When I told Christian that Patrick and I were going to hear Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at Avery Fisher Hall, he asked, "What is it—a mass?" I answered that it was a choral piece set to the traditional liturgical text, but that the composer had also included several anti-war poems written almost a century ago by Wilfred Owen.
"Wow," Christian said. "It sounds like a protest song." He studied protest songs in his freshman songwriting class and has gained a healthy appreciation for the genre.
I agreed. "The War Requiem is the ultimate protest song," I said.
Wilfred Owen was no draft dodger; his poems draw on his own harrowing experiences in the trenches of France during World War I. Hospitalized for shell shock—what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder—Owen began writing in the hope that doing so would exorcise the horrors he had witnessed. Once healed and back on the battlefield, Owen was shot through the head by a German gunman and died just a week before Armistice Day.
Britten composed his Requiem in 1962 for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral. German bombs mostly razed the 15th century cathedral during World War II, and in 1956 a new structure was begun alongside the ruins. The British government turned the old cathedral site into a memorial monument; Britten hoped his composition would also stand as a monument, a warning to future generations against the senseless waste of war.
When my friend Tina Fairweather told me that her choir would be singing the War Requiem, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of the great Lorin Maazel, I couldn’t wait to get tickets. Benjamin Britten looms large in my pantheon of personal artistic heroes, and I knew hearing the Requiem live would be a transcendent experience. Saturday night’s concert exceeded my expectations.
The Requiem is a 20th century composition, perhaps not very accessible to the casual listener. The key to appreciating it is to let go of expectations of traditional Western melodic progression and instead glory in the way the gorgeous textures of the music highlight and underscore the poignant text.
Throughout the performance, the violins and the choral voices created almost palpable tissues of sound, great swaths of silk that arose and twined around one another. The honey-voiced tenor and baritone (Vale Rideout and Ian Greenlaw), along with some of the woodwinds, embroidered upon this rich fabric. And the brass: if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that the brass section was manned by a corps of angels: thrilling perfection.
During the third movement, the Offertorium, a boys’ choir pleads (in Latin) that the souls of all the faithful be delivered “from the pains of hell and from the depths of the pit: deliver them from the lion’s mouth, that hell devour them not, that they fall not into darkness.” The adult chorus continues the prayer: “But let the standard bearer Saint Michael bring them into the holy light: which of old Thou didst promise unto Abraham and his seed.”
Then the tenor and baritone sing a duet that tells of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah. But Owen turns the traditional Bible story on its head: “Lo! An angel called [Abraham] out of heaven, saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. Behold, a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son—And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
“Half the seed of Europe, one by one.” As this refrain is repeated, the listener understands that Abraham in this telling represents government turning away from heavenly urgings of humility and peace. It’s a chilling, inspired moment, one of the high points of the piece.
The Requiem closes with another such transformative musical scene. In the sixth movement, the Libera Me, the tenor and the baritone represent two spirits of soldiers from opposing sides of a conflict. They meet in the afterlife and recognize one another.
“Strange friend,” one says, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” answers the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness….the pity of war, the pity war distilled. Now men will go content with what we spoiled….”
They dream of an end to war: “When much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, Even from wells we sunk too deep for war, Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
“Let us sleep now,” the two sing in counterpoint as the choirs chant the traditional words “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light eternal shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.”
As the last whisper of chord died away, as we applauded madly with the rest of the audience through three curtain calls, and as we drove the long, dark road home from the City, I thought about war and peace.
It is not enough to wash the chariot wheels; it is not enough to treat the symptoms of war. We must eliminate its cause altogether. War on a global scale will not end until we have cleansed hate from our hearts, until we have swept disharmony out of our homes, until we have replaced the filth of enmity with the sweet water of unconditional love in our communities.
We can march, we can petition, we can wear ribbons. But until we look inward, rooting out pride and intolerance within ourselves even when we are convinced of the correctness of our position—especially when we are convinced of the correctness of our position—we will never free ourselves from war.
Dona nobis pacem.