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    Sound and stone: Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ and the music of memory

    British composer Benjamin Britten at England’s Coventry Cathedral for a rehearsal of his “War Requiem” in 1962. The work was premiered for the reconsecration of the cathedral, which had been largely destroyed during World War II.
    Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
    British composer Benjamin Britten at England’s Coventry Cathedral for a rehearsal of his “War Requiem” in 1962. The work was premiered for the reconsecration of the cathedral, which had been largely destroyed during World War II.

    Monuments carved out of stone are designed to hold our gaze, but they can also have a strange way of eluding it. On a visit this year to Birmingham, England, I walked through the bustling city center many times before stopping to take in the large and somber-hued Hall of Memory honoring the fallen from the First World War. Even once I had slowed my pace, it wasn’t easy to summon the appropriately reflective mood, as a gaggle of tourists posed nearby for photos and city residents whirred by in power suits.

    The scholar James Young has written about the “essential stiffness” of such monuments, their knack for fading into the background of an urban landscape, their gift for pinning down the fluid stuff of memory beneath so many tons of limestone. It’s an ironic fate for memorials, as if something in them also courts the very forces they’re designed to keep at bay: amnesia and oblivion.

    But consider for a moment the best monuments in music. While rarely thought of as a genre on their own terms, musical memorials seem to obey a different set of laws. They cannot fade into the background because they are built and unbuilt on a single night. They reflect not the consensus of a memorial committee but the blazingly personal vision of an individual artist. And perhaps more to the point, if stone might seem to pin down or oddly repel memory, the medium of music — sound itself — can share some of its more basic properties: an evanescent quality, an inward-drawing effect both allusive and elusive, a strange potential for resonance beyond surface vibrations. Perhaps, we might say, memory works a bit more like music.


    As it turns out, musical memorials in the 20th century have helped define the careers of composers as varied as Arnold Schoenberg, Steve Reich, and, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra will remind us with performances Nov. 7-9, Benjamin Britten. In a century that saw a steady erosion in the prestige and centrality of classical music, each of these composers seized an opportunity to momentarily enlarge the domain of his art, to turn away from formal concerns of craft and address subjects as broadly cross-cutting as the Second World War and the Holocaust. Every musical memorial fails and succeeds in its own way, but as a group, works such as Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw,” Reich’s “Different Trains,” and Britten’s “War Requiem” have played an under-appreciated role as vehicles of both individual and collective memory, as monuments oftentimes far more effective than the ones we might pass on the street every day.

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    On paper and in performance, few works would seem as attuned to the tensions and interplay of public commemoration and private memory as Britten’s “War Requiem.” But before arriving at the music, we might also remember how this piece in particular contains within its history a profound link to a stone monument — or what became one — in the tragedy of a particular place.

    AP/file 1941
    England’s Coventry Cathedral in 1941, a year after it was wrecked during a German bombing raid.

    Rebuilding prompts a masterpiece

    On the night of Nov. 14, 1940, about 20 miles from Birmingham’s Hall of Memory, more than 500 German bombers flew over the city of Coventry and reduced it to rubble, in one of the most devastating German air raids of the war. Among the smoldering wreckage was the city’s 14th-century Gothic cathedral. The Nazi code name for this bombing operation was “Moonlight Sonata.”

    After the war, the task of rebuilding St. Michael’s Cathedral became a symbol of national regeneration, and the new edifice was finally opened in 1962 with a major festival whose highlight was the “War Requiem,” written for the occasion. The piece interweaves a setting of the Latin Mass for the dead with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the brilliant young British poet who fought (and died) in the First World War.

    The violence of life in the trenches shocked Owen, and his war poetry, as the historian Paul Fussell has described it, was dominated by “horror, outrage and pity: horror at what he saw at the front; outrage at the inability of the civilian world — especially the church — to understand what was going on; pity for the poor, dumb, helpless, good-looking boys victimized by it all.” Fussell recounts a period in April 1917 when Owen was trapped under enemy fire for several days while staring at the remains of another officer’s body that had been scattered across the trench. Owen himself was gunned down in France a week before the end of the war.


