclaim for the work was unexpected by Britten, who seems to have been genuinely taken aback by its popularity.

In the immediate aftermath of the premiere, which, musically, was beset by problems concerning the cathedral’s acoustics and the unavailability of the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (she was refused permission by the Soviet authorities), Britten remains modest in his response to the tidal wave of congratulatory letters and telegrams: ‘I am, at the moment, only too aware of where it falls short of the idea, which is so close to my heart’, he writes to Plomer on 5 June 1962 in response to a warm letter from the writer; and to others the composer generally deflects comments about the music, preferring instead to concentrate on the fact that the message of the work had been understood – ‘the main point really’, as he told the director Basil Coleman.

The exchange of letters between Britten and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth about War Requiem is one of the most interesting in volume 5, touching not only on the work’s message but also the music’s emotional power. Hepworth, whose work Britten admired but whom he did not know well personally, somehow gets to the heart of the matter.

After listening to the BBC Third Programme live radio broadcast of the premiere on 30 May 1962, Hepworth wrote immediately to the composer:

I was profoundly moved this evening listening to the War Requiem. I felt it to be a truly magnificent work, and of tremendous importance to all of us both intellectually and emotionally. The visionary quality of the balance between the finest of what is past and the understanding of the new orientation towards the future, seemed to me sublime [. . .] As a sculptor I am deeply grateful for the experience of listening to this great work, with all its strange sweeps of sound and texture, and its absolute strength and purity of conception. [Quoted in Sophie Bowness, ‘“Rhythms of the Stones”: Hepworth and Music’, in Chris Stephens (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Centenary (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), p. 27.]

Britten’s response (4 June 1962) – a photocopy of the letter was given to the Britten–Pears Library by Sir Alan Bowness, Hepworth’s son-in-law – reveals how pleased he was by her understanding of this balance between past tradition and fresh endeavour; his appreciation of her understanding of his aims was no doubt enhanced for him by the fact that she was a fellow creator, someone with whom he could share, despite their different disciplines, common cause:

My dear Barbara Hepworth,
I did appreciate your writing about my War Requiem, & the things you said. A tribute from an artist I admire, as much as I admire you, moves me greatly. I have been treasuring the idea of this work for ages, & endeavoring to find the language to express it; just this balance between the old & the new. But I am surprised that you think it only possible in music at this moment – I feel most of the musical world is hopelessly bogged down in just exploring new techniques, with a very few exceptions; the visual world seems much more relaxed. But this is too long a subject – & I wanted you to know quickly, how touched & grateful I am for your letter.
Greetings from Peter [Pears] too –
Ben Britten

Whatever the long-term critical assessment of War Requiem – and that has vacillated fairly widely during the fifty years since its premiere – its impact in the years immediately following its premiere in 1962 was considerable, with performances springing up throughout Europe and America in double quick time. Extracts from the piece were even performed in March 1964 by students from the Leningrad Conservatory (using pirated scores), with Britten in the audience; and the recording made in January 1963 under the composer’s direction and featuring the three soloists for whom the work was intended –Vishnevskaya, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau – was an instant best-seller.

Fifty years on from its premiere, War Requiem has firmly established itself as a cornerstone of the twentieth-century repertoire, and is regularly performed in circumstances that its composer would probably find surprising. For him, it remained a special work, in which he had articulated his own profoundly held beliefs. As co-editor Mervyn Cooke observed at the conclusion of his survey of the work’s critical reception in his handbook to War Requiem, ‘It is one of the richest ironies of the War Requiem’s performance history that a work embodying fundamentally anti-establishment sentiments, attacking both the inhumanity of war and the complacency of conventional religion, should have become one of the most enduring bastions of the British musical establishment.’ It is an irony, one suspects, that would not have been lost on its composer.

Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten will be available soon from all good booksellers.

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