November 14, 1940, German bombs began to rain in Coventry, England. About 7:40 p.m., they started to destroy the Cathedral that had stood there since being rebuilt in 1373. Much of what was left of the building after the planes flew away was destroyed by the resulting fires as the town stood by and watched, helpless.
The landscape in England took a beating in World War II, one that it had missed in World War I, but inflicted elsewhere. While the images of destroyed towns and beaten ground played second to the annihilation of an entire generation of young men in W.W.I, it could not be forgotten in the next war. St. Michael's Cathedral, Coventry was only one of many priceless historical buildings that fell to the bombs of the Germans.
A search began right away for an architect to rebuild and Sir Basil Spence was chosen. His creation of the new cathedral on and in the old shell was a reminder to the British people of the war and what they had suffered. When composer Benjamin Britten was asked to write a piece for the opening ceremony May 30, 1962, he chose to remind all mankind of what humanity had suffered in war in general.
"He fully realized the importance of the occasion, for it would mark not only the Phoenix-like resurgence of the new Cathedral at the side of the shattered shell of the old, but also a healing of many wounds." (White, 92) I question whether or not he was looking to heal wounds or give a timeless reminder.
The War Requiem was composed of the Missa pro defunctis (the Mass for the Dead), and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who died in W.W.I. By choosing these he was making a direct statement about his personal pacifism and what he though his country had lost. His setting of the music added a multi-layered dimension to the message.
Owen was a soldier, who despite his abhorrence of war and what it stood for, fought bravely and courageously. He fought though it was tearing him apart inside. The poetry of his mental recovery from a breakdown on the battlefield is searing in its criticism of war and heart-wrenching in its questioning of humanity.
For Britten to choose these works, in all their harshness and abrupt reality and set them against the pious Latin mass accentuates the experience of war. He uses his talents as a master musician to draw out that pain and, while healing it, make it unforgettable. The commemoration of a country scarred by war and a generation lost is well displayed in Benjamin Britten's 1961 War Requiem, using Wilfred Owen's moving war poetry from World War 1.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, born March 18, 1893, was the oldest of four children of Tom and Susan Owen. His father's work as a railway clerk was supplemented by his mother's father until his death put the family in financial difficulties. The family tried to keep their life along middle class standards, but it was a struggle. The lack of money meant that Wilfred, who had dreamed of public school and Oxford, was limited to Birkenhead Institute and the Technical School of Shrewsbury.
His faith in religion was strong in his youth, a "simple evangelical faith he shared with his mother." (Hibberd, 5) This conviction failed him, though, as he got older and began to explore poetry, in which he held his version of Truth that he could not reconcile with God. In the teachings of his youth, and in his stint as a lay assistant in Dunsden, he must have built the foundation that he would both expand on when confronted with the unimaginable and fight against when immersed in the absolute horror of war.
The beginning of the war found Owen in France, but as a tutor rather than as a soldier. In June of 1914, he was tutoring and vacationing with family of actor Alfred Leger in the Pyrennes. He had met Laurent Tailhade, a poet known in the French salons. His youthful aspirations to be a renowned poet had grown in his association with the social circles of upper class he longed to be a part of. Like many youthful artists, he longed for fame and felt assured of his brilliance.
In his lengthy memoirs, his brother says his only concern in the beginning of the war was to "safeguard his writing and to preserve for himself the opportunity to continue with his poetry at all costs." (H. Owen, v.III, 118) He did not consider enlisting and in a letter to his mother, he states, "My Life is worth more than my death to Englishmen" (Letter 302, pp. 130). His brother translates this as "He wrote to my mother that he considered his writing was of more importance to England than his life," (H. Owen, v.III, 119) wanting to believe that the unpleasantness would not affect his life.
He eventually enlisted, after experiences in visiting wounded soldiers and feeling pressured by the recruitment campaign in England. The army counted his time abroad as compensation for a higher education and commissioned him. (Hibberd, 8) Trained and placed in the 5th Battalion, Manchester Regiment as a second lieutenant, he was sent to France on December 20, 1916. He was thrown into the battle of Somme. In the following four months he showed bravery on the front line, but also spent several weeks in a rest-training course and two weeks in a clearing station for a concussion. After leading his troops in a successful raid on the hills by St. Qeuntin, he was thrown about by a shell. This near miss, and the following confrontation with a dismembered body sent him into a state of "neurasthenia" and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh.
