Last Monday James Conlon presented Britten’s War Requiem, employing the massed forces of several local student orchestras and choirs, including the Colburn, USC, Fullerton, Chapman, the L.A. Children’s Chorus, etc., etc. They were tremendous.
I wonder if Britten didn’t demand monster forces to insure that the piece would never be attempted without thoughtful deliberation. While a recognized monument, it remains a special event. The first section retains its power to shock, as the choir’s hopeful, traditional plea, “Lord, grant them eternal rest,” is countered by the tenor declaiming Wilfred Owen’s utterly hopeless, “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” Instead of answering, the chorus ends with a static, monumental but emotionally opaque, “Lord have mercy.” And the stage is set for an intensely uneasy journey.
The dramatic high-point is the Offertorium, when the chorus, singing of “Abraham and his seed” is interrupted by the tenor and baritone with Owen’s blasphemous parody of Abraham and Isaac, ending with “But the old man would not so, / but slew his son, - / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.” It’s one of the moments when Britten enlarges the poems into something much bigger than Owen’s words.
It doesn’t matter that the juxtapositions between the traditional text and Owen aren’t always so neat: Britten gives full weight to both. Indeed often it’s the traditional text that seems saner and sounder. Its impersonality and resonances give it a heft that no modern writer could hope to match—least of all Owen. In the November issue of Poetry, Tom Sleigh unfavorably compares the WWI poetry of Owen, with its “Keatsian sound effects” and “enlightened officer class … moral outrage” with that of David Jones, with its “mixture of Cockney, Welsh, and foot-soldier slang” and atmosphere of real “enchantment … doom and dread.” Absolutely true. But for the collage Britten was making, Owen provided the perfect material.
The piece consists of the conflict, and it ends without reconciliation. The transcendental peace promised by the traditional text recedes into unlikelihood. The foreground is dominated by Owen’s blunt image of death as a wretched waste, but also rest and release.
[Image: Hill & Adamson, The Artist and the Gravedigger, 1845]