Sara Fishko on Benjamin Britten's War Requiem

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The above audio is from the Libera Me: Let Us Sleep of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (Decca, 2006). 

In the early 1960s, I was in summer residence at an “arts camp” called Indian Hill. I was already quite a serious pianist by then, and during those sparkling, sun-dappled days in Stockbridge Massachusetts, I stayed indoors. Day after beautiful day, I pulled down the shades in the piano practice room -- and practiced.  

We did go on a fair number of trips to the outside world, however. Among the most memorable of them was an excursion to Tanglewood, right nearby. The event in question was the U.S. premiere of a new musical work, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. 

U.S. music-lovers had already heard about its impact in Britain, but I, a young teenager holed up in a practice room, had not. At Tanglewood, with a group of other campers, I sat in the shed as Erich Leinsdorf came onstage, and bowed to the audience. The tall, thin, quite bald conductor turned to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Surrounding the players were hundreds of singers and a vast array of percussion instruments, especially chimes. The piece began, and we were all completely hooked.

The War Requiem, we later learned, had been commissioned for the rededication of the Coventry Cathedral, a 14th century building that had been virtually destroyed by a bombing raid during World War II. It had taken more than 20 years to rebuild. Britten lent honor to the occasion with a non-liturgical setting of the Requiem Mass. But he did more than that.

An ardent pacifist, Britten combined the Latin texts with the anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen, a British poet and soldier who was killed in World War I at age 25. The dramatic juxtapositions of traditional texts and harmonies with the graphic and powerful anti-war poetry gave the piece a mystery and eloquence. The sound-world it created, with a chanting soprano voice floating over a boys’ choir, supported the texts. And Britten, writing in a contemporary idiom, cut through the traditional sound at unexpected moments. There were musical phrases in that piece that stuck to me like glue. I’ve never forgotten the power of that music at that moment.

The work’s passionate pacifism, as well as its connection to the re-consecration of a bombed, historic site, make it a natural work to think about and listen to, right now.   

→ Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is Available on Arkiv Music