Consumed By Violence, With Hope For Peace: Britten’s ‘War Requiem’
I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to composer anniversaries but this year, marking 100 years since the birth of Benjamin Britten, has been absolutely fascinating for me. I am now living proof that such centenaries can indeed change the way we look at a composer and provide us with opportunities to explore their breadth and depth. In Britten I have found a new hero, a musically surprising and multi-dimensional citizen of the world.
Discovering Britten through his monumental War Requiem has been both easy and complex — a perfect summation of the man himself — but always immensely inspiring.
As Leonard Bernstein said, “Ben Britten was a man at odds with the world. On the surface his music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming … and it’s so much more than that. When you hear Britten’s music — if you really hear it — you become aware of something very dark … there are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing and they make a great pain.”
In the War Requiem, from 1962, Britten took the status quo and turned it on its head in the most polite way possible, setting the stage for Bernstein’s own worldly commentary in his Mass 10 years later. I feel confident that without Britten’s Requiem, Bernstein’s work would not be the same.
The traditional Requiem Mass, so vividly captured by Mozart and Verdi and then pushed in a new direction by Brahms — whose intimate personal hand is evident throughout his German Requiem (which he toyed with calling “A Human Requiem”) — becomes the vehicle for Britten’s own personal beliefs and worldview.
An avowed conscientious objector, Britten left England during the Second World War, an action that he would later have to defend vigorously. His commitment to pacifism and humanity manifest itself through his War Requiem.
With two orchestras, three soloists, large adult choir and children’s chorus, the War Requiem can at times be bombastic, but more often it achieves an unbelievable level of intimacy. Uniting these disparate forces to deliver Britten’s message of peace and his clear warning against violence and war, is wholly rewarding for me, both musically and politically.
When the final section, Libera me, kicks into high gear, with the elements from the entire piece juxtaposed and perfectly balanced, I am completely awed by Britten’s genius. But mostly I wish I could thank him for having such enormous courage to stand up for his beliefs.