Britten’s unflinching masterpiece, exploring the “pity of war”, makes for a deeply affecting ANZAC tribute.

Hamer Hall, Melbourne
June 12, 2015

Benjamin Britten was under no illusions about the difficulty and necessity of peace when he wrote the War Requiem. He lived through two World Wars and composed the work as nuclear weapons piled up on either side of the Iron Curtain. The War Requiem celebrated the consecration of the newly-built Coventry Cathedral in 1962, after the oringal cathedral was destroyed during the German bombardment of Britain during WW II. The première would have echoed out of the new building into the bomb-stricken ruins of the old. Britten was a committed pacifist throughout his life, it would have seemed kitsch or even disingenuous to try and represent peace, pure and simple. 

Pacifist works from more peaceful times, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s sweetly naïve Friede auf Erden (1907) or happy-clapping 1980s anthems by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson attempt precisely this. “Come on” (they seem to say), “all it takes is a full English breakfast and a spot of dedication!” Instead, Britten follows the poet Wilfred Owen in advocating peace by exposing the pity of war. Owen is quoted on the War Requiem’s title page: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn.” In the centenary year of the Gallipoli landing and with record numbers of displaced people around the world, the War Requiem is as relevant today as it ever was.

Britten evokes this pity through a pattern of unresolved contrasts. As the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s librarian Alastair McKean explained in his pre-concert talk, these contrasts range from the work’s orchestration right down to the texts and harmonies that Britten uses throughout the piece. A powerful performance of the work will manage these contrasts to the greatest effect and the MSO and guests, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, achieved precisely this.

In accordance with Britten’s wishes for the War Requiem’s premiere, soloists were drawn from three combatant nations of the two World Wars: the soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya from Russia, the British tenor Ian Bostridge, and the bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel from Germany. Pavlovskaya sang parts of the Latin mass accompanied by the full orchestra. Her celestial power brought out the religious authority invested in this role, contrasting starkly with Bostridge’s expressive humanity. Bostridge, accompanied by a smaller chamber orchestra, misses nothing of the urgency and grit of Owen’s poems. Henschel’s measured baritone was the perfect foil to Bostridge’s animation.

The emotive impact of these contrasting texts and voices was particularly apparent when Bostridge sang Owen’s bitter poem “Futility” against Pavloskaya’s fragments of the Dies Irae. Henschel’s duet with Bostridge about two enemy soldiers meeting in a sort of hell had an otherworldly poignancy to it. Henschel’s line “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” should be enough to turn anybody off of war. The warmly-glowing Libera Me provides the only occasion for all parts of the ensemble to be heard together. The MSO Chorus and the National Boys Choir (singing up in the Gods), mastered a particularly demanding and exposed score with the help of the guest chorus master Michael Black.

The War Requiem should be compulsory listening for anybody about to go to war, or thinking of sending others to war. Indeed, what better time to hear it than during the centenary of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign? As a fellow audience member pointed out to me, the concert was notable for what it was not: The MSO’s ANZAC tribute concert. The MSO’s ANZAC tribute concert featured Beethoven’s more politically ambiguous Ninth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony has variously celebrated the formation of the European Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Hitler’s birthday. History has been divided as to whether the universal brotherhood of the “Ode to Joy” should be achieved through peaceful or violent means. There is no such ambiguity in the War Requiem. No army can gather under the baton of this work’s conductor.

Ethics aside, the War Requiem concert seemed a much more fitting ANZAC tribute as it also featured the Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly’s Elegy for String Orchestra (“In Memoriam Rupert Rupert Brooke”). Kelly was wounded at Gallipoli and killed at the Somme, another person for whom we can ask Owen’s pointed question “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”


Matthew Lorenzon writes on art music as a musicologist and critic. He edits the Partial Durations contemporary music blog with support from RealTime Magazine.