Dr. Arthur Brock worked with Owen to help him utilize his far past to overcome the recent past. He used Owen's ability and desire for writing to help him help him unite an artist and a soldier. A proponent of ergotherapy, Brock set up activities for communal work and field trips. Sent with other patients to work in a nearby boarding school, Owen chose literature to teach, rather than more soldierly skills as map reading or first aid. (Hibberd, 29) He also assumed editorship of the hospital's literary magazine, The Hydra. When Siegfried Sasson arrived in July, he was placed in the unwilling place of mentor as Owen brought all his work to him for critique. Though Sasson may have been irritated, his influence on Owen's work is clear. He pushed the young man off of his Romantic centered world and asked him to confront the war, not play with art. "Now Brock had shown him how to control his phantoms and Sassoon had shown him how to use them in the cause of peace." (Hibberd, 52-3) His writing flourished, in the three months he was in direct contact with Sasson he drafted over a dozen poems. (Hibberd, 51)
Sassoon's contacts in London, placed Owen in the circle of literati he had always hoped to be a part of. But soon he was back on more active duty, leaving the world of H.G. Wells and Robert Ross behind. Rejoining the 5th Reserve Battalion in Scarborough, he was domestic arrangements at the Clarence Gardens Hotel where the officers were quartered. He returned briefly to London and his old acquaintances, for Robert Grave's wedding where he met new people like Charles Scott Moncrieff and Roderick Meiklejohn, influential men of their time in the literary and civil service worlds.
In March, 1918, he was sent to Ripon, the Northern Command Depot to train. He spent several significant weeks in London, where he worked out a rough outlining of a proposed book. June 4, 1918 he was cleared his medical Board and was back to Scarborough, where he was a fairly senior officer (Letter 627, 331). He was in better shape than ever and was reveling in home camp life of football matches and officer's servants. On July 13, Sassoon was wounded, the victim of a British sniper who mistook him for a German. Owen did not take Sassoon's wounding well and wished to return to the front, perhaps to take his friend's place as a leader and a poet of war.
August 26, he was ordered to France, despite a failed medical board several weeks earlier. His new post in charge of the 16th Platoon, D Company, 96th Infantry Brigade, put him just east of Amiens. (Hibberd, 159) He spent much of the time preparing to return to the front editing his poems and trying to coalesce them into something publishable. "He was able to accept this- the death of his body. What he could not accept, and never did, was the death of the poetry in him not yet written." (H. Owen, v. III, 123)
His death was not that far in the future. He was all officer and conducted himself well. His command included overseeing a group of young, ill-trained men and trying to keep up with the onslaught of condolence letters and paperwork. He barely worked on his poetry at all, perhaps the war was too real to record at that time. Talk of peace would and did distract the officers and men, prompting a message from the Commander of the Fourth Army demanding that "peace talk in any form is to cease" on October 10. (Hibberd, 176)
It was clear that the war was ending by mid- October and yet the 96th was still moving. They spent time going over the recently reclaimed territory, cleaning and collecting their own stragglers. Owen wrote and reassured his mother that they would not be going into combat again. They continued into area that had not been occupied by the British or French since the battle of Mons in 1914. They were attempting to cross the Oise-Sambre canal, knowing that the Germans were on the other side. It was to be a quiet, secretive crossing on the morning of November 4.
The surprise failed. Despite an efficient attack, the return fire was horrible. Owen attempted to cross on a raft after the bridge and most of the company had been destroyed. He was shot and killed on the water. His battalion and the 2cnd Manchesters went on to achieve their goal by moving downstream to a weaker area. Owen was buried in Ors with a piece of his poetry on his gravestone. His family received a telegram at noon on November 11, 1918, Armistice day. (H. Owen, v.III, 201)
The man who died seemed very different from the man who had originally signed up. His journey from his apathy and dislike of the inconvenience of war to the soldier whose last letter home notes "It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells."(Letter 673, 362) seems to match that of many young English men who came of age in the time of war, and yet it is very different. His war included an intensely personal battle for expression of real emotion and an inclusion of his experience into life. He fought to keep both ahead and in the daily mess, to convey it to a public whom he found to be out of touch and to survive mentally. He fought to keep his poetry alive.
According to his many biographers, including his compositional assistant, Imogen Holst and his contemporary musician and friend, Peter Evans, music dominated Edward Benjamin Britten's life from his youngest years. Born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, he shared his birthday with St. Cecilia's Day. His mother was an amateur singer who filled the house with her clear soprano and the talents of the guests of the Lowestoft Choral Society of which she was the honorary secretary. (Holst, 11) Though he followed the normal schoolboy path of piano lessons and primary school, his mother also encouraged him to compose and he took viola lessons with Audrey Alston. Alston was responsible for introducing eleven year old Britten to Frank Bridge, a highly recognized composer.
Britten studied with Bridge throughout his teen years, "acquiring a professional control of his musical material." (Evans, 2) He was studying at Gresham's Preparatory School and meeting with Bridge on the weekends, turning out score after score, always being pushed harder. In 1930 he took up a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. His college experience was not all that he had expected, but it kept him in the realm of music, however sidelined he felt at the school. At nineteen he began to work as a sound effects artist for a low budget film company, his first professional job as a 'musician.'
