Given the events currently playing out on the world stage and the fact that this week marks holidays for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, it seems like a good time for something topical, introspective, and non-liturgical: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with Anna Netrebko, Ian Bostrdge, and Thomas Hampson in an incredibly moving performance from the 2013 Salzburger Festspiele.
It also provides a respite for those of you who might be bombarded with Der Rosenkavalier this week.
And ardent, lifelong pacifist, Britten penned this work in 1961 using as texts nine poems by British soldier Wilfred Owen who was killed in World War I interspersed with traditional Latin requiem texts. The work premiered in 1962 to commemorate the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was built after the original structure was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid.
It was conceived for a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), an English tenor (Peter Pears), and a German baritone (Dietrich-Fischer Dieskau), but politics got in the way: Vishnevskaya was denied a visa to leave the USSR so Heather Harper jumped in for her at the premiere. Vishnevskaya was later able to travel to London for the Decca recording conducted by Britten.
This legendary recording was used as the soundtrack for Derek Jarman’s 1989 film War Requiem, which stars Laurence Olivier as an ageing war veteran in his final screen appearance, and Tinda Swinton as a nurse. I highly recommend you seek this out on DVD if you haven’t yet experienced it.
Britten said of his music, “I hope it’ll make people think a bit.” On the title page of the score he quoted Wilfred Owen:
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.