Friday, 14 October 2011

Britten - Which war? Whose Requiem?

"Kleenex at the ready… one goes from the critics to the music, knowing that if one should dare to disagree with ‘practically everyone’, one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for ‘God Save the Queen’." 

So said Igor Stravinsky of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. He has a point, for the image we get of the 1914-18 war is distorted by media emphasis on the Western Front. Stravinsky knew that what happened on the Eastern Front was arguably far more catastrophic. Civilian casualties, famine, ethnic cleansing, the rise of Bolshelvism and the collapse of the Old Order. Benjamin Britten was only 5 when the war ended. His knowledge of that war was filtered through received wisdom. "No-one", someone once told me "can understand war if it happens far away, to other people". It's one thing to be fighting in the trenches, another to be fighting in your home town, your family dying around you. 

So it's good that Ian Bostridge has been thinking "Which war? Whose Requiem?"  Can a piece commissioned to commemorate Coventry tell us about Dresden, Stalingrad, Nanjing, Hiroshima and the Holocaust? Follow the link above to an extract from Bostridge's article in A Part of History: Aspects of the British Experience of the First World War (Continuum, 2008) 

Britten's characteristic emotional reserve causes me problems with the War Requiem and indeed the Sinfonia da Requiem because I'm focused on history, but from a purely musical perspective the War Requiem can be a powerful work.  Here's a commentary on the Barbican Britten War Requiem (Noseda, Bostridge, Keenlyside, Cvilak, LSO). It's much more than just any review, because it's written by Claire Seymour, author of The Operas of Benjamin Britten : Expression and Evasion (Boydell 2007) . "Much of the power of the work lies in its innate contrasts. Owen’s dark, distressing war poems form a counterpoint to the consolations of the requiem mass, and the interweaving of secular and sacred, vernacular and Vulgate, is often challenging, surprising and deeply ironic. A resonant, full orchestral clamour contrasts with delicate, finely fashioned chamber sonorities; soloists and chorus intertwine and counterpoise. Brightness interrupts the darkness, and is then once more overwhelmed by horror and terror."  Maybe the way into Britten's War Requiem is to understand the oblique way Britten dealt with horrifying things

Plenty on this site about war, history, music about war, Hiroshima, the Holocaust and of course about Benjamin Britten

1 comment:

Dominic Rivron said...

The War Requiem is not a work I've ever got on with.

The British composer I think best faced up to the dark side of the 20th century was Tippett.