Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (article)

Initial Aside: This article was adapted in October 2013 for choristers in the Grand Philharmonic Choir, from DB’s ca 1998 lecture presented for a non-music-major course at UCLA.


Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a large-scale, anti-war work for chorus, large orchestra, soprano soloist, boys’ choir, pipe organ, tenor and baritone soloists, and chamber orchestra. The composer wrote the “accessible modernist” work in 1961 and combined the Latin text of the Requiem Mass (“Mass for the Dead”) with compelling English language poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who died at the age of 25 near the end of the First World War. The work received its premiere in 1962, for the dedication of the new cathedral at Coventry, replacing the ancient one that had been destroyed during the Second World War.

A Brief History of English Music

Elements of English music in the early 15th century significantly contributed to the emergence of the musical Renaissance. Also, the 16th century included a number of important English composers, such as Byrd, Tallis, Weelkes, and Morley. In the 17th century, English composer Henry Purcell was among its best composers. Indeed, Purcell is particularly known for his ability to write both religious and secular music for the human voice in the English language and for his dramatic sense. He was thus the most important historical English composer with whom Benjamin Britten came to terms in the 20th century.

In the 18th century, several native-born English composers and writers—such as Thomas Arne and John Gay—contributed English language ballad operas. The Beggar’s Opera and similar works were a far more accessible and “earthy” (i.e., very secular) alternative to the pseudo-historical and/or mythological Italian-language opera that was so prominent among central European composers in that period. Around the same time, German-born, naturalized-English composer Handel similarly positioned his English-language, religious-themed oratorios. Messiah and other works of this type were predominantly offered as commercial endeavours to provide non-liturgical, religion-related and/or scripture-based entertainment for the masses. Thus, Handel’s 18th-century English oratorios arguably also inspired Britten’s 20th-century approach to composing non-liturgical religious music in English.

Musical Nationalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries

In the latter decades of the Romantic period (the mid-19th through early 20th century), the idea of musical nationalism emerged in a number of countries. So, eastern European, Russian, English, Scandinavian, and, eventually, American—and other—composers of “art music” created works that resisted the lingering, central-European bias of music critics and historians—and resonated for audiences in new ways. Such music included folk- and geographically-inspired instrumental music, organ music, church music suitable to these various countries (including English works by Stanford, Holst, Howells, Vaughan Williams, and Finzi—and Canadian Healey Willan), operas in languages and on subjects other than Italian, French, and German (including numerous English ones by Benjamin Britten); non-liturgical religious-themed works (including ones in English by Elgar), and various additional points of national pride: literature, history, mythology, folk traditions, popular idioms, jazz, film music, and so on. This is the larger context in which a 20th-century composer such as Benjamin Britten (1913-76) could become immensely successful—despite working mainly in “art music” and in English.

The Genre Context for War Requiem

Britten wrote a lot of different types of music, including chamber, incidental (for theatre and radio), and other instrumental music, including 1945’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. However, he mainly contributed as a composer in the area of carefully selecting and setting texts in the English language. He was arguably the most successful person to do that in the three hundred years since Purcell. Fittingly, then, Britten wrote a large number of songs and choral works and about fifteen works for stage, including full-scale English language operas (from Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes in the early- to mid-1940s to Death in Venice in the early 1970s), chamber operas (especially 1954’s The Turn of the Screw) , several examples of what he called “church parables” (but which actually had to do more with personal, political, and domestic issues), and a children’s opera: 1957’s Noye’s Fludde.

The composer preferred to create his works for particular events and occasions, including commissions for fanfares, choral works, and other types of compositions related to various public events. He also kept the circumstances and experiences of the performers very much in mind. For example, it makes the most sense to have solo-voice songs accompanied just by piano—or else they won’t be performed very often. War Requiem, however, is about very significant, very serious ideas. So, it led to the opposite extreme. Instead of modest, “sensible” accompaniments, it often manifests itself as something so large, intricate, and/or complex that it cannot be performed very often. The work is extremely emotional and intense, but it is also limited to only about 85 minutes in duration.

