Friday, November 14, 2014

This Day in Music History: 14 November 1940

No. 173 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast173 Playlist

Earlier this week, we paused to remember the many soldiers who lost their lives in armed conflict. As I tried to explain in my Tuesday post, we should not confuse “war” and “warfighters”. Yes, warfighters are in the business of war, but whether they are full-time members of the Armed Forces or part-time Reservists, these people are also pursuing a career, an honourable one at that, where their skills are not only used in armed conflict, but also in humanitarian pursuits. It is a selfless – and sometimes under-appreciated – job, where people are asked to put their lives on the line for others, and this is something that deserves our support and admiration.
As part of my everyday business, I have dealt with members of Armed Forces from all over the Western world, and I’m yet to meet a professional soldier (or aviator, or sailor) who “likes” war. War, if and when it happens, is their job, nothing more, nothing less.
The reason why I take time here to bring this up is, simply, because I don’t think that anybody – in or out of Uniform – is indifferent to the horrors of war. It is in that context that I present today’s work, and its “anti war” message. I am anti-war, but not anti-warfighter.

On the night of 14 November 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. The Cathedral burned with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices. The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction; rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.
Her Majesty the Queen laid the foundation stone on 23 March 1956 and the new cathedral, designed by Basil Spence and built along side the ruins of the original millenium-old structure, was consecrated on 25 May 1962, in her presence. The reconsecration was an occasion for an arts festival, for which Michael Tippett wrote his opera King Priam and for which Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write a piece.

The Festival gave Britten a free hand in his choice of the genre of work, and he took the opportunity to fulfil a long-term general scheme to write a major choral work that had been at the back of his mind since the late 1940s. Of greater personal significance for Britten, however, was the platform the Coventry commission gave him to make a public statement about his strongly held pacifist beliefs. In War Requiem, Britten could speak out in opposition to war, violence and inhumanity. The resulting work was not meant to be a pro-British piece or a glorification of British soldiers, but a public statement of Britten's anti-war convictions. It was a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of other men. The piece was also meant to be a warning to future generations of the senselessness of taking up arms against fellow men.
The fact that Britten wrote the piece for three specific soloists -- a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), and a British tenor (Peter Pears) -- demonstrated that he had more than the losses of his own country in mind, and symbolized the importance of reconciliation. (Unfortunately Vishnevskaya was not available for the first performance, and had to be replaced by Heather Harper).
Britten dedicated the work to Roger Burney (Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve), Piers Dunkerley (Captain, Royal Marines), David Gill (Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy), and Michael Halliday (Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve). Burney and Halliday, who died in the war, were friends of Peter Pears and Britten, respectively. Dunkerley, "one of Britten's closest friends, took part in the 1944 Normandy landings. Unlike the other dedicatees, he survived the war but committed suicide in June 1959, two months before his wedding.

For the text of the War Requiem, Britten interspersed the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen, a World War I footsoldier who was killed a week before the Armistice. Owen wrote of his poetry: "I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful."
Much of the impact of the anti-war message of War Requiem lay in Britten’s strategic placing of his Owen settings in relation to the Latin Mass, where the horrors of the poet’s experience in the trenches are used to undermine the ritual mourning of church and state.

The musical forces are divided into three groups that alternate and interact with each other throughout the piece, finally fully combining at the end of the last movement. The soprano soloist and choir are accompanied by the full orchestra, the baritone and tenor soloists are accompanied by the chamber orchestra, and the boys' choir is accompanied by a small positive organ (this last group ideally being situated at some distance from the full orchestra). This group produces a very strange, distant sound. The soprano and choir and the boys' choir sing the traditional Latin Requiem text, while the tenor and baritone sing poems by Wilfred Owen, interspersed throughout.
Against the background of contemporary anxieties about the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the expansion of hostilities in the Vietnam War, and the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1964, Britten’s lament for the dead of two world wars and the consequences of war could not have been more timely, and the socio-political climate of the early 1960s undoubtedly made its own contribution to War Requiem’s international success.

I think you will love this music too.