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Nicholas Wilks on Britten’s War Requiem

Of all Britten’s works with the possible exception of Peter Grimes it is the War Requiem which most deeply explores the deep fissure that exists between the public and the private. It is surely no coincidence that the War Requiem has such striking parallels with the Verdi Requiem which we performed here this time last year. Verdi’s operas often portray private tragedy against a background of public brilliance, and his Requiem provided an unlikely model for Britten. It is most obviously apparent in the proportions and sensibility of the two works – the vast scope of the Dies Irae, the almost hysterical pleading of the Libera me, the profoundly ambivalent expression of consolation, and even the association of G minor with divine judgement. It cannot be chance that Carlo Maria Giulini, perhaps the most famous of all interpreters of the Verdi Requiem, was a superlative conductor of the War Requiem – his live recording at the Royal Albert Hall made with Britten himself conducting the chamber orchestra in 1969 has an unmatched incandescence.

Britten’s masterstroke is to include settings of poems by Wilfred Owen which give the Latin Mass both a specific context (World War 1) and a universality (our inevitable sense that war continues unabated to this day). Unlike Britten, who was a conscientious objector during World War 2, and whose fury at the loss of life is apparent in every bar of the War Requiem, Owen made a conscious decision to return to the front on the grounds that he could bear a more honest witness to the futility of the war if he was at the heart of it. We hear Owen’s German soldier utter a grim prophesy in “Strange Meeting” – “Now men will go content with what we spoiled”. The dead soldier can no longer bear witness, so we are condemned to complacency, to repeat the mistakes of the past. This surely is the point of Britten’s masterpiece – in his music the dead and the survivors are indeed given a voice of overwhelming power.

The War Requiem makes colossal demands on its performers and its audience, but it compels our attention. There is no facile resolution in its closing pages. As in Verdi’s Requiem, the words of the Latin Mass express longing, not consolation. Instead we are left with a fierce, indelible sense of the value of human life, and a profound wish that it should be greater than our capacity for self-destruction.