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'War Requiem': Classical act of defiance in the name of peace

Pacifist Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem' resounded in a time of conflict. The piece will be conducted by James Conlon in Costa Mesa and Disney Hall.

November 24, 2013|By Richard S. Ginell
  • Benjamin Britten during "War Requiem" rehearsals in 1962 in Coventry Cathedral. James Conlon will conduct the work Sunday and Monday to mark the composer's 100th birthday.
Benjamin Britten during "War Requiem" rehearsals in 1962 in… (Erich Auerbach / Getty Images )

Can a serious, lengthy, topical piece of contemporary music make an impact beyond the classical music scene and possibly change the world a little bit in doing so? That's what happened with Benjamin Britten's unorthodox "War Requiem," which scored an unlikely immediate hit in 1962.

For James Conlon, who will conduct the "War Requiem" just days after the composer's 100th birthday, the piece has been a touchstone in his career. He has conducted it on special occasions, such as the 50th anniversary of V-E Day in Paris, and one month after 9/11 in Carnegie Hall. "I can remember the gasp at the end of that performance," he said about the latter. "I think the 'War Requiem' is not only great, it stands and will stand with the great choral masterpieces, right up there with Verdi and Brahms."

Coinciding with the actual date of Britten's birthday (Nov. 22, 1913), Conlon will conduct the "War Requiem" in Costa Mesa on Sunday and at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday with 400 orchestra and choir members, all students from the Colburn School, USC and other schools.

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In 1958, Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the consecration of England's rebuilt Coventry Cathedral — which was all but destroyed by the German Luftwaffe in WWII. Yet instead of writing a conventional liturgical work, this lifelong pacifist juxtaposed the traditional Requiem Mass with antiwar poems by Wilfred Owen, a young soldier stuck in the trenches of WWI who was killed only a week before the armistice.

As a gesture of reconciliation among three antagonistic WWII European powers, Britten wrote the individual vocal parts for a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and a British tenor (Britten's companion, Peter Pears). And he inscribed on the title page of the score Owen's withering words, "All a poet can do today is warn."

In order to gauge just how far out on a limb Britten was putting himself, one has to understand the times in which the piece was written. The Cold War was peaking; escalating tensions in Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam and other hot spots left little room for pacifism in the international debate; people by and large still trusted whatever the government told them.

So for Britten to use the structure of the Requiem Mass to make an antiwar statement in the face of perceived world opinion was a bold act of defiance.

Yet the people responded. The premiere in Coventry on May 30, 1962, and subsequent performances made enormous emotional impressions on audiences. Although the notoriously unsentimental Igor Stravinsky jeered, "Kleenex at the ready," critics by and large were bowled over on a first hearing; the Guardian thought the interpolation of Owen's texts into the Mass was "brilliantly done" and proclaimed it to be "undoubtedly one of Britten's masterpieces."

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The following year, Britten's own recording of the "War Requiem" sold 200,000 copies in its first five months of release and reached No. 68 on Billboard's pop album charts — unbelievable numbers for an expensive, two-LP boxed set of contemporary music (Decca could not provide numbers for total sales to-date). In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as opposition to the Vietnam War grew later in the '60s, the piece's pacifistic message undoubtedly resonated and spread among the many who heard it.

Hearing the "War Requiem" today shouldn't pose problems for listeners who have already lived through the past half-century of contemporary music — and after all, hundreds of thousands got it when it was new. The full orchestra and chorus can thunder with anger and fervor worthy of Verdi, yet the inward intimacy for which Britten is known also can reduce the instrumentation down to a mere thread.

Britten cared nothing about categories; the chamber orchestra sometimes teeters on the edge of tonality (the Guardian's critic thought he heard twelve-tone writing), yet the hazy, ethereal In Paradisum at the end can be as breathtakingly beautiful as anything written in the last half of the 20th century. If the "War Requiem" has a true successor, it would be Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971), another category-defying blockbuster where the Mass is broken up by secular texts with an anti-Establishment slant. That, too, spawned a chart-making recording.

As a practical matter, the "War Requiem" is not an easy piece to perform, for Britten divided its massive forces on three separate planes — a chamber orchestra with baritone and tenor soloists up front, a full orchestra, soprano and chorus in back, and an ethereal boys' chorus off somewhere in the distance.

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