Foto: Arne Raanaas
Do we really need an anniversary as an excuse to bring forth this monumental twentieth century work? Hardly. War Requiem will probably never – regrettably – lose its relevance. Even though Britten and countless others never ceased to dream of a world in which the message sent by this work one day would be superfluous, the world around us shows little evidence of war going out of style.
Not only anniversaries connect the old with the new. The very concept of a ‘modern classic’ does so too – and War Requiem is incontrovertibly a ‘modern classic’. It was revered from the very first, even in previews before its first performance in 1962, after which it was instantly received with adulation worldwide. When the legendary LP recording was released the following year, it sold 200 000 in the first few months, and was for a long time a bestseller in the same league as the Beatles (who released their first album the same year as the War Requiem premiere) – an unprecedented phenomenon for any classical work, and particularly one by a contemporary composer.
The immediate success of the work and its instant popularity may be ascribed to several causes. The 1960s were marked by moods of both creative optimism and of paralysing doom. The world had just held its breath for a few days during the Cuban Crisis, fearing a third world war – a new kind of war that had been glimpsed with great distress less than twenty years earlier: nuclear war. The Cold War was also a new variety of global conflict, with its threat of total destruction constantly hanging over people’s heads.
A pacifist anti-war attitude was nothing new to Britten in the 1960s. He belonged to a generation that had received strong impressions from Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy during the Indian struggle for independence from British colonial power. The pacifist conviction that he shared with his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears, made their situation difficult as World War II approached. On moving to the USA they were accused of being traitors who deserted in the hour of need. On their return to Britain in 1942 however they toured with performances for combatants and victims.
Britten was at the pinnacle of his renown and the obvious choice of British composers when he was commissioned to write a work for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral. The cathedral was severely damaged by Luftwaffe bombing in 1940, and a new building in modern style was erected amidst the ruins. This mixture of architectural styles is reflected in the structure of Britten’s work which, with its various levels of timbre – mixed voice choir and children’s choir; full orchestra and chamber ensemble; three vocal soloists – powerfully combines the traditional Latin liturgy with Wilfred Owen’s bitter poetry from the trenches of the Great War. Owen, who died at 27 in the war – tragically-ironically a mere week before armistice in 1918 – is probably best known in Norway through Nordahl Grieg’s presentation of him in his book of essays The Young Dead Ones.
In his foreword to the poems Owen writes: ‘Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry. The subject of it is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are not to this generation, this is in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All the poet can do to-day is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.’ This passage is quoted as a motto on the frontispiece of the War Requiem score.
Text: Eirik Lodén
English translation: Roger Martin