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Articles from Sequence II:

BRITTEN War Requiem

BRAHMS German Requiem

CORIGLIANO Of Rage and Remembrance: Symphony No.1

ELIAS The Prayer Cycle

"Images of Christ"

MAHLER Symphony No.9

MARTINÙ Memorial to Lidice. NONO Canti di vita e d'amore. SCHÖNBERG A Survivor from Warsaw. HARTMANN Symphony No.1 "Versuch eines Requiem"

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No.13 "Babi Yar"

More Requiem Articles


"My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity...
All a poet can do today is warn."

In loving memory of
Roger Burney, Sub-lieutenant, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve
Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines
David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy
Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve

by Chia Han-Leon
with Ng Yeuk Fan

In key excruciating moments of immense depression, suffering, outrage, betrayal, heartbreak, the human spirit suffers massive destruction. There is simply no way to fully convey this with any word: "War" comes close. Yet, it is in suffering that the enduring survive to create, because of that singular sweep of destruction. History records the unbelievable acts of war humans have raged and ravaged over each other for thousands of years; memory checks those who were there, who survived. But time, unceasing time, does not translate feeling across memory very well. In time, we, legacy of the survivors, all forget what exactly "war" means. Do we even understand what "requiem" means?

The surviving create, restore, but also record for history. Some do not write records, instead they transmit their experience of terror through perhaps, humanity's only true act of Creation, other than birth: Art. The War Poets wrote their poems - one wonders what scrap of paper they might have written with what half-blunt pencil while they trudged through their luridly insane battlefields. Certainly, their outrage, their irony and their poetry will constitute a different sort of history; one, which perhaps, may convey more than dates and death tolls.

But the story here is of another form of remembrance - that through music. History books no longer terrify us, nor does cable TV news; images, bullet rocketing through bloodied brain - shudder our nerves, then deaden them. We watch every day the daily diet of death and destruction. Poetry, quiet words on the page, intone their nightmares silently, unless... someone begins to sing them. But too often we reduce poetry to voiceless ink. Thus there is music, sounds which exist only in time. Sounds which can only be deliberately played, whose dissonances twist and sting, moving words from the page.

Today, displaced in time from the wars, we can only listen, just as Wilfred Owen would say "All a poet can do today is warn." But his today is not our today; it is already unmoving history. Today, here, the subject, to specify, is Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, a work of warning, just as this essay will warn that its music is not immediately harmonious to the ear, if at all. But that is exactly it, music of war and warning which must hammer and sting us now.

Benjamin Britten Britten (left) was of the opinion that art must be useful. It was not sufficient to him for music to pursue purely aesthetic objectives. Although innate aesthetics must never be abandoned, they should be a means to an end: and here in the War Requiem, he exemplifies this ideal effectively: portraying the futility and pity of war.

In portraying war, Britten uses his own voice - the true mark of a genius. There are moments of real tension - not all of which becomes resolved. We are told that these musical tensions are derived from his personal doubts as a pacifist about religious organisations that do not condemn outright war and military action. The War Requiem does not represent Britten's first exploration of this motif - there being earlier attempts in his operas Billy Budd (1951) and Peter Grimes (1945), and further in his cantata Rejoice in the Lamb. However, the War Requiem, written for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral (destroyed in 1941 during the war), taps his tendencies to greater and deeper effect. This requiem is not simply a public commemoration of the victims of war, but an expression of the personal belief that war, while repulsive, can give rise to a level of emotion quite different from those propagated through oft-repeated rituals of religious observance.

Britten was aware that his operatic anti-war statements did not achieve what his War Requiem could - on the account that for an artist to warn effectively, his message had to be embodied in form as much if not more than in content. Further, the sense of unease resulting from the achievement of a precarious balance within an essentially unstable structure would be a more potent metaphor for the act of warning than an explicit denunciation of violence. Britten thus did not intend a covert attack on the established church on its condoning of violence, but rather, expresses the irony between the feelings of those asked to lay down their lives and those who choose to mourn them by way of a religious celebration.

