Britten’s War Requiem

Sixty years ago, Liverpool and Cologne were on opposing sides of a terrible war.  Today in an act of reconciliation, they are twinned cities. Last week, as part of the Capital of Culture programme and in a celebration of unity, choirs and orchestras from both cities performed  Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in Liverpool Cathedral.

A full symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra, organ, two conductors, three vocal soloists, a boys choir and four other major choirs came together in the massive and awesome cathedral space.  Blending the liturgy with secular texts, the work uses the Latin Mass for the dead, interwoven with nine songs for tenor and baritone, based on the war poems of Wilfred Owen.

The combination of all these factors made for an evening of unparalleled experience that no one who was there will ever forget.

In the Dies irae, the soprano’s singing of the Lacrimosa is interrupted by the tenor (on this occasion the sublime voice of Ian Bostridge) singing the words of Owen’s great poem ‘Futility’.

 

Futility

Move him into the sun-

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields unsown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

 

Think how it wakes the seeds-

Woke once the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

-O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

 

The traditional Mass offers ultimate hope of salvation.  Britten’s angry, tender, moving War Requiem ends quietly and inconclusively with no such complete promise but only a resolution of sorts.

 

Posted by Angela Macmillan

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