Over the past year, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem has been performed in cities across Europe and the U.S. to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, a protracted humanitarian disaster known in its day as “the war that will end war.” Premiered in 1962, the work was commissioned for the consecration of the newly built Coventry Cathedral, adjacent to the site of the original medieval structure, which was all but obliterated by German bombers in 1940. Britten’s vast monumental ritual will receive its UMS debut on February 16, when the UMS Choral Union, the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, and three vocal soloists perform it at Hill Auditorium.
The more I listen to the War Requiem, the more it feels to me like Britten’s open letter to Dmitri Shostakovich. The two composers were kindred spirits, and Britten was an avowed pacifist who abhorred cruelty. Part of the passionate intensity we encounter in the War Requiem traces back to 1945, when Britten and violinist Yehudi Menuhin witnessed the horrors of the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp before giving a performance for the survivors.
Britten’s individualistic modernity was firmly rooted in centuries of tradition. Throughout his War Requiem, Wilfred Owen’s WWI battlefield poems are interwoven with layered streams of choral liturgy, drawn from the Catholic mass for the dead. Britten’s deliberate setting of verses from a war of unprecedented magnitude in a work dedicated to the victims of a subsequent, comparably catastrophic war marks them as chapters in the saga of a species perpetually at war with itself.
Writing under the shadow of the nuclear arms race, the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the beginning of the escalation of the Vietnam War, Britten boldly included Owen’s bitter observations on blind nationalism and the cowardice of politicians who sow discord and stoke conflagrations to further their own careers, regardless of widespread suffering, destruction, and death.
Most unsettling perhaps is Owen’s angry inversion of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac. In this nightmare vision, the patriarch ignores the advice of an intervening angel, slaughtering his son “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” For Owen and Britten, Abraham has morphed into Moloch, a demonic colossus demanding human sacrifice.
Britten’s War Requiem is protest music on a massive and operatic scale. Three years after its first performance, Bob Dylan would introduce his own version of the Abraham-Isaac legend to the anti-war youth culture of the 1960s with the acerbic opening lines of “Highway 61 Revisited.”
In a moving and beautifully articulated epilogue to the War Requiem, a somber encounter occurs between slain soldiers from opposing armies. Wistful over the pity of war and the years undone, they arrive at forgiveness and reconciliation.