The first time I ever heard Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” I was immediately struck by the colossal nature of the work: A full orchestra, a chamber orchestra, an organ, a boys’ choir, an adult choir and three solo vocalists. And the subject matter — the juxtaposition of war poetry and the traditional Latin requiem texts — seems equally colossal and foreboding.
Listening to recordings or watching videos of the work, it is hard to fully understand the piece. It is lengthy, dissonant and emotionally draining. Though I have tried many times to make it through the complete work, I will admit that I have never done so without the aid of a score to keep my attention.
Last Saturday’s performance of the work at Hill Auditorium was a reminder of what makes the piece so special when heard live. The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, the UMS Choral Union, the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone Stephen Powell combined for an absolutely stunning performance. I left in a state of contemplative awe, unable to think about anything except the work.
For those unfamiliar with the piece, it opens with the traditional Requiem aeternam text before moving on to Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Owen’s poetry, written while he was a British soldier in the trenches of World War I, is dark and straightforward. It ruminates on the failures of humanity leading up to World War I; the failures of European belief systems to prevent the tremendous loss of life that was the two World Wars.
The orchestral and choral writing is at times stormy and at other times slow and mournful. The opening movement, for example, is jolting and frightening. The audience member is transformed into a civilian during the darkest moments of these total wars, living in fear of what comes next and in sadness at what has come before.
And yet, Britten soon contrasts these sentiments with the angelic beauty of the boys’ choir. In this performance, they were placed in the top balcony, their singing of religious texts literally floating down from above. The baritone and tenor, meanwhile, take on the role of narrators, reading Owen’s texts in opera-esque recitative style.
Through these juxtapositions, Britten pulls different, frightening meanings out of the requiem texts. In some instances, he plays for dark irony, highlighting instances of peace in these texts, pledges for a world that must have seemed all but foreign to those alive during the World Wars. At other points, he draws out much more sinister undertones, drawing the audience member’s attention to violence and conflict in religious texts. Violence, he seems to say, is an awful aspect of the human condition — something that we should work to eradicate, and yet something that is unfortunately intrinsic to humanity.
This is perhaps most poignant in the third movement, the “Offertorium.” Towards the end of this movement, the baritone and tenor perform Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” a retelling of the story of Isaac and Abraham. The poem ends with two startling lines, connecting this Biblical story with the World Wars. “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one,” Owens writes.
As the baritone and tenor intone this final line, the boys’ choir erupts into fearful “Hostia et preces tibi,” the Latin text asking God to allow those commemorated by the congregation to pass from death to life. The beauty of the boys’ choirs melody juxtaposed with the harsh ending of Owen’s poem was overwhelming. I felt my stomach turn out of both horror and disgust as these two texts collided.
Britten concludes with Owen’s “Strange Meeting” and the Latin text, “Requiescant in pace.” The baritone and tenor sing the last lines of Owen’s poem, “Let us sleep,” as the boys’ choir and the adult choir sing a final “Amen.” After over an hour of the dark, somber, alarming material Britten previously provided, this ending is arresting in its simplicity and its beauty. It was a final prayer for peace, an urgent cry for change in a world that seems all to accepting of mass violence.
Harmonically, Britten centers the entire work around the tritone. This interval is considered to be the most harmonically dissonant of all intervals. In the 18th-century, it was referred to by some as “diabolus in musica,” “the Devil in music.” This is the harmonic guiding force behind the tension in the piece. At the conclusion, Britten harmonizes the tritone in an almost consonant manner; the audience member thus finds some semblance of closure in the most dissonant of all harmonic intervals.
Though this performance lacked at times, the strength of Britten’s writing easily negated any such problems. The soloists, for example, were slightly buried in the text at some moments. Had I not been provided a copy of the libretto, along with an English translation of the Latin texts, it would have been hard to distinguish what they were saying at times. The orchestra also struggled with balance at a couple of points. The mallet percussions parts, furthermore, were a little too loud for my taste — the metal instruments struck at an almost painful volume.
Thinking back on this performance, however, it is not these shortcomings that I will carry with me but the meaning of the piece itself. In our world of seeming perpetual violence, in a country coming up on its 17th year of war in Afghanistan, Britten’s message rings true. It was a call to action, an exposé on our moral shortcomings that morphed in the end into an urgent plea for peace.