Britten’s most important early work, the 1945 opera Peter Grimes, was premiered for the re-opening of an important English opera company at the end of the Second World War. The work proved that a mid-20th-century opera could be musically adventurous and thematically tragic, while also being quite beautiful and accessible. However, it also proved—quite simply—that a significant, successful opera could be done in English on an actual English subject. Grimes paved the way for similar English-language operatic successes by Britten and others, including Harry Somers’ 1967 Canadian-historical opera Louis Riel and several major American-historical works in the 1980s and ’90s by John Adams, including Nixon in China. It also paved the way for the dramatic music in English that is an essential component, in the chamber-opera-like tenor and baritone solos (with chamber orchestra accompaniment), of Britten’s War Requiem.

Refracting Church Music and Rejecting War

Britten had, in fact, written very little music to be used liturgically in actual church services. However, he had already written a great deal of music that obliquely engages with religious ideas. Such works include settings of texts by historical “mystic” poets, such as John Donne. He mostly engaged with socio-cultural and “religious” ideas on a relatively secular level. Although he didn’t compose War Requiem until 1961, it closely relates to the Second World War. The work was commissioned for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The building was placed adjacent to the ruins of the ancient, 14th century, Gothic one that had been destroyed by bombing during the war. However, various aspects of the work itself relate strongly to Britten’s long-established pacifism and to his conscientious objection to war. In the most general terms, the universal nature of his critique of war is captured by: (1) choral settings of the traditional Latin texts of the Requiem Mass (“Missa pro defunctis” or “Mass for the Dead”—including differentiated sections for boys, soprano soloist, women, and men), combined with (2) male vocal solos presenting Wilfred Owen’s English, anti-war poetry from the First World War—all for (3) an event related to something ancient that had been destroyed during the Second World War and then supplanted by renewal.

One commentator described War Requiem as refracting the tradition of English church music at a new, overtly political angle, but Britten had already been doing that on a smaller scale in various earlier works. In fact, he referenced his own earlier setting of a biblical text about Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac when the text of one of Owen’s poems made such a connection inevitable. The inclusion of a boys’ choir (accompanied mostly just by organ) also brings home the idea of clarity or innocence detached and distant from war.

Socio-Politics, Dedications, and Wilfred Owen

The very personal, male vocal solos of War Requiem were sung by singer-friends of Britten’s from several countries that had suffered considerable physical destruction during the war. Thus, the tenor was his partner and musical associate Peter Pears. The baritone was the German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The soprano solo (like the choirs, in Latin and accompanied by full orchestra) was written for the Russian Galina Vishnevskaya, the wife of Britten’s cellist colleague Mstislav Rostropovich. She was not allowed to travel to England for the premiere in 1962 (so someone replaced her), but she did perform on the 1963 recording. That recording sold 200,000 copies, which is an extremely large number for a piece of contemporary art music.

In his music, Britten’s highly professional, serious, yet accommodating nature combined on a number of occasions in critical manifestations of his pacifism, left-leaning politics, and aspects of his personal life. Britten dedicated War Requiem to three much earlier friends—of Britten’s or of Pears’—who had died during the Second World War and to one friend (probably a closeted homosexual) who had been in the war but then committed suicide in 1959.

As for the texts by Wilfred Owen, the poet had written some of the most thought-provoking, starkly-unpatriotic, anti-war poetry of all time during the last year or so of his life. His poems were quite well known in England throughout the 20th century. By 1961, Britten knew all of them very well and had used one of them himself in part of a previous work. In addition, Britten knew from certain of the poems that Owen had also been gay. Britten sets his selected Owen poems for the two male soloists. They mostly sing separately, but sometimes come together—such as in the third and near the end of the sixth (the last) of the work’s movements.

Aside: Here’s a link to a video of a complete performance. It opens in a different tab or window. I suggest periodically switching to it (play/pause) as you read the following overview.