His music had begun to be performed on a wider scale. He was willing to compose for people and in 1934 wrote a book of compositions, Friday Afternoons, for the boys' school where his brother was the headmaster. Our Hunting Fathers was written in 1936 for the Norwhich Festival. His music was being encouraged, the International Society for Contemporary Music wanted to perform some of his works, but not embraced by all the critics who found it "almost suspect in a country that still took perverse pride in amateurish cultivation of the arts." (Evans, 4)
In 1939, there was war stirring in Europe again and Britten, who abhorred war to the point of almost failing out of school for a pacifistic essay he wrote, decided to emigrate to America. Following W.H. Auden, whom he had worked with several times, he took Peter Pears, a well recognized tenor with him. Pears and Britten formed a lifelong romantic relationship that greatly affected the course of Britten's music. "His sensitive, passionate and highly intelligent singing was exactly what Britten needed. It is rare for a song-writer to find the right singer to rehearse with him day after day." (Holst, 30)
America and its musical trends did not please Britten, nor did the guilt he felt at having left his country in a time of need and he returned to England in 1942. His conscientious objection was not welcomed by the musical community (Evans 6), but he spent the war producing his first opera Peter Grimes, just the same. In the music of Peter Grimes, as well as many of Britten's other pieces can be heard some of the acceptance he had of the "conventional judgments of society" relating perhaps to his pacifism, and, as some commentators have claimed, his homosexuality and how it was layed onto him.
Britten formed the English Opera Group with several performers who had worked with him and they pout together the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, where much of Britten's work was first performed. It allowed him to work in an atmosphere that he thrived in, familiar and constant musicians, a time constraint, but not restraint and the freedom to produce his own works.
Several themes show up in his music in this time period that could be directly related to his opportunity to wok in his own environs. He wrote many pieces, choral, operatic and orchestral for children and involving children. While there have been posthumous accusations of pedophaelia, Britten's interest in the children of the Suffolk area seems to have been for their innocent voices and love of music. Many of his pieces were also composed around religious themes which suited the churches they were performed in perfectly. As the Aldeburgh church became too small, the festival moved many of its concerts to local medieval cathedrals.
When being presented with the Freedom of Lowestoft award in 1951, he said, "As an artist I want to serve the community. In other days, artists were the servants of institutions like the Church, or of private patrons. Today it is the community that orders the artist about, and it is not a bad thing to try to serve all different sorts of people and to have to work to order." (Holst, 51) Britten's 'work to order' included pieces for Elizabeth II's coronation (Gloriana), and the Festival of Britain (Billy Budd). It also included the War Requiem, composed for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral.
The War Requiem, though not his most celebrated or original piece, pulled together themes from several of his other work and his life experience. Holst states that "to a convinced pacifist it must have been intolerable to have to sit still during all those years and to look on while other pacifists were imprisoned and to see armaments piled up in one country after another." (Holst, 65) What he delivered was a memorial for the millions that died and suffered, not only in W.W.I which the author of part of the text, Wilfred Owen, died in, but also in W.W.II and the concentration camps that he visited in 1942. Many understood the message of the work, delivered by a composer "who was also possessed, in abundance, the self-criticism and authority of the true professional." (Holst 65)
During the 1960's, Britten produced many more beautiful pieces and received quite a bit of recognition for them. There were doubts that the quantity of praise of a living composer was healthy, but Britten continued to write and Britain continued to love him. His music also reached out to the world. He worked with Russian poetry and Japanese No' plays and set them in complex musical pieces. He also wrote for the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations, simultaneously broadcast in London, Paris and New York.
The Festival flourished and built a new hall, which promptly burnt down but was rebuilt. Britten was also working on several new religious pieces, setting several more parables to music and producing the Children's Crusade which was for the fiftieth anniversary of the Save the Children Fund. By the early 1970's he was a the height of his achievement as a conductor, an artist, and a creative musician. After finishing Death in Venice, in 1973, though, he went into the hospital for heart surgery. He was left weak and a stroke gave him only limited movement on the right side.
Now denied the opportunity to play the piano or conduct, he turned in the last years of his life to revising some of his earlier work and even producing new pieces. But his condition worsened, despite his efforts to be a part of the musical scene he had created around him. He died, December 4, 1976, at his home in Aldeburgh.
The outpouring of national affection, in a memorial service at Westminster Abby, the unveiling of a plaque in his birthplace of Lowestoft and his funeral in Aldeburgh where his boyhood composition, Hymn to the Virgin was sung, indicated that Britain thought that the composer's life had ended too soon at sixty-five. However, he will be remembered for many more years, both through his music and the impact it had on other musicians. He, and his ideology that formed his works, are present every time his music is played.
