The Consul General of Japan in Boston, Masaru Tsuji, will be the NEC Philharmonia concert at Jordan Hall this evening [March 10] to receive a copy of the Benjamin Britten score, Sinfonia da Requiem. Originally commissioned by the Japanese government in 1940 for a celebration of the 2600th anniversary of that country, the composition was, according to Ben Zander, rejected because of its Christian movement titles and was never performed in Japan.
Benjamin Zander, guest conductor of the NEC Philharmonia, notes, “We are deeply moved by Britten’s composition and by the grace of Japan’s esteemed diplomatic representative in receiving the score 70 years after the event.”
Dear Mr Tsuji,
I received your message through your assistant, Ms Hansen and I wish to reply with great respect and affection for a new friend.
I think I have managed to unravel the story of the Britten work.
It seems clear that the British Consul in Tokyo informed Benjamin Britten that the Japanese Consulate had received the score and paid the commission, but was not willing to accept or perform the work, since it was not considered suitable for the occasion. The committee stated “it did not express felicitations for the 2,600th anniversary of our country.” and was “purely a religious music of a Christian nature.”
Of course, the reaction of the Japanese was perfectly understandable. They had asked a number of prominent Western composers to submit compositions for the celebration of an important anniversary of their country. It was reasonable to expect that the pieces would be joyful and uplifting. It also was tactless of Britten to use Christian titles when he was writing a piece for a country that was not Christian.
However, Britten was 26 years old, a passionate opponent of war and a conscientious objector. It is perhaps not surprising that he ignored the nature of the invitation and wrote a piece of music from the depths of his soul, expressing his horror of the war that had just broken out in Europe and forced his exile to America.
The unfortunate thing is that the refusal of this masterwork has put the Japanese in an unfavorable light and the issue remains something of a diplomatic embarrassment to this day, since it is invariably mentioned in books and the program notes whenever the work is written about or performed.
We could leave the matter as it is, however, I would welcome an opportunity to say something at the concert about the transformation that has taken place in the world since that time. I believe our young people are generally ignorant about the past and I feel it is our role, not only to point out the relevance of the music they play to the time it was written, but also to offer our guidance in developing a healthy and open-hearted attitude to the actions of previous generations.
This is what I would propose to say at the concert, if you would grant your permission:
In 1940 Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the Japanese Government to write a piece to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of their country.
Britten, at 26 years old and a passionate opponent of all war, perhaps not surprisingly ignored the call for a festive, celebratory work and produced instead a work that expressed his violent outrage and grief at the carnage already being perpetrated in Europe. Moreover, by giving Christian titles to each of the movements, he must have realized that the work would not find favor in a non-Christian country.
Predictably, the Japanese authorities informed Britten, through the British Consulate, that the work was unacceptable because “it did not express felicitations for the 2,600th anniversary of our country.” Also, since it used titles to each movement that were taken from the Latin Mass, it would be offensive to the Japanese people.
One year later the Japanese were at war with the Allies and the tension that this situation caused has not been resolved to this day..
We intend to resolve it tonight.
From the vantage point of our time, we can recognize that not only is the Sinfonia da Requiem a timeless masterpiece – perhaps Britten’s greatest work for orchestra – but it is also a moving plea for peace – a cause to which all Japanese people today are fervently committed.
We, in Boston, are most fortunate that our current Japanese Consul General Mr Tsuji is a man of deep sensibility and both cultural and moral awareness. Mr Tsuji is present tonight.
At the end of the performance he will accept a copy of the score as a symbol of friendship between our nations and a recognition that, at last, wisdom and understanding prevail amongst our people.
We can feel the terrible anguish in Britten’s work – the protest and grief of the first movement; the violence and madness of the second movement and the deeply felt pleas for consolation and peace in the Finale. The titles – Tears; Day of Judgement and Plea for Eternal Peace are no longer seen only as Christian, but rather as universal categories of despair, pity and hope for redemption, in which all peoples of the world can share.
We are deeply moved by Britten’s composition and by the grace of Japan’s esteemed diplomatic representative in receiving the score, seventy years after the event.