In what may be regarded as a paradigmatic instance of accidental foresight, the Boston Symphony is performing Benjamin Britten’s magisterial War Requiem in the face of an actual war. If, as Wordsworth maintained (and Eliot denied), poetry is an emotion recollected in tranquility, then this week’s concerts may constitute poetry recollected in heat. Hold that thought.
During the 1940 aerial Battle of Britain, the industrial city of Coventry received the Luftwaffe’s unwelcome attention in a series of bombings so devastating that the Germans invented a word for it, gecoventriet (past participle, we suppose, of coventrieren). A leading but perhaps collateral victim (the 1942 so-called Baedeker Blitz specifically targeted cultural and historical sites) was the 14th -century Gothic Cathedral Church of St. Michael, reduced to a still-standing shell. Coventry’s destruction was itself the probable motivation for the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. Following the war, a new cathedral (retaining the dedication to St. Michael) was built adjacent to the old, and Britten was commissioned in 1958 to compose something for its 1962 dedication. That Britten was a pacifist and conscientious objector in the war was well known; he even successfully objected to assignment to non-combatant duty.
The composer’s response to the commission was a massively scored and complexly organized integration of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead (with one insertion: the Dona Nobis of the Requiem Mass does not, as Britten’s does, include the phrase “dona nobis pacem” from the standard mass text, sung, unlike all the other Latin text, by the tenor) with poems by Wilfred Owen, one of the famous War Poets of World War I, in a form of textual commentary harkening back to the Passions of Bach. The overriding intention of the War Requiem was the ultimate reconciliation of the hatreds that fuel and are fueled by war: in the end, we all sleep together. Although Britten dedicated the score to the memory of four friends who died either in or as a result of the war, memorializing the dead is only a component of his objective. So what was that objective? Crucially, Britten did not distinguish between the circumstances of the two wars he both expressly and implicitly addressed, nor between the participants on both sides: he made clear his intention that, at the premiere, the three vocal soloists were to be from Britain (Peter Pears), Germany (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and the USSR (Galina Vishnevskaya), an intention partly defeated when Soviet authorities denied Vishnevskaya travel permission (in the end, Heather Harper stepped in on short notice). The moral absolutism of Britten’s position was, is, and must forever remain, controversial. There may be a slight hint of ambivalence in his inclusion, in the Dies Irae, of Owen’s “Sonnet—On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought Into Action,” in which the poet acknowledges the necessity of its use, before calling down God’s curse on it once its job is done.
Unlike his ethical viewpoint, Britten’s musical structuring of the War Requiem is a marvel of subtlety and nuance, with performing forces allocated to a full orchestra, chamber orchestra, full chorus, and children’s chorus. The chorus (the stalwart Tanglewood Festival Chorus), children’s chorus (a pickup ensemble nonce-dubbed the “Britten Children’s Choir”) and soprano soloist (in a form of history rhyming, the originally scheduled Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova cancelled for health reasons and was gloriously replaced by the American Amanda Majewski) sing the Latin texts (but for the one inserted line mentioned above) and, except for the children, were accompanied by the full orchestra; the children, offstage in the corridor outside the second balcony, were accompanied by a chamber organ). The male soloists, singing Owen’s poetry, were backed by the intimate sonorities of the chamber orchestra, here arrayed to the front and right of the conductor. The music for these different ensembles was also sculpted for particular effects: by and large, the chorus is monumental and eerily impassive, with many signs of influence from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex; the children’s chorus was, literally, distant (the doors of the balcony were played like mutes, closed or open for particular passages, a nice touch). Britten acknowledged honoring some of the traditions of requiems past, most notably in the fiery Verdian passages of the Dies Irae, but there were also unacknowledged references we perceived, such as the Stravinsky, and also Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the Sanctus and even touches of Shostakovich. Overall, the explicitly liturgical music is treated ironically and institutionally (it’s still wonderful music), while the Owen poetry is set with sincere harshness or tenderness, as the occasion warrants, with Britten’s obsessively meticulous attention to prosody and word-by-word inflection; we confess we’ve always found this often acidulated aspect of Britten’s style, which sometimes overlooks a grand musical arc, a bit off-putting, though here the orchestral forces often carry this load admirably. There is a central melodic/harmonic nodule of a tritone, specifically the notes C and F sharp, undergirding the musical structure, with a thrice-repeated harmonic progression from those pitches to a peaceful F major triad. This is an “irresolution” that produces a consonance but not a resting place; its use at the end, to “Requiescant in pace, amen” leaves plenty of room for doubt. The cumulative power of the work cannot be denied, and it is rightly held to be among Britten’s greatest contributions to musical art.
For the performances, there can be nothing but high praise. Bostridge—who sang this part with the BSO in 2000 and in Pappano’s 2013 recording with the orchestra of the St. Cecilia Academy in Rome —and Goerne were superb both in their musicianship and presentation (Goerne more operatically body-acting, Bostridge more precise in enunciation). Majeski, singing from the front row of the chorus, as Britten directed (Vishnevskaya, finally given permission to participate in the premiere recording, apparently objected vociferously to this positioning), was stellar in tone, expression and projection; we wish better logistics had been devised so she could join the other soloists downstage for the bows. The choruses were spot on: the TFC’s clipped diction in the Dies Irae was chilling. And Pappano caressed each phrase and carefully limned the differences in expressive quality between the main and chamber orchestras. It was a most impressive show, even tipping this quondam skeptic in the direction of at least modified enthusiasm.
Finally, we need to fire the gun we put on display in the first paragraph. The Thursday performance (but not, we are advised, any of the others over the run) began with a full-throated rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem by orchestra and chorus, to the equally full-throated approbation of the audience [the BSO has done our own national anthem at Symphony Hall on just four documented occasions—3 in 1918-1919 and one in 1944]. That said, if the participants on either side of the stage had given fuller consideration to the point of Britten’s work, might they have paused, or at least offered equal time to the Russians? The latter might well in justice have been greeted with stony silence, but still. Would Britten have noted the irony? As stated, this was poetry recollected in heat. Heat may do to poetry what it does to Vitamin C.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.