|About this Recording
8.553558-59 - BRITTEN: War Requiem
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)
Benjamin Britten occupies an unrivalled position in English music of the twentieth century and a place of the greatest importance in the wider musical world. While Elgar was in some ways part of late nineteenth century German romantic tradition, Brit ten avoided the trap offered by musical nationalism and the insular debt to folk-music, while profiting from that tradition in a much wider European context. In particular he may be seen as following in part a path mapped out by Mahler. At the same time he possessed a gift for word-setting and vocal writing, a facility that Purcell had shown and that was the foundation of a remarkable series of operas that brought English opera for the first time into international repertoire. Tonal in his musical language, he knew well how to use inventively, imaginatively and, above all, musically, techniques that in other hands often seemed arid. His work owed much to the friendship and constant companionship of the singer Peter Pears, for whom Brit ten wrote many of his principal operatic roles and whose qualities of voice and intelligence clearly had a marked effect on his vocal writing.
Benjamin Britten was born in the East Anglian seaside town of Lowestoft in 1913. His talents as a composer were apparent in childhood, when he was able to study with Frank Bridge. His later study at the Royal College of Music proved less fruitful, although he was able to develop his abilities as a pianist and accompanist, later put to full use in concert tours and recitals with Peter Pears. His association with the poet W. H. Auden, with whom he undertook various collaborations, was in part behind his departure with Pears in 1939 for the United States of America, where, it seemed, opportunities offered, away from the petty jealousies and inhibitions of his own country.
The outbreak of war in Europe in the autumn of 1939 brought obvious difficulties. Britten and Pears were firmly pacifist in their beliefs, but could not but be horrified by the excesses of Fascism and National Socialism and by the difficulties faced in war-time Britain. In particular Britten felt keenly the isolation from his own roots in East Anglia, to which he and Pears were eventually able to return in March 1942, rejecting the option of nominal military service as musicians in uniform in favour of overt pacifism. The end of the war and the re-opening of Sadler's Wells Opera brought the new opera Peter Grimes, planned in America and a revelation at its first performance in June 1945. Factionalism in the Sadler's Wells Company led to the foundation of the English Opera Group and a series of chamber operas, followed, as prejudices and jealousies died, by the eventual very general acceptance of Brit ten as a composer of the highest stature, a position officially recognised shortly before his early death by his elevation to the peerage, the first composer to be so honoured. His achievements as a composer and performer are too manifold to be susceptible to summary, from Peter Grimes to his last opera, Death in Venice, from the early violin works for Antonio Brosa to the later cello compositions for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, and the declaration of principle in the Sinfonia da Requiem and the great War Requiem.
This last was commissioned for the festival to celebrate the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been virtually destroyed in war-time bombing and had now been rebuilt. As so often, Brit ten wrote the War Requiem for particular performers, in this case notably the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears, for performance on a particular occasion in a particular building. It was, in the event, performed in the new cathedral on 30th May 1962, with the soprano Heather Harper, and the two other singers earlier intended. The choir was the Coventry Festival Chorus, with the City of Birmingham Orchestra, the Melos Ensemble and the boys of Holy Trinity, Leamington, and Holy Trinity, Stratford. The conductor of the chorus and full orchestra was Meredith Davies, while the composer conducted the chamber orchestra. The work makes use of disparate groups of performers. The full orchestra and chorus, with the soprano soloist, are entrusted with the Latin Requiem Mass, reflecting suffering humanity, while the male soloists - and chamber orchestra offer, in juxtaposition, the moving and closely related poems of Wilfred Owen. The boys choir and organ provide another level of experience in an impersonal element of liturgical calm and certainty.
The work opens with a hushed repetition of the words Requiem aeternam dona eis (Eternal rest grant unto them) against a stark orchestral background, mounting to a climax at the words Et lux perpetua luceat eis (and let perpetual light shine upon them). Through this the sound of the passing-bell is heard. The boys' voices are heard with the continuing liturgical text, a contrast to the ominous solemnity of the opening, which now returns, with the bells again insisting on the uneasy tritone, the interval C to F sharp. The harp and double bass of the chamber orchestra now introduce the tenor with Wilfred Owen's What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?, the harshness of the words reflected in the beat of the drum, the bugle, as in the earlier Serenade, reflected in the French horn. The poem ends and the bell is heard once more, before the chorus, unaccompanied, sings a hushed Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy).
