ANNIVERSARIES: Benjamin Britten's War Requiem premieres at reopening of Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1962


If you'd like to listen to some appropriate music on Memorial Day (which, before we made most of our holidays fall on Mondays or Fridays because corporations like that better, always came on May 30), try this masterpiece. Sir Benjamin Britten wrote it for the consecration of St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry and dedicated it to the memories of four servicemen who had been friends of his or of his longtime partner, the tenor Peter Pears, for whom one of the solo parts was written. The original Coventry Cathedral, dating from the 14th century, had been destroyed by a German air raid in 1940.

When, over two decades later, a new cathedral was built, the ruined walls of the old one were left standing, a reminder of both its architectural glory and its sad destruction. Britten's War Requiem, Op. 66, offers a complex, multi-layered response to the circumstances. There's no patriotism or "hurrah for our boys" here; instead, we are faced with not only religious texts but also the war poetry of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), which emphasizes our shared humanity regardless of nationality and decries the cataclysmic loss of life that took place in World War I. It was supposed to be "the war to end all wars"; it didn't, though it did end Owen's life (one week before the Armistice).

Britten, an avowed pacifist, weaves starkly emotional settings (for the male soloists) of Owens's poems among the Latin text of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead (sung by an adult choir augmented by a soprano soloist) and selected Latin anthems (sung by a children's choir, usually all boys), sometimes alternately, sometimes within a movement. Accompanying the singers is a massive orchestra (actually two, one a chamber orchestra) and organ. Any performance of this genuinely monumental piece is a major undertaking and a big event. On a personal note, I have sung the War Requiem in the chorus, but my response to it is largely emotional rather than professional. It is a deeply powerful work; exhilarating in its achievement, fascinating in its artistry, but most of all capable of inspiring genuine tears. Tears of sadness at the senseless loss Owen depicts, and tears of rage that we still, even after so many examples of the wastefulness of war, let demagogues promulgate conflict.

In some ways, the most unsettling movement is the shortest, Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), a plea for rest/peace after death that Britten juxtaposes with an Owen poem criticizing organized religion for having abandoned Christ, gone over to the dark side so to speak, and having switched allegiance to the State. And when this conflicts with the extreme pacifism that Christ preached, it's the pacifism that's abandoned: "The scribes on all the people shove / And bawl allegiance to the state / But they who love the greater love / Lay down their life; they do not hate." When Owen then adds "Dona nobis pacem" (Grant us peace) from the Ordinary Mass version of the Agnus Dei, there are multiple levels of meaning and perhaps even sarcasm; Britten places it up against the chorus's "Dona eis requiem sempiternam" (Grant them eternal rest) from the Requiem text. All of this is accentuated by Britten's restless music, which moves with a steady tread through an unsettling scale that grants neither rest nor peace. It is followed by the closing movement, Libera me, which mixes the Latin text -- including such fraught lines as the Mass's "Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal" and "May they rest in peace" and the boys' choir singing "In paradisum deducant te Angeli" (Into Paradise may the Angels lead thee) -- with Owen's "Strange Meeting," which is the crux of the War Requiem's meaning: two soldiers, one English, one German, meet on another plane of existence. The English soldier had killed the German soldier the day before; now they mourn together "the undone years," a phrase which cuts two ways.

There have been a number of fine recordings of this work, starting with Britten's own. In the recording studio, he was able to use the soprano soloist for whom he had written the part, the Russian Galina Vishnevskaya; the Soviet government, still angry over its massive losses in World War II at the hands of the German Army, was not ready for reconciliation, so Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furtseva didn't let Vishnevskaya sing at the premiere (nor were the officially atheist Communists going to be sympathetic to anything religious). This had temporarily thwarted Britten's plan of uniting soloists from the Soviet Union, Germany (baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), and England (Pears), three nations that had suffered greatly in World War II, the war that had left the old cathedral a bombed-out shell. Britten's recording, on Decca, obviously has both historical significance and interpretive primacy, not to mention harrowing performances by all three soloists.

But in several important aspects, Britten's recording is surpassed by Richard Hickox's 1991 recording on Chandos (which also includes fine performances of Britten's orchestra work Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20, and Ballad of Heroes, Op. 14 for tenor, chorus, and orchestra; both are also memorial works, though obviously of much smaller scope and less maturity). Having all British soloists may lose the symbolism of Britten's recording, but the Owen poems, in English, are more clearly sung by Hickox's bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk than by Fischer-Dieskau. Also, the sound is vastly superior, offering greater fullness and much more clarity (and it was also issued in 2003 as a hybrid Super Audio CD that's sonically superb). Nor is this recording without some historical significance of its own: the soprano soloist is Heather Harper, who subbed for Vishnevskaya at the premiere; Harper's Latin pronunciation is more practiced. Tenor Philip Langridge may not quite offer the interpretive brilliance of Pears, but his voice is better. Having both recordings is ideal, but choosing between them, Hickox's gets the nod.