An Overview of the Work

I. Requiem aeternam

War Requiem’s opening orchestral passage suggests heavy work in its straining and heaving, as though weapons of mass destruction are being dragged into place. Dissonant notes that are also present quite often later in the work concurrently appear on bells and in the choir. This is the “tritone” (augmented fourth), which became known in the Middle Ages as the “devil in music.” Britten uses it here to emphasize that war is the devil, evil, and/or the negation of all that is divine.

The adult choir here sings “Requiem aeternam” (“Rest eternal” – the first part of the Introit) and represents humanity mourning for all dead generally and for the victims of war more specifically. The use of the tritone is intended as ironic, for there is nothing “restful” about that interval. The boys’ choir then presents a modernized chant-like melody with greater clarity and precision—and no orchestral accompaniment. (That sets the second part of the Introit.) The boys’ choir melody and the accompaniment on a portable organ (or harmonium) and violin remain highly dissonant. (The bell tritone is now in the violins.). The orchestra and adult choir then reprise parts of their previous “groaning” music, closing out the Introit.

The work’s first tenor solo begins with the words: “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” It sets Owen’s psychologically-intense poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” and drops the accompaniment down to harp and chamber orchestra. (The tritone is now at first in the harp.) Numerous ideas in the text are paralleled musically, including rifles firing, shells wailing, bugles calling, and dusk slowing appearing. There is also a very active cello part. When the poem refers to “boys,” wind instruments and (later) violins recall the boys’ choir melody heard previously. The tenor himself then briefly takes over that melody. This transference suggests that the soldier has himself entered into the detached realm of the children. The poem was ripe for musical treatment, as it also refers to bells, choirs, and so forth.

The choir ends this section with a brief setting of the words from the first part of the Ordinary of the Mass: “Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.” (“Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”). The pitches reprise the choir’s bell-tritone music from their earlier “Requiem aeternam,” but they provisionally also “resolve” the movement’s nearly-pervasive C/F# tritone to an extremely quiet F major chord. The same music is used to set the words of the end the “Dies irae” (the work’s long, second movement) and of the “Libera me” (the work’s sixth, final movement), which is an approach that provides the work with a musically-unified, “cyclical” aesthetic.  Elaborate, brass-section fanfare elements also provide cyclical elements across several of the work’s movements, as do additional musical recurrences.

The musical reminiscence serves to replace the new version of “Requiem aeternam” that would usually follow as the Gradual of a Requiem Mass. The non-liturgical nature of War Requiem is also indicated in the absence of the Tract that would normally follow the Gradual.

II. Dies irae

The “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath” – the Sequence) begins with adult choir and its full orchestra. In this case, the final Judgment Day invokes humans dying on the battlefield. The Latin text speaks of summoning all humankind with a trumpet. Britten wanted to do no less than that to condemn war in the strongest possible terms to the largest possible audience. So, he actually “one-ups” both the Mass and the poem by including a rather large amount of brass material to underscore his highly-politicized purpose.

This first choral section of the “Dies irae” is highly rhythmic, sometimes in fanfares, but also often in a 7-based metre for the choral sections. The unusual time signature gives the section an unsettled or limping quality. The choral portions are also very scornful and harsh, with a gutteral and abrupt singing style required by the form of the text. Smaller melodic fragments turn into larger melodic scale patterns, arguably reminiscent of the music of Russian-born, earlier-20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky. The fanfares often overlap with the choir in the most intense passages, then fall back into their more usual introductory function as the intensity dissipates. In the “Dies irae,” the lines of text are rhymed in groups of three throughout. (The opening section is also later reprised.)

Certain, full-orchestra-accompanied sections of the “Dies irae” have been compared by one writer to Verdi’s Requiem (from a century earlier) and to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (from near the turn of the 20th century). These kinds of stylistic similarities may have lent War Requiem a certain accessibility in 1962. However, the chamber-accompanied male solo sections are more experimental and more like what Britten’s earlier operas and songs sound like.