The great hymn describing the terrors of the end of the world is introduced by trombone, trumpet, French horn and tuba, followed by the chorus, singing a staccato Dies irae, dies illa (Day of wrath, that dreadful day, when earth becomes ashes, as David and the Sibyl foretold). There are again distinct echoes of the Serenade in the trumpets, recalling the setting of Tennyson's Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying. The chorus continues its staccato and awe-struck statement of the liturgical text, Quantus tremor est futurus, quando judex est venturus (What great trembling there will be, when the judge comes), with an increasing sense of climax on the words Tuba mirum spargens sonum per sepulchral regionum (Trumpet scattering wonderful sound through the graves), with its evocation of the last trumpet. Muted brass now leads to the words Mors stupebit et natura (Death will be struck dumb and nature, in reply to the judge). The baritone, with the chamber orchestra, now sings Owen's Bugles sang, sadd'ning the evening air, a counterpart of the last trumpet of the Dies irae, which it parallels in meaning and in its music. The text of the Requiem is resumed by the soprano soloist, telling of the book in which all is written, nothing to remain unavenged, Liber scriptus proferetur, in quo totum continetur. Humanity, the chorus, now express doubt and uncertainty, Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? (Wretch, what am I to say then?). While the words of the chorus seek mercy, Salva me, ions pietatis (Save me, fount of mercy), the soprano, in starker melodic outline, sings of the divine majesty, who may grant salvation, Rex tremendae majestatis. Tenor and baritone sing together Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death, words that again are in telling juxtaposition to the liturgical text. Women's voices of the chorus continue their prayer, Recordare, Jesu pie (Remember, kind Jesus), followed by the men, who seek the urgent confounding of the wicked Confutatis maledictis. The timpani introduces the baritone Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, the great gun that will quell arrogance, but is itself an evil to be wrenched from the soul. Now the chorus bursts into a strong repetition of the Dies irae. The music grows slower and the sound diminishes as the mood changes. The chorus is joined by the soprano in Lacrimosa dies illa (That day of tears, when guilty man will rise from the ashes to be judged). In recitative the tenor sings Move him, move him into the sun, a lament over a comrade mortally wounded, and this is now interrupted by the Lacrimosa, before the poem continues, a lament over the uselessness of such death, Was it for this the clay grew tall?. The liturgical text is resumed, finally closing the movement with the words Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem, Amen (Kind Jesus, grant them rest, Amen), a prayer interrupted again by the sound of the passing-bell.
The Offertorium brings the distant voices of the boys, accompanied by the organ, the higher voices followed by a lower register melodic line suggesting plainchant in its prayer for the setting free of the souls of the faithful departed from the pains of Hell, Libera animas fidelium defunctorum de poenis inferni. The chorus continues, calling on the aid of St Michael, as was once promised to Abraham and his descendants for ever, the rhythms here a reminder of a notable chorus in the opera Peter Grimes. The words suggest a poem based by Owen on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, the subject of Canticle II of
1952. Britten alludes directly in quotation to this earlier work, the serenity of the music interrupted by the ironic ending, as Abraham, in Owen's poem, disobeys the angel: But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one. The voices of the boys are heard offering the Lord sacrificial victims and prayers of praise, for the salvation once promised to Abraham Hostias et preces tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus, while tenor and baritone repeat the final ironic phrases of the poem. The chorus, in urgent and hushed tones, repeats the divine promise once made to Abraham and his seed.
The Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth) is introduced by the sound of vibraphone, glockenspiel, antique cymbals, bells and piano, an echo of the liturgical sanctus bell of the Mass. To an extended melisma the soprano sings the words, joined by the voices of the chorus in free rhythm continuation Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua (Heaven and earth of full of your glory) the sound mounting in intensity , until trumpets announce the Hosanna in excelsis
(Hosanna in the highest) in a brilliant arc of sound. As this dies away, the soprano initiates the Benedictus (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord), adding a transcendental element to what follows. The baritone resumes with After the blast of lightning from the East, its imagery subtly reflected in the accompanying orchestration. Here neither Heaven nor Earth provide any comfort or any hope of resurrection or renewal for the young men who lie dead.
The Agnus Dei starts with the tenor and chamber orchestra. The poem now directly equates the death and suffering of the young killed in battle with the suffering of Christ. The chorus, with the full orchestra, sings the liturgical text Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi (Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest), while the poet's bitter meditation inveighs against those who urge senseless war, The scribes on all the people shove / And bawl allegiance to the state / But they who love the greater love / Lay down their life; they do not hate. The tenor ends with an ascending melodic line on the words not used in the traditional Requiem Mass, Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace). In the Libera me the percussion starts a slow march, and the chorus, lamenting, seeks freedom from eternal death, Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, when the world comes to an end, in music of mounting intensity. They are joined by the soprano, with Tremens factus sum ego et timeo (I tremble and am afraid), and the feeling of terror increases, to die away finally, as the tenor sings It seemed that out of battle I escaped, telling the strange figure he meets that there is no cause to mourn. The baritone replies that it is but the lost years that must be mourned, the loss of hope and the pity of war: he is the enemy killed yesterday, but now they both must sleep. Over their words the boys' voices are heard, singing In paradisum deducent te Angeli (May the Angels lead you to Paradise, and bring you into the holy city of Jerusalem). They continue their chant as the two victims of war repeat their last words, their music intertwining, and the chorus now takes up the liturgical text, joined by the soaring voice of the soprano soloist. The bell sounds and the boys sing Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. The full sound resumes, but the sound of the bell allows the boys to continue with et lux perpetua luceat eis. The soprano, on a monotone sings et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem (and with the once poor Lazarus may you have eternal rest). The chorus is left to sing the final Requiescant in pace and the last Amen, conflict now resolved.
About the recording
For this recording, which was made in conjunction with the Glasgow Mayfest, a special chorus was assembled from the finest choral singers in Scotland, who together with the choristers of the Cathedral in Edinburgh and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra numbered over three hundred musicians and singers. No church was available to accommodate such a large number, though we wished to recreate the sound of such a large building. Eventually we discovered a converted part of Glasgow's famous former ship building area, which had served as an engine shed at the Harland & Wolff shipyard before being converted into a media centre at which large shows could take place. It provided us with the acoustic that we had been looking for, with a massive cathedral-like presence and the size which would permit us to give the spatial effects necessary for the children's choir.
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