What the War Requiem to see what

What is a requiem? The oxford online dictionary lists the following responses: a Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead, A musical composition setting parts of a requiem Mass, or of a similar character and an act or token of remembrance(Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017). The War Requiem written by Benjamin Britten was for the reconsecration of the Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed in world war 2 during a bombing raid(Its.caltech.edu, 2017). Britten was given free reign to write whatever he want and he choose to write a requiem. Since Britten was known to be a pacifist it can be argued that he wrote this piece as not just as a way to convey his thoughts on war but also in memory of those that died in war.The purpose of this paper is to delve into the War Requiem to see what Britten was trying to say since this is not just a common requiem.Benjamin Britten was born in the English county of Suffolk in a town called Lowestoft. According to Biographies written about Britten, he was showed talent for music since he wrote a play about the death of the fifth son of George V at the age of six(Its.caltech.edu, 2017). They also state that he enjoyed: composing before school, mathematics and cricket(a well known sport in England(Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017)). According to a Biography about Britten written by Humphrey Carpenter there was not any music being taught at the school where Britten went, he did take piano and viola lessons outside of school(Carpenter, 1993). It is also interesting to note that this biography mentions something about Britten’s pacifism. It mentions that Britten’s pacifism is most likely rooted in the severe corporal punishments that the school handed out frequently, it says that he was outraged by this. He was not a fan of conflict and events such as this may be the reason he rejected the use of violence. According to an article written about the war requiem, Britten often prefered to write for particular events and often had a practical approach to orchestration, keeping it to not many instrumentation needs or else the piece would not be played a lot(Durrell Bowman, 2017). This makes sense if you want your music to be played as often as possible. But when looking at the orchestration of the War Requiem it seems Britten was very serious about portraying certain ideas rather than write another piece of music. The orchestration is written for soprano, tenor and baritone soloist, choir, boys choir, orchestra, chamber orchestra and organ(Its.caltech.edu, 2017). The soprano soloist and choir is accompanied by the orchestra, the baritone and tenor by the chamber orchestra and the boys choir by the organ. How it works throughout most of the piece is that the choir, boys choir and soprano sings the words to the Latin mass for the dead and the soloists sings the poems in response. Take for example the first movement, Requiem aeternam, the choir is singing words such as “grant them eternal rest” while the tenor is depicting a grim portrait of what happens to soldiers in war with the words, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”(Its.caltech.edu, 2017). A piece like this with such a massive demand is not something that can be performed willy nilly. Judging from this it is clear that Britten wanted to do more than just have the audience listen to a piece. He wanted to show his displeasement with the acts of war. Nowhere is this more clear than his choice of text used in the War Requiem. It has words from the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems that was written by Wilfred Owen who was killed in world war 1 right before the armistice(Its.caltech.edu, 2017).The war requiem starts with with the Requiem Aeternam(eternal rest). It starts slow and legato with chimes hitting F# and C. The choir sings requiem aeternam and a tenor soloist responds with “anthem for the doomed youth”. Afterwitch the choir comes back in again with Kyrie. The orchestra is supposed to suggest gunfire and other noises heard on the battlefield.Dies irae(day of wrath) is the longest section of the requiem, clocking in at 27 minutes. It features 9 sections, 4 of which are based on Owen’s poems. The text mostly alternates, so latin text then poem then latin text again. It has a rather unusual metter, jumping from 4/4 to 7/4. Apparently this was done to so the trochaic tetrameters(a meter in poetry) would not sound boring and repetitive(Its.caltech.edu, 2017). Offertorium(Offering) uses “Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae” to introduce the poem, “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young”. Which tells the story of Abraham and Isaac but with a twist. Abraham sacrifices his son instead of the offers brought to him by an angel. Which is the opposite of what happens in the biblical story. But Britten uses this as a way to depict how countries send their own children to die in war.Sanctus(spirit) uses the sanctus and benedictus from the Ordinary of the Mass and Owen’s “the end”. This movement signifies the aftermath of the war. There are parts that sounds almost fanfare-like in it. But then as the soloist starts to sing it turns dark again.Agnus dei(Lamb of God) is paired op with the poem “at a calvary near the ancre”. This section is much more smoother and softer compared to the rest and it ends with phrases: Dona eis requiem(grant them peace) and Dona nobis pacem(grant us peace). Asking the grant those who have fallen peace while asking to grant peace to those who are still alive. This could be referring to the cold war that was going on at the time in 1962.   Libera me(liberate me) is from the burial service and not from the Latin mass for the dead. The setting seems very similar to Die Irae, dark and gloomy. The last poem used,”Strange meeting”. Seems to depict a meeting between a soldier and probably a german soldier since it talks about them killing each other. During which the mood seem more soft and calm. At the end one says let us sleep now, the choir sings again and ends on “Requiescant in pace. Amen”(Let them rest in peace. Amen). At the very end you can hear chimes being played and it sounds like bells used in mass.There you have it. Britten does not use the Mass in its traditional sense. He uses it to depict certain moods and as a way to communicate his message of: war is bad, god grant the dead peace and grant us peace among ourselves.ConclusionWe know that a requiem is usually a Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead or token of remembrance. It is safe to assume that Britten wrote this piece not just for those that had fallen in combat but also to send a message at the time of his disapprovement of war and all it’s casualties. The texts from the mass for the dead seem to be there as a way to pray to god for the for all the chaos that war brings. While the poems from Wilfred Owen are a strong rebuke of all the atrocities from war. But it ends with two opposing soldiers meeting each other in the afterlife and deciding to “go to sleep”. Perhaps this is Britten hinting at the pointlessness of war. Since the soldier calls the other friend, it seems all the hostility, all the things they did while there were alive won’t matter because they died a unneeded death.


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