The work’s first baritone solo (“Bugles sang”) interrupts the “Dies irae” to set another poem by Owens. It is a very gentle and elegiac piece, although with a large vocal range. The accompaniment is by chamber orchestra and harp. Naturally, a prominent horn part underscores the text about “sorrowful bugles [that] sang and answered.” Several musical motives from earlier in the movement of the previous choral section also appear here, but much more slowly and gently.

An initial soprano solo then returns to the Latin Sequence: “Liber scriptus proferetur” (about bringing forth the Book of Judgment). It is interrupted by and then later paired with a rather “winding” (and difficult, dissonant) semi-chorus beginning with the words: “Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?” (“What shall a wretch like me say?”). This music is directly paired with the strings, but a timpani ostinato also introduces and accompanies it. The music is quite insistent once again, and this effect is largely achieved through the highly-chromatic setting of this part of the three-line rhyming scheme of the “Dies irae.” The musical motive is moved around to different pitch levels. So, Britten probably intended the section as a play-on-words on the “Dies irae” being a “sequence.” The two main elements come together towards the end of the section, with the soprano singing a regal-like, dotted rhythm on large intervals starting with: “Rex tremendae” (“King of tremendous majesty”), whereas the winding, constricted semi-chorus sings: “Salve me, fons pietatis” (“Save me, source of mercy”).

Next comes the first duet for the male soloists (again interrupting the Sequence): “Out there, we walked quite friendly up to death,” from a third Owen’s poem. The characters espouse the sentiments of male-bonding, bragging, swaggering, and a skirting—even mocking—of death. In this poem, the word “death” actually refers to a piece of anthropomorphized artillery, an “old chum.” The rhythms here are fast and dance-like. The pulse is normally 4, often subdivided into 3, but sometimes into 2 or 4 instead. Fanfare elements are again present, but this time they are more distant and contradicted, such as by the percussion, especially the very military-sounding snare drum and similar components. The two voices also demonstrate the texture of antiphony or “call and response” on the words “but our courage” and “we laughed.”

Texturally distinctive sections for women alone and then men alone cover the next two portions of the Sequence: “Recordare, Jesu pie” (“Remember, kind Jesus”—about humanity’s guilt for being the cause of Christ’s suffering) and “Confutatis maledictis” (“When the confused are confounded”—about being saved from the eternal flames).

The next baritone solo intersperses a Sequence-interrupting text from a fourth Owen’s poem, beginning with: “Be slowly lifted up.” On the surface, the piece would appear to continue the contrition and absolution of the previous women’s and men’s sections. However, it actually concerns the placement of a piece of heavy artillery machinery.

The choir then reprises (non-liturgically) its opening sections of the “Dies irae,” which makes it clear that the “world of ashes” and the “great trembling” of judgment from heaven result from war. This time, the music sputters out of existence on the words: “Cuncta stricte discussurus” (“To examine all things closely”). Closely examining war can only lead to the conclusion that it is not a good idea.

The final part of the “Dies irae” sequence is very slow and quiet, with the chorus and soprano solo including the words: “Lacrimosa, dies illa” (“That day of tears and mourning”—about the Judgment Day).

A tenor solo, however, intersperses a section beginning with the words: “Move him, move him into the sun.” It is based on a fifth Owen’s poem, about the futility of trying to revive a dead soldier. It is arguably the heart of the entire work: All humanity is to be judged for causing so many people to die in war. Fittingly, Britten does not rush his way through the lengthy text of the “Dies irae.” Instead, he adds even more things to it, and it thus makes up nearly one-third of War Requiem. At the end of the movement, the tenor sings a tritone that merges with the choral “resolution” within its return to end the “Dies irae” Sequence: “Pie Jesu Domine, Dona eis requiem. Amen.” (“Merciful Lord Jesus, Grant them rest. Amen.”) The choir reprises its music based on the F#/C tritone resolving to F major, as in its earlier Kyrie and the final phrase of the entire work: “Requiescant in pace. Amen.” (“Let them rest in peace. Amen.”).

