I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to composer anniversaries but this year, marking 100 years since the birth of Benjamin Britten, has been absolutely fascinating for me. I am now living proof that such centenaries can indeed change the way we look at a composer and provide us with opportunities to explore their breadth and depth. In Britten I have found a new hero, a musically surprising and multi-dimensional citizen of the world.
Discovering Britten through his monumental War Requiem has been both easy and complex — a perfect summation of the man himself — but always immensely inspiring.
As Leonard Bernstein said, “Ben Britten was a man at odds with the world. On the surface his music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming … and it’s so much more than that. When you hear Britten’s music — if you really hear it — you become aware of something very dark … there are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing and they make a great pain.”
In the War Requiem, from 1962, Britten took the status quo and turned it on its head in the most polite way possible, setting the stage for Bernstein’s own worldly commentary in his Mass 10 years later. I feel confident that without Britten’s Requiem, Bernstein’s work would not be the same.
The traditional Requiem Mass, so vividly captured by Mozart and Verdi and then pushed in a new direction by Brahms — whose intimate personal hand is evident throughout his German Requiem (which he toyed with calling “A Human Requiem”) — becomes the vehicle for Britten’s own personal beliefs and worldview.
An avowed conscientious objector, Britten left England during the Second World War, an action that he would later have to defend vigorously. His commitment to pacifism and humanity manifest itself through his War Requiem.
The traditional sections of the Requiem Mass (Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, etc.) are interrupted by an unexpected and powerful song cycle, the texts of which express a decorated hero’s nightmarish experience in the trenches. The harrowing poems Britten used were by Wilfred Owen, himself killed at age of 25 in World War I.
What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
The tension of war grows more vivid with each song, until the enemies meet at last, only to realize that they are in essence the same:
It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None”, said the other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
With two orchestras, three soloists, large adult choir and children’s chorus, the War Requiem can at times be bombastic, but more often it achieves an unbelievable level of intimacy. Uniting these disparate forces to deliver Britten’s message of peace and his clear warning against violence and war, is wholly rewarding for me, both musically and politically.
When the final section, Libera me, kicks into high gear, with the elements from the entire piece juxtaposed and perfectly balanced, I am completely awed by Britten’s genius. But mostly I wish I could thank him for having such enormous courage to stand up for his beliefs.
Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.