War Requiem by Benjamin Britten has always been a work I wanted to hear when I first read about it in a textbook during high school. Back then, CDs were replacing vinyl as the listening medium of choice, and War Requiem was too lengthy to fit on one disc.
For a student on a limited income, a double-disc set was beyond my budget. Eventually, I would forget about it.
Alex Ross devotes a chapter of his book The Rest Is Noise to Britten, which got me thinking about War Requiem again. Armed with 12 eMusic download credits, I finally got to listen to the piece 20 years after learning about it.
So how is it?
Well, it certainly deserves the acclaim it’s garnered.
According to the Britten Pears Foundation, the Times declared the work "Britten’s masterpiece" before it even premiered. Play word association with Britten’s name and War Requiem would be one of two immediate answers. (Peter Grimes would be the other.)
The piece intersperses text of the Latin Requiem mass with poems from Wilfred Owen, a World War I soldier who died one week before the war ended. Owen’s poetry was unknown at the time of his death but grew in stature since.
Britten scored the piece for full orchestra, chamber orchestra, full choir, boys choir and three soloists — tenor, baritone and soprano. The chamber orchestra accompanies the male soloists, while the soprano sings with the full orchestra. The boys choir is accompanied by an organ.
The piece weaves in and out of these various configurations, and not until the final movement do all these elements come together. The effect is cinematic — the full orchestra and choir depicting a larger tableaux than the soloists and chamber orchestra, let alone the boys choir and organ.
Working on such a scale could have been chaotic and incoherent, and Britten’s ability to corral all these pieces is nothing short of astounding. I can’t confess to having absorbed the entire piece, and unlike the requiems of Wolfgang Mozart or Gabriel Fauré, War Requiem isn’t exactly hummable. (You’ve never tried humming a requiem?)
Nor can I pinpoint when the work seeped far enough in my subconscious to fill a void, but at some point, it’s tough not to recognize War Requiem as an Event, note the capital E.
War Requiem premiered in 1962, a time in classical music when composers punctured the boundaries of tonality, rhythm and even timbre. The piece itself is comparatively tonal next to, say, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Stabat Mater or George Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano (also both from the same year), but it’s not a comforting tonality. And it’s certainly not the tonality of the previous century.
If anything, War Requiem can get downright angry, outbursts from the choir directed not at the damned but for the war fallen.
Richard Hickox’s recording of War Requiem for Chandos is rounded out by Sinfonia da Requiem and Ballad of Heroes. Both pieces anticipate how War Requiem would eventually turn out, and the program is so seamless, it sounds as if War Requiem extends the entire length of the two-disc set.
Part of me wonders, though, whether 18-year-old me would have had the patience to sit through all 85 minutes of the work. It’s nice to imagine a revisionist history where the affordability of digital downloads was available to me 20 years ago. I don’t know I would have had the maturity to appreciate a work on the magnitude of War Requiem.
I wish I’d experienced this work sooner, but I’m glad to have the capacity to appreciate it now.