Below: The composer, who conducted the Melos Ensemble (not visible), speaking to Meredith Davies (on platform), who conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Coventry Festival Chorus, at rehearsals for the premiere at the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. (Photo by Erich Auerbach)

Britten speaking to The result of this use of devices to portray instability - the use of his 'bell' interval, the tritone (heard in the orchestra and chorus at the beginning) - is one of great effectiveness. An aural picture interweaving stable and unstable passages is achieved by the pervasive use of the tritone as an unstable element, as it were, a dissonance capable of great cathartic resolution into consonance but equally capable of preserving its instability.

The War Requiem is thus succinctly described in the notes to Britten's 1963 recording by the celebrated Christopher Palmer: "There are three distinct levels or planes within the War Requiem. In the foreground are two soldiers, one English, one German (the parts were written for Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau respectively), who sing with the chamber ochestra, ever a medium for Britten for private combination. Beyond them range the celebrants of the Mass itself: soprano soloist (Galina Vishnevskaya, a Russian), full chorus and full symphony orchestra. They represent the formal, ritualized expression of mourning, and a liturgical pleas for deliverance on the part of humanity-in-the-mass. At a still further remove is a chorus of boys' voices and organ suspended in limbo: innocent and pure-sounding but totally divorced from breathing human passion... . They represent a zenith (or nadir) of remoteness."

Throughout, the "modern" tone of the work is unrelenting, and yet somehow, most of all in Britten's own recording, it is highly effective. Not all the music is mournful, much of it is reflective, and some moments even celebrate. From the beginning, the "Requiem" movement is wrought in ominous atmosphere, choir with pained strings, bell tolling, brass crying, looming tam-tam. Britten's dissonances are not just for show, they make their point.

A chaotic, mocking setting of Wilfred Owen's "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" (the title speaks for itself) interrupts the "liturgical" choral music. As this movement for solo tenor with chamber ensemble peters out, like a dark jest, the chorus returns with a quiet "Kyrie".

The songs for the two soldiers range from the solemn " " for the baritone, to the parodic "Out there", where the soldiers share a meal with Death, reveling in entertainment - the irony of the lines are pure Owen: "We've sniffed the green thick odour of [Death's] breath" - a reference to gas; "We whistled while [Death] shaved us with his scythe."

Witness Britten's solemn-heroic setting of:

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;

Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,

And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
but when thy spell be cast complete and whole;
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

As Fischer-Dieskau's commanding voice reaches the final curse, an abridged version of the full Dies irae is quoted to hammer in the message proper.

Below: Cover of the newly reissued recording from Decca, now featuring rehearsal sequences taped from this 1963 recording. (Catalogue No.414 383-2)

The War Requiem's Dies irae begins tentatively with militarilistic bugle calls answering each other. Male and female chorus take turns with the verses in jerky, threateningly hushed tone. Britten spectacularly builds up the volume as brass and choir combine and surge forward in the "Tuba mirum" - "The trumpet, scattering its awful sound..." depicted by the momentus charge of brass, led by staccato gunshots on trumpet.

The rage of the second Dies irae gradually dissolves into the calmer, if still very solemn Lacrimosa, led by soprano with choir. Britten wrote the solo part for Galina Vishnevskaya (Rostropovich's wife). "Discouraged" by the Soviet authorities to perform at the premiere of the work (for which Heather Harper was substituted), she was allowed to participate in the recording, bringing her ringing, quite Wagnerian presence to the work - much to the approval of the composer.

Interspersed within the Lacrimosa is another poem; Britten's sense of drama ensures the seamless transition of mood between the soprano and the tenor/soldier, and the words: [Tenor] "O what made fatuous sunbeams toil /To break the earth's sleep at all?" - followed immediately by "Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem." (Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest." The relationship is simple: disruption and rest.

The Offertorium begins with a setting for boy choir with organ - Britten immediately and deliberately evokes an ethereal sound coming from the heavens beseeching deliverance of souls from the terrors of hell. In his recording, the boys are placed far away, thus emphasising the sense of otherworldly distance.

A vibrant choral setting of Quam olim Abrahae promisisti introduces the story of Abraham, sung in English by tenor and baritone. Britten's word painting is fitting and visually evocative, turning dark and ominous as Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son. The music calms, harp ripples, as both singers rise to the top of their range to represent the angel appearing to council Abraham.... the Ram is presented in symbolic replacement - but Abraham slays his son anyway.

