November continues to be a month of poppy art, despite Philip Larkin’s derisory account of “Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall”. As the only flower to survive the ravished soils of the trenches following the First World War, the poppy is replicated in the form of a paper badge to be worn yearly in commemoration of 11 November, the Armistice Day of 1918. It was deemed to be a symbol of hope and regeneration in the aftermath of devastating combat. Yet, contemporary poppy art has now reached such a level of sophistication that tubes and buses are adorned with floral frescos, and it is even possible to purchase a range of poppy-badge designs as an accessory to any Autumn collection. This November also precedes the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, due to be celebrated throughout 2013. The programming of Britten’s War Requiem (1962) at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday seemed poised to provoke a pair of remembrances: of the lives of those lost in war, the subject matter of the Requiem, and of the life and work of Britten, its creator.
The War Requiem is considered by many to be the apex of Britten’s output. It was commissioned for the consecration of a new cathedral at Coventry, designed by the architect Basil Spence. In 1940, the city experienced one of the most savage air raid attacks in Britain as Luftwaffe bombs destroyed thousands of homes, many factories and the 14th-century St Michael’s Cathedral, positioned at the heart of the metropolis. The new cathedral was built beside the ruins of the old and its doors were finally opened in 1962, 22 years after the wreckage brought about by the Second World War. Britten’s composition rose to the challenge of the occasion. By interlacing texts from the First World War poet Wilfred Owen with the Requiem Mass, he succeeded in making an artistic contribution that both articulated the bitterness of a damaged community and looked forwards to the prospect of healing.
While Britten’s music journeys towards the same glorious thresholds visited by Verdi and Mozart, the nightmarish visions arising from Owen’s pen undo such positive energy. Launching the Latin Mass texts and the soldier’s voice into an extraordinary dialogue, Britten establishes a chilling counterpoint between the elders (“the collective, the guilty?”) and the innocents (“the fatherless, the scapegoats?”) who are betrayed by them. In the hands of Owen, God’s promise to protect and guide is held in check by the war, a great human abattoir.
Across the six movements of the Requiem, the Latin text is allotted to the soprano, full chorus and orchestra, while further fragments are intoned by the boys’ choir. Owen’s poetry emerges from this structure in the voices of the tenor and baritone, supported by a chamber ensemble. The music sweeps from the quiet tritones of the Requiem aeternam into Owen’s searing inquiry “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” Militant trumpeting in the Dies irae gives way to the languid strains of “Bugles sang, saddening the air” before reckoning with further interruptions from Owen’s words. The Offertorium traces the biblical narrative of Abraham and his son, but Owen’s inversion sees Abraham ignore the ram “caught in a thicket by its horns” and sacrifice his son with dogged obedience. Britten’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei revisit the triumphant choral surges of past Requiems, evoking a ritualistic aura through the addition of vibraphone, glockenspiel, antique cymbals, bells and piano. The Libera me advances with foreboding drumrolls until soldier and enemy find peace in death during Owen’s poem Strange Meeting, and the chorus bring the work to a close with atrophied “Amens”.
Tuesday’s performance was admirably managed under the baton of David Hill. With The Bach Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra channelling most of the creative energy, the Eltham College Trebles were a somewhat anaemic addition to the mix as the distant boys’ chorus. Sally Matthews sang Latin texts with bell-like clarity, but it was often extremely difficult to hear Owen’s words as rendered by the two soloists John Mark Ainsley and Alan Opie. However, this is also due to Britten’s meandering vocal lines, which do little to accentuate the phonetic pointe-work of Owen’s writing.
These details aside, there was something more crucial lacking in this performance of the War Requiem: namely a hesitation to relish the elements of disconnection that shape the work. Britten’s choice of Owen’s poem Strange Meeting at the end of his composition was curiously apt: it is indeed a strange meeting that takes place between these two men, one of whom maintained status as a conscientious objector during the Second World War (“The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation ... I cannot take part in acts of destruction”, Britten stated), and one whom not only enlisted but returned to the front after severe shellshock, famously claiming “My subject is War”. There is an unattractive tendency for programme notes to glorify Britten’s pacifism and merge it seamlessly with Owen’s sense of ethical duty. Much less attention is paid to the awkward circumstance of an artist providing a musical curative for a terrifying demolition he himself never directly experienced.
It is precisely such points of tension that make the work original. Across the score, Wilfred Owen’s presence is closer to that of a muse than a like-minded participant. Britten’s music equally shies away from any engagement with the more immediate horrors of warfare that are so pointedly expressed in Owen’s writing. It is from such disparate standpoints that a highly intriguing and vulnerable musical structure blossoms. But we would do this work a great disservice in pinning it down as a neat emblem of “universal” sentiment.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Benjamin Britten At Crag House; photo by Roland Haupt © Britten–Pears Foundation