I was ten years old when I first experienced Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. I was living in Berkeley, California, and my older brother was playing bassoon in the Berkeley High School orchestra, where the work was performed in the spring of 1972, just blocks from where Vietnam war protesters were being tear gassed and clubbed by the police. The performance was remarkable; above the stage there were supertitles and slides of war images, paintings by Otto Dix, Picasso's Guernica, and the like. The soloists were hired professionals, but the soprano didn't show up for the dress rehearsal, so the 17-year-old Lorraine Hunt was told to put down her viola and sing the solo, which she did flawlessly and much more powerfully than the singer who sang the public performances.
The work was just ten years old at that time. The War Requiem was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (left), and was first performed there May 30, 1962. The millennium-old Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed during World War II and Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the ceremony marking the completion of its reconstruction. For the text, Britten interspersed the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen, a World War I footsoldier who was killed a week before the Armistice at the age of 25. Owen left behind a powerful body of work consisting of some of the most powerful war poetry ever written:
"I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." - Wilfred Owen
Like Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the work is structured as a dialogue between discrete groups. The large orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist perform the settings of the Latin text, while the Owen poems are the provenance of the tenor and bass soloists and a 12-piece chamber orchestra. There is also a children's choir, always accompanied by organ, that can be heard in the distance periodically throughout the work.
Complete Text for Britten's War Requiem
After the Britten, we will hear On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, written for the New York Philharmonic on the occasion of the first anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. It is scored for orchestra, adult and children's choruses, and pre-recorded tape, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music. About the work, the composer states: “Transmigration means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ But in this case I meant it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience...I want to avoid words like 'requiem' or 'memorial' when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn't share. If pressed, I'd probably call the piece a 'memory space.' It's a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event - in this case to 9/11 - is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event."
Sign-up for updates from 99.5 WCRB, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.