The opening of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral gave Britten the chance he wanted "to make a public musical statement about the criminal futility of war." (White 92) His choice of texts, the Missa pro Defunctis and eleven of Wilfred Owen's war poems delineated both the pain of war and of memory. Britten had used parts of Owen's works before. In 1958, he chose Owen's Strange Meeting as among his favorite poems. (Others authors were Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Blake.) He also had worked out an anthology of pieces of poems connected with sleep, dreaming, and night in Nocturne. He included Owen's The Kind Ghost in there.
I don't speak much of the language of musical interpretation, but there are other pages and even books available that provide a good explication. (Composer and musician Peter Evans is an excellent source.) I have, however, tried to read some of the musical text that Britten created to interrogate war and humanity in the War Requiem.
In his initial staging of the music and choice of performers, Britten gave an idea of what he was aiming to present to his listeners. He chose to use a soprano soloist and a large choral group with the main orchestra to create an impassioned and yet somewhat impartial pleading for the souls of the dead. These voices are given the major parts of the Missa. In the distance, he set a boys' choir and a small organ to create the innocence and the illusion of the future. The male soloists, tenor and baritone, are the tools of a harsh, biting, often discordant voice of reality as they work with the text of the Owen poetry.
In his musical setting, the tritone is used to set up tension and remove any sort of rest to be replace with a sense of foreboding urgency. (Evans, 452) The music and the words are meant to strike an almost dissonant harmony, never really reaching any kind of equality or tonal resolution until the final 'requiem sempiternam' and the line 'greater love' of the Angus Die movement. In other places the poetry and Mass are referential, providing a direct joust for one another, such as in the ending of the "Parable of the Old and the Young" where Abraham "slew his son/ and half the seed of Europe one by one" and the choral upholding of the seed of Abraham as the receivers of the light of God in the Offertorium.
In the Requiem Aeternam, a short Kyrie, often commented in the analysis as one of the shortest ever, is meant to draw attention to the plea for peace rather than the ornamental purpose it generally serves. The Mass is allowed to give momentary, even peaceful, respites such as in the Sanctus and the Benedictus and Britten is able to "conjure up a pulsating universe of sound" with the choirs free repetition of the texts in these. (Evens 461)
It is curious that poetry that includes such resurrection doubting lines as "Fill he void veins of Life again with Youth,/ And was, with an immortal water, Age? should be a part of a mass that is so Christ centered, and yet they serve to both question the taking of life and its renewal by grief. In a much more connected vein, the lines of the mass "Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremeda: Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra" that read "Deliver me, Lord, form death eternal on that dreadful day, when heavens and earth shall move" are set directly against the beginning of Strange Meeting, reading "It seemed that out of battle I escaped/ Down some profound dull tunnel." Owen's words do not beg deliverance, but only understanding judgment from one's enemy.
In the ending of that same poem, which seeks eternal sleep is the final place of absolute juncture with the Missa. The final lines of the Mass seek "requiem aeternam" or eternal peace in a poignant movement that can leave no eye dry and no heart war-mongering. It gives a moment of solace, but not forgetfulness.
Britten reached inside of himself, to touch upon his pacifism and pain of war memories to turn out a piece that would help his country heal from its ravaging wars. But he did not want his music to only serve that purpose, he could not just let wounds fade to healthy flesh with no memory. So he wielded the soul tearing poetry of a life taken by war, Owen, to push at those wounds until the could not be forgotten by any who heard his music. He salved the cut with the Missa, but not to eliminate the pain, just to ease it. "This is tortured music: though the words are of the liturgy, they are a commemoration of the dead weighed down with the soul searching of the living" (Evans, 454)
The title for this page, "Huge chords have wrought me mighty" comes from a rather romantic, sappy early poem of Owen's and might seem inappropriate. But I would argue that the musical work of Britten has lifted Owen's poetry to a higher level then it could exist at when it was merely a painful reminder of what war did to life. A commentator on Owen's life, Dominic Hibberd noted "the poems of his last year do not lend themselves to memorial inscriptions." (Hibberd, 194) Even the lines on his gravestone were misquoted by his mother. (From "The End"- Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death he will annul.") Yet Britten gave them a life that far exceeds any simple memorial inscription, he made them into a timeless commemoration of death and war, of humanity and living. He gave a voice to the dead, as the dead mourn the those still alive and the choices they make.
Britten, Benjamin. War requiem [sound recording]. Hollywood, CA.: Angel Digital, 1983.
Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: The Last Year. London: Constable and Co., 1992.
Holst, Imogen. Britten. 3rd ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.
Owen, Wilfred.Selected Letters, edited by John Bell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.
Sorry, these aren't linked yet!