Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The dead men speak

Exactly 50 years ago last week, the most moving requiem of the 20th century was being recorded for the first time in England.

Not the most beautiful modern requiem, which could be the one by Maurice Durufle, or the most exciting, which might be the one by Andrew Lloyd Webber. But a mass for the dead like no one had written before or since: Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," about the mad futility of World War I.

This is Britten's centenary year, and orchestras everywhere will celebrate him. (Not to steal any thunder from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's upcoming season announcement, but Big Ben will get his due.) His music could be extraordinarily accessible -- think of his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, based on a theme by Henry Purcell -- or extraordinarily challenging, like his late opera "Death in Venice." The War Requiem falls somewhere in between.

Composers have written requiem masses for many reasons. Some present a frightening look at the Day of Judgement (Mozart), some inspire a feeling of oneness with God (Verdi), some induce a state of beatific bliss (Faure), some provide a calm reassurance that death is a natural process and peace follows it (Brahms, composer of the greatest non-Catholic requiem).

Britten, who was not yet a schoolboy when World War I ended, remained a pacifist all his life. He was commissioned to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962 -- the old one had been bombed by the Nazis in 1940 -- and he responded with an 80-minute piece that intertwines sections of the traditional Latin mass for the dead with nine poems by Wilfred Owen, the greatest British war poet. (For my money, the greatest war poet, period.)

Lieutenant Owen, who won the Military Cross posthumously, died one week before the end of the war while storming a German stronghold. His poems excoriate the stupidity of European heads of state, who plunged the continent needlessly into turmoil. In "Strange Meeting," which provides the requiem's gentle climax, a German soldier meets a British one after death:

"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."

Britten wanted conductors to use soloists who represented nations from the war he had recently endured: a Russian soprano, a British tenor and a German baritone. The 1963 recording, which he conducted with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, remains a landmark, despite many fine additions to the catalogue. If you don't know this piece, try to listen to it -- and prepare to weep when the dead men speak.