Below: Peter Pears in heroic stance singing his lines at the 1963 recording, with the enormous massed choirs and orchestras in the background. Closer to him, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau huddles in his coat against the January cold. (Photo by Erich Auerbach)

Peter Pears Yes, it is at this crucial point that one realises it is not the Bible we are listening to, but Owen's own horrifying adaptation of the story, twisted to fit man in war, who in sending his children to war against other men's children, "slew his son, - And half the seed of Europe, one by one." In yet another of his countless touches of irony, Britten reintroduces the boy choir, their voices floating eerily with the organ above (snging in Latin: "Lord, make them pass from death to life. As Thou didst promise Abraham and his seed"), while tenor and baritone slay the seed of Europe. The image of the children being decimated is poignantly placed against the sound of children singing, in detached tone, as if they have already passed on; below them the soloists intone "one by one", diminuendo.

The ringing sound of tuned percussion accompanies the soprano, declaiming the beginning of the Sanctus, after which comes one of the most famous parts of the War Requiem: the Hosanna. Here, all the combined voices are directed to chant in heterophony, the simultaneous variation of a single melody (Grove). The effect basically, is a chaotic mass of sound where all the voices are de-synchronised, coming in and singing at different points in time. The orchestra, for example, plays the notes before the choir sings them; at the recording sessions, Britten specifically asks for the choir to make sure they are not singing together, and to emphasise the consonants to enhance the effect. Thereafter, the soprano returns with choir in a beautifully sensuous setting of "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini" ("Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord"), framed by majestic proclamations of "Hosanna in excelsis" by choir with brass.

As the War Requiem moves towards its final reconciliation, the tenor sings of the power of love which resolves the hatred of war, interspersed with a choral Agnus Dei: "... they who love the greater love /Lay down their life; they do not hate." The Libera me begins as of a funeral procession, but the pace is hobbled, hesitant yet insistent, the music tremendously fearful.

War, which means the killing of another human being, seems to always come to one conclusion as far as many who would express their feeling against it are concerned: that ultimately, the enemy one kills is ultimately a human being just like yourself. Poets such as Owen and Whitman, and the composers who set their poetry to music, seem naturally and fittingly to drive their message in this direction. The truth, simple as it is, can hardly be more true, or more painful.

As the War Requiem approaches its end, we hear its famous setting of Owen's Strange Meeting, which is accompanied by the otherworldly paradisial sounds of the In paradisum. The English soldier sings, seemingly in half-lost tone, of having apparently escaped into some strange alien place, depicted simply as a tunnel. He comes across bodies, "encumbered sleepers... Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred." As he examines them, one arises, to whom he says, "Strange friend, here is no cause to mourn." The German soldier now replies in agreement, except - all the years wasted in war, the hopelessness. "Whatever hope is yours, /Was my life also".

Below: Detail of sleeping soldiers from "Map Reading" (1932) by Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Detail of sleeping soldiers from 'Map Reading' (1932) by Sir Stanley Spencer They speak to us from all that time, in Owen's words, written long ago. Wilfred Owen was killed in action in 1918, only one week before armistice was declared. This poem was found among his papers. "The pity of war, the pity war distilled. /Now men will go content with what we spoiled." What is it that we spoil in war? Ourselves.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...

With the tranquil invocation of the words "Let us sleep now...", the final movement, the In paradisum begins. To the hushed sounds of slowly rippling harp, breezy strings, hymning organ and boys' choir, the soldiers repeat in kind of strange lullaby, "Let us sleep now...". In the distant background, "Into Paradise may the Angels lead thee: at thy coming may the Martyrs receive thee..." Not unlike Goethe's Faust II, and thus Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the soprano's glorious light appears to lead the way beyond the chorus... the bell tolls for attention, the choir intones from heaven, the soldiers appear again, with the assembled host, rise...

Requiescant in pace. Amen. Let them rest in peace.

This article is also dedicated to the memory of percussionist James Blades (1901-1999)

550: 30.8.1999. up.9.9.1999 ©Chia Han-Leon, Ng Yeuk Fan

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