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Hyperion Records

LSO0719 - Britten: War Requiem
LSO0719
Recording details: October 2011
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson & Jonathan Stokes
Release date: May 2012
Total duration: 83 minutes 48 seconds

War Requiem
CD1
CD2

Premiered in 1962, the War Requiem is one of the twentieth century's defining works. Britten was commissioned to write it for the re-dedication of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during the Second World War. Interspersing the Latin mass of the dead with texts by war poet Wilfred Owen he created a work that both mourned the dead and pleaded the futility of war.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Benjamin Britten received his first piano lessons from his mother, who encouraged her son’s earliest efforts at composition. In 1924 he heard Frank Bridge’s tone-poem The Sea and began to study composition with him three ears later. In 1930 he gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with John Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin. Britten attracted wide attention when he conducted the premiere of his ‘Simple’ Symphony in 1934. He worked for the GPO Film Unit and various theatre companies, collaborating with such writers as W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood. His lifelong relationship and working partnership with Peter Pears developed in the late 1930s. At the beginning of the Second World War, Britten and Pears remained in the USA; on their return, they registered as conscientious objectors and were exempted from military service.

The first performance of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945 opened the way for a series of magnificent stage works mainly conceived for the English Opera Group. In June 1948 Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, for which he subsequently wrote many new works. By the mid-1950s he was generally regarded as the leading British composer, helped by the international success of operas such as Albert Herring, Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. One of his greatest masterpieces, the War Requiem, was first performed on 30 May 1962 for the festival of consecration of St Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry, its anti-war message reflecting the composer’s pacifist beliefs.

A remarkably prolific composer, Britten completed works in almost every genre and for a wide range of musical abilities, from those of schoolchildren and amateur singers to such artists as Mstislav Rostropovich, Julian Bream and Peter Pears.

Andrew Stewart © 2011

Although opera was to dominate Britten’s output subsequent to the success of Peter Grimes in 1945, the desire to write a major oratorio-like work had long been in his mind. In 1958 he was invited to write a work to celebrate the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by bombing in 1941; and although he was given the choice of using a sacred or secular text, he soon decided that it would take the form of a Requiem. The decision to intersperse the text of the Requiem with poems by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action one week before the end of World War I, was made soon after and they determined the character of the War Requiem, whose first performance took place on 30 May 1962.

Britten had set Owen’s poem The Kind Ghosts in his Nocturne of 1958. Although one of Owen’s late poems, it has little of the darkness of most of his war poetry, and Britten’s setting is eloquent but restrained. It gives little indication of the way he would use Owen as counterpoint to the Requiem Mass, interweaving the poems and the Latin text with dramatic and often ironical effect, and contrasting the full orchestra with a chamber group which accompanies only the songs. ‘These magnificent poems’, Britten wrote to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone soloist in the first performance, ‘full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass … They will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity and sincerity’.

This ‘commentary on the Mass’ begins halfway through the first of the War Requiem’s six movements. The solemn intoning of ‘Requiem aeternam’, with its dark bell-ridden textures, is interrupted first by the brightness of the boys’ chorus, and then by the first of Owen’s poems, sung by the tenor. ‘Eternal rest’ is the chorus’ plea, to be met by the fierceness of ‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?’. The chorus respond with a final ‘Kyrie’, which struggles towards a major chord – a gesture which will be repeated twice in the course of the work, but which offers little comfort.

The Dies Irae is by some way the longest part of the War Requiem, and the most complex. Beginning with distant fanfares which sound as if they come from the battlefield, the chorus gradually builds until the fanfares break out with frightening force: the day of wrath is clearly a military action. As the violence dies away, the chamber orchestra takes up the music of the fanfares as the baritone solo intones ‘Bugles sang, saddening the evening air’. Now the soprano soloist enters for the first time: she is set apart from the other soloists by only singing the Latin text, here ‘Liber scriptus’ – the book which sets out the day of judgement, while the chorus respond as those who are judged.

With ironic detachment both male soloists sing cheerily of death as ‘old chum … No soldier’s paid to kick against his powers’. The Latin text resumes with the gentle overlapping entries of the ‘Recordare’, the women of the chorus, followed by the men’s aggressive ‘Confutatis maledictis’, spilling over into the baritone’s bitter portrayal of the ‘Great gun, towering towards Heaven, about to curse’. For the first time the main orchestra joins the chamber orchestra, with trumpet fanfares eventually bringing back a powerful reprise of the Dies Irae music. The transformation of the chorus’ forceful rhythms into the gentle lilt of the Lachrymae, in which the soprano joins, is masterly. And now Britten intersperses the words of the Requiem with the poignant verses of ‘Move him into the sun’, the final words bringing back the tolling bells of the opening and the second appearance of the chorus’ Kyrie music that ended the first part, here set to the words ‘Dona eis requiem’.

Three shorter parts follow. First the Offertorium, with the brightness of the boys’ chorus followed by the main chorus, with what seems, on the face of it, an almost academic fugue setting of ‘Quam olim Abrahae’. But the ‘promise to Abraham’ ushers in the most chilling of the Owen settings, where the two soloists tell the story of Abraham and Isaac. Here, for the voice of God, Britten quotes from his own setting of the story in his Second Canticle; but where in the bible story Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son, here ‘the old man would not so, but slew his son, – And half the seed of Europe one by one’. The mood is frighteningly ironic, and as the final phrase stutters into silence, the boys’ chorus is distantly heard; finally the chorus repeats the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue, almost in a whisper.

The Sanctus is perhaps the most conventional of the Requiem settings, with its declamatory soprano solo, triumphant brass fanfares for the ‘Hosanna’, and the measured tread of the Benedictus. So the spare textures of the baritone’s ‘After the blast of lightning from the East’ contrast all the more strongly, and end this fourth part in darkness.

The gentle and touching Agnus Dei is the quiet centre of the work, and here soprano, chorus and tenor soloist are united, as the rising and falling melody provides both the setting for the Latin text and the accompaniment to the tenor’s ‘One ever hangs where shelled roads part’, the roadside image of Christ uniting the two. For the only time in the work the soloist sings the final words in Latin, ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (give us peace).

The final part brings both the longest concerted passage of choral and orchestral music, and by far the longest of the Owen settings, ‘Strange Meeting’. The Libera me begins with muffled percussion in what Britten calls a march – almost a funeral march to begin with, but constantly accelerating until with what seems like inevitability the music of the Dies Irae returns, presaging a terrifying climax. Slowly dying away until only a sustained minor chord is left we enter Owen’s ‘profound dull tunnel’ where two enemy soldiers confront each other in death. Britten chose to omit several of Owen’s lines, including ‘I knew we stood in Hell’, perhaps because, after the reconciliation of the two soldiers and their final words, ‘Let us sleep now’, it would have contradicted the In paradisum of the boys’ chorus, in which all the forces quietly join. But there is to be no real resolution, as for the final time bells toll and the chorus ends the Requiem with its hushed and ambiguous refrain.

Colin Matthews © 2011

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