    For Britten, a lifelong pacifist, Owen’s poetry was an inspired choice, and the composer sets the texts brilliantly. The “War Requiem” begins with the calm but oddly disquieting setting (for chorus and boys’ choir) of the traditional Requiem aeternam prayer, the plea for eternal rest. But Britten, here as throughout the work, seems to both rely on the ageless strength of this Mass for the dead, and to subvert it. Traditional modes of communal mourning still have a place, this music suggests, but they are no longer remotely sufficient. Bells spaced in a dissonant tritone punctuate the singing. Then at the movement’s close, Owen’s words shatter the music’s tense calm, with the solo tenor declaiming: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”

    The bells, Owen’s text suggests, make a mockery of the sounds that accompanied the soldier’s own final prayers: “the monstrous anger of the guns” and “the shrill demented choirs of wailing shells.”

    In the music that follows, Britten’s juxtaposition of the Latin Mass texts with Owen’s angular and unsentimental war poetry become the work’s defining gesture, the element that allows this requiem to speak both broadly and personally, linking itself with other requiems through the centuries while also piercing this tradition with language at once more immediate and charged. In a thoughtful new study titled “Britten’s Unquiet Pasts,” Heather Wiebe compares the Owen texts to the jagged bombed-out ruins allowed to stand within rebuilt cities like Coventry; the poems, she writes, are a “preserved disruption” that helps this music avoid the fate of those all-too-smoothly polished monuments.

    The work’s 1962 premiere in Coventry was enormously successful though not without incident. Britten had written the solo parts with singers in mind from three of the warring countries (the English tenor Peter Pears; the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; and the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya). But the gesture of reconciliation fell victim to Cold War realpolitik, as Vishnevskaya was denied permission by the Soviet government to travel for the premiere. The work was declared a masterpiece even before its first public performance, and quickly made its way abroad, arriving the following year for its first US performances with the BSO at Tanglewood under Erich Leinsdorf.

    Erich Auerbach/Getty Images/file 1962
    Britten inside the rebuilt cathedral for the first performance of his “War Requiem.”

    ‘As its unconscious chronicle’

    Musical memorials of course raise their own set of vexing questions, as individual works and as a genre. By interlacing the memory of both world wars, Britten’s requiem makes powerful points about the larger futility of these spasms of violence but also threatens to elide all meaningful difference between the two. When memory loses touch with the particulars of history, the impact of a work can become much hazier, less pointed.


    A related question hovers over this genre as a whole. When gauging a memorial’s effectiveness, how exactly do you separate ends from means, medium from message? The flood of acclaim visited on Britten’s “War Requiem” led some to suspect that early listeners were caught up as much (or more) in the subject matter as in the music. Stravinsky, for one, quipped that “the Battle-of-Britten sentiment was so thick and the tide of applause so loud that I, for one, was not always able to hear the music.”

    Surely as decades pass and the actual lived memory of this period dims, we gain a clearer vision of works like the “War Requiem” on their own terms. In the postwar years, other iconic musical memorials grappled more explicitly with Nazi horrors, a historical fact that feels strangely distant from Britten’s Owen-inflected requiem, with its references to shelled roads and singing bugles.

    Whether later German atrocities could themselves be accessible to the reach of art became a heated question in the postwar decades, with Theodor Adorno famously declaring that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But the German philosopher and critic eventually revisited his views. “The concept of a resurrection of culture after Auschwitz is illusory and senseless,” Adorno later wrote, “and for that reason every work of art that does come into being is forced to pay a bitter price. But because the world has outlived its own demise it needs art as its unconscious chronicle.”

    Even with their many limitations, we might consider the greatest memorials in music as representing precisely this unconscious chronicle. This is also why it is futile to fully separate Britten’s music from its own historical moment.

    The final Owen poem the composer included in his requiem is titled “Strange Meeting,” and it tells of two dead soldiers meeting and recognizing the abject pointlessness of their own deaths at each other’s hands. Intriguingly, Britten chose to omit the lines of the poem that describe this meeting as taking place in hell. Perhaps the composer wanted to deny us the consolation of metaphysical distance, to keep this music rooted closer at hand. This Hall of Memory is the one in which we sit to hear the performance.

    Jeremy Eichler can be reached at