“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity… All a poet can do today is warn.” — Wilfred Owen, title page message from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.
Trump is not the first nor the last world leader that will have a profoundly negative impact on such a wide swath of the world’s population. From mocking those with disabilities, perpetuating and normalizing misogyny, firmly institutionalizing systemic racism, and completely denigrating the free systems of journalism and press — this is not the only world leader to have done these things in the past. He won’t be the last. So what do we do? Jonathan Larson, in his iconic musical Rent, wrote a powerful line: “the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” This series will explore choral works, small and large, created to fight against conflict, war, destruction, murder, and loss. Our doom is continuing to ignore their messages.
Our first focus is British composer Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) anti-war masterpiece, War Requiem. It is not often performed, with few choirs or orchestras able to muster the effective forces to execute it well. Sarah Maria Leung, Master’s student in Choral Conducting at the University of Toronto, along with Mark Vuorinen, Artistic Director of the Grand Philharmonic Choir both provide us insight into Britten’s work.
Vuorinen last performed this work in 2013 with the Grand Philharmonic Choir and guests. Leung was part of the massed choirs and the Colburn Orchestra under James Conlon at the Disney Hall, Los Angeles performance in 2013. In Toronto, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Children’s Chorus last performed the work in 2009. I imagine a variety of ensembles will perform it in 2019 to commemorate the 100th anniversary since the Treaty of Versaille officially ended World War I.
The War Requiem was first performed at the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in West Midlands, The United Kingdom on May 30th, 1962. The original Cathedral was destroyed by air bombing during WWII. For the text of the work, Vuorinen says, “Britten embedded the battlefield words of Wilfred Owen into the Requiem… [becoming] living testament to the pain and loss suffered by so many.” One of the most well-known poets of WWI, Owen died in battle one week before the armistice in 1918. Vuorinen adds, “Music embeds these words into a listener’s conscience in a way that the the words alone don’t.”
When the work premiered in May 1962, the Cold War was raging, the Vietnam War was well underway, and the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. That October marked the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear armageddon. For Britten, a determined pacifist, the threat of war in a tumultuous world was evident and ever-present. Professor Paul Spicer from the Birmingham Conservatoire describes the War Requiem as “the moment of destiny for which Britten had been preparing all his adult life.”
The composition is remarkable in its simultaneous ability to discomfort the listener yet cradle the text. The Sanctus is an example with a beckoning soprano line that gives way to an agitated chant before erupting into trumpet and horn heraldry. The soprano solo line into the benedictus is disturbed by tritones amongst the choir. Tritones feature heavily in this work. Leung describes them as sounds of “violence and anxiety.” Indeed, they are known as the “devil’s interval.” There is a constant feeling of nervousness, unsettledness, and the need for resolution throughout much of the War Requiem.
Britten was successful at integrating much text into his work. Vuorinen shares, “the words that have stayed with me in the most profound way, several years after conducting the War Requiem, come from the Offertorium. It’s Britten’s setting of Owen’s retelling of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In the biblical account, Abraham is allowed to spare his son’s life and instead sacrifice a ram. Owen reimagines the end of the story. Abraham is offered the chance to spare his son’s life, but kills him anyway, to which Owen adds — “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” This is a direct reference to men of power leading Europe to death by war. Vuorinen continues, “the music that comes before and after this parable is so wrought with anger and freneticism, it makes Abraham’s decision seem all the more maddening.”
This story is especially salient in light of the decisions coming from the White House. To make a such a profound decision to ban the legitimate travel of people based on specific origin without any regard for fact or policy impacts is horrendous. Like Abraham in Owen’s remade story, we are often presented with challenges that require a choice. President Donald Trump has chosen to sacrifice Isaac when he does not need to. The decision is truly “maddening”.
“Singing or playing — or even just listening — to the War Requiem is exhausting not only because it is technically difficult, but also because it is emotionally loaded,” says Leung, “it forces you to think about the uglier sides of humanity and leaves you with a sense of emptiness.” It is a challenge to find artistic expression as a conductor, and as a singer, especially in a piece this large. But throughout the unsettling tritones, the bombastic thick orchestrations, and the powerful text is a core message of peace. Britten uses specific sounds throughout his work: chimes evoke church bells, drums evoke military might, trumpets and distant bugles bring war to the forefront, angelic children’s voices comfort and so much more. “Music is an art form that enhances emotions. What cannot be expressed in words, movements or visual forms can be expressed in music,” says Leung, “this is precisely why we should never stop making music, even in times that seem impossible. There is no more powerful way to remember the people and things we love, and remembering keeps us moving forward.”
“There is so much contemporary relevance to [the War Requiem], and viewing [it] as commemoration risks the danger of losing out on confronting the hard lessons that [it] teaches us about our current conflicts and relationships with others,” says Vuorinen. Confrontation with the complex perils of our world is not easy work. Unfortunately, we’re not far off from repeating many sins of the past.
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