III. Offertorium

The Offertory has to do with liberating the souls of the dead, and Britten’s version begins with the boys’ choir on “Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae” (“Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory”). The full orchestra—especially the winds—and adult choir enter to set words about the archangel Michael: “Sed signifier sanctus Michael repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam” (“Let the standard-bearer, holy Michael, bring them into holy light”). However, the composer spends much more time on the following, shifting, but largely triple-beat-based (and forceful-sounding) fugue: “Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus” (Which was promised to Abraham and his descendants”). It is initially unclear as to why music about a promise being fulfilled would be so frantic and relatively-angry-sounding, but the following sections make the reasoning behind such an aesthetic choice quite clear.

Baritone and tenor solos then contribute: “So Abram rose” (“Isaac and Abram”), which is a setting of a sixth Owen’s poem: “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” Britten associates it with music from an earlier work (his 1952 Canticle “Abraham and Isaac”), in which he had set the related story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the new version, every side sacrifices every other side, to the extent of destroying: “half the seed of Europe, one by one.” The meaning in the context of this section of the Requiem Mass is that war is not a patriotic sacrifice of oneself on behalf of one’s government, but a sacrifice of others. To emphasize his point, Britten sometimes has the male soloists sing together in close, emotional parallels, but then he also has boys’ choir (“descendents”) sing the next section: “Hostias et preces tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus.” (“Sacrifices and prayers of praise, Lord, we offer to You”). The section also references the passing of souls from death to life. The adult choir then concludes the movement by reprising its fugue about the promise to Abraham’s descendents, but in inverted (“upside-down”) form and an extremely-quiet texture, in order to underscore the irony of the “promise” of war actually leading to the death of so many individuals.

IV. Sanctus/Hosanna – Benedictus/Hosanna

The next part of the Ordinary of the Mass to be used in a Requiem—the Sanctus—begins with the words: “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth” (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts”). Britten begins the vocal material with a strangely-angular and melodically-ornate section for soprano solo. This contrasts quite drastically with Britten’s “onomatopoeic” choice for setting the movement’s following words: “Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua” (Heaven and earth are full of your glory). The composer establishes a series of overlapping pitch clusters, but every individual choral singer makes up his or her own rhythm for that text. The pitches get gradually higher, and the section ends quite loudly and forcefully, but also abruptly. The “Hosanna in excelsis” (“Hosanna in the highest”) section has the divided soprano, alto, and tenor sections separately sing those words in frantically-anticipatory, fanfare-like rhythms. Meanwhile, the basses keep singing just the word “Sanctus,” on contrasting material.

The soprano solo initially sets the “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”), expanding to a quite wide melody. The choir, meanwhile, at first keeps responding antiphonally with starkly-simple, pseudo-Medieval-like parallel fifths on just the word “Benedictus.” The soprano and choir then sing more together, with the choir getting more words than the soprano for a time—and a more expansive melody. The choir gets, literally, the final word: “Domini” (“Lord”), but on its originally-more-constricted pitches. The reprise of the “Hosanna” section (choral) comprises a variation of its first appearance, with the music for the basses having been moved to different locations, relative to the other voice groupings.

The Sanctus movement then receives a baritone solo coda: “After the blast of lightning,” which sets a seventh Owen’s poem, “The End,” which is about the aftermath of battle.  The text asks the question: “Shall Life renew these bodies?” Both Age and Earth answer that death is just the weight of death and that “scars shall not be glorified.”

V. Agnus Dei

The opposite of Britten’s baritone solo coda at the end of his Sanctus, the composer provides a tenor-solo prelude at the beginning of his Agnus Dei. The section sets an eighth Owen’s poem, beginning with the words: “One ever hangs.” The poem makes various connections between the situation of the crucifixion of Christ and the sociopolitical and religious contexts of war–and of the First World War, in particular.

The final part of the Ordinary of the Mass—the Agnus Dei—sets slightly modified words in its Requiem version: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem sempiternam” (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest eternal”). This is set ironically in the music, however, because the “rest” is again anything but restful. Even though the choir sings in octaves on the same notes, its melody (1) descends from F# (arguably in B minor), (2) outlines a major scale a tritone away from that starting note (C major), and (3) abruptly goes back to F#—by whole tone, and ending up on an F# major chord. As the choir holds that chord, the tenor solo ends the movement by providing Latin text for its first and only time in the entire War Requiem.

The tenor sings: “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace”), but that text is not actually used in a Requiem Mass. In a Requiem Mass, it is “eternal rest” that is petitioned just for the dead, and that is a quite different matter from requesting “ordinary” peace for everyone. Britten, though, takes this tactic several magical steps further, for he actually does include “grant us peace,” but just in the voice of the tenor who represents only those who have died in war. The transference is made even stronger musically, because the tenor does almost the exact opposite of the choir’s movement-ending material: (1) a partial, rising F# major scale and a partial, rising C minor scale—which definitely does not fit the choir’s held, F# major chord. The tenor and the choir then come together on F# in the movement’s final, chillingly-soft seconds. Presumably, Britten means that all of us could have been—or might still become—the “war dead.” The Cold War was, of course, in full swing in 1962.

VI. Libera me

Similar to skipping the Gradual and the Tract of the Requiem Mass, Britten now skips the Communion and Pie Jesu. The work’s final movement—Libera me—is quite long, more than a quarter of the duration of the entire work. Actually, the work’s 1st, 3rd, and 4th movements are all around ten minutes long. Those are balanced by the 2nd and 6th movements, which are about 27 and 23 minutes long, respectively. The 5th movement is only about four minutes long.

The separate choir sections (in the order Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) open the final movement with narrow, chromatic, lamenting melodic phrases on the words “Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna” (“Liberate me, Lord, from death eternal”). The movement’s middle section provides contrasting materials in wider-ranging, rising melodic phrases. The final section becomes gradually complex, polyphonically, but it then resorts to a series of individual voice-part statements on the word: “Per ignem” (“By fire”) and then a dissonant chordal statement on the word “Ignem” (“Fire”). The soprano solo also joins the texture. For “Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ” (“That day, day of wrath, calamity and misery”), the choral voice-parts cascade over one another in frantic, descending lines. After each major, contrasting section, Britten non-liturgically uses a version of the movement’s opening text and music as a kind of refrain.

Towards the end of the work, the two male soloists come together poignantly in the ninth and last of the Owen’s poems used by Britten—“Strange Meeting.” The text begins: “It seems that out of battle I escaped.” The baritone soloist (the German) reveals himself to be the slain victim of the tenor soloist (the Englishman), including the words: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”

The two men, formerly enemies, conclude that war must end and that it is now time to sleep. This section transfers fanfare elements used in several earlier movements into quiet, reflective reminiscences in the chamber orchestra accompanying the soloists. The same section similarly includes instrumental variations of formerly-sung melodic material from the Agnus Dei. The boys’ choir (now accompanied by a fuller pipe-organ sound) interjects in Latin for “In paradisum” (about paradise, angels, martyrs, and Jerusalem). The boys are soon joined by the adult choir, in an eight-part canon, accompanied by full orchestra, and on the same words.

The movement grows to very dense—but, paradoxically, also softly contemplative—proportions. The boys’ choir sings the “Requiem aeternam” that had been sung by the adult choir during the work’s first movement. The soprano solo also joins in with the boys’ and adult choirs’ recent material about paradise, etc. (including the raising of Lazarus), and with the male soloists.

Appropriately, it is only near the very end of the work that all of the singers and instrumentalists perform together in close proximity for the first time. The work ends on: “Requiescant in pace. Amen” (“Let them rest in peace. Amen”). The work’s final music reprises what had been sung both in the “Kyrie” at the end of the work’s first movement and for the end of the second movement (“Dies irae”). As before, its almost-painfully-understated “resolution” transforms the C/F# tritone to a very quiet F major chord.

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