Introduction engage together results “could only be

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·       Non-liturgical setting of the Mass for the Dead interspersed with 9
war poems by Wilfred Owen, WWI veteran and poet

·       Composed by Benjamin Britten, a pacifist, in 1962

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Dedicated to four friends of himself and
Peter Pears, all soldiers, 3 of whom died in WWII and one who committed suicide
years later.

·       Written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, following
the destruction of the original 11th century building in WWII (1940)

“represents not only an effort to
mark worthily the official commemoration of a triumphant recovery from the
ashes of war but also a conscious resolve to consummate his whole creative
activity to that date in the expression of a personal abhorrence of the bestial
wickedness by which man is made to take up arms against his fellow” Brittens
War Requiem



Britten’s Theology

·       Theology and
Conversation: Towards a Relational Theology

o   “By confronting the
different parts of the Latin Requiem with capita selecta from Owen’s war
poetry, Benjamin Britten indicates that belief in the resurrection of the dead
is never self-evident.”

between Genesis 22 (the Story of Abraham and Isaac) and Owen’s poem ‘The
Parable of the Old Man and the Young’

o   The latter is a bitter parody of the former

o   The Requiem creates an ideal situation in
which the two can be interwoven

Britten: War Requiem by
Mervyn Cooke (1996)

o   Philip Reed
“The War Requiem in Progress” in 

JOHN-BEDE (2013) Benjamin Britten, Herbert Howells, and 
Silence as the Ineffable in 
English Cathedral Music. Doctoral thesis, Durham University


Mixing of text and analysis

·       “audacious” Peter Evans if texts don’t engage together results “could
only be disastrous”

·       Choice of latin mass in an Anglican cathedral

Catholic tradition

·       Irony?



a Requiem that sets out in Elysian calm prejudges its own supplications; the
most notable example, Fauré’s, simply omits those sections of the text which
would cast too scorchingly apocalyptic a glow over its serene vision. The
muttered phrases with which Britten’s setting opens, uneasily echoing the
tritone F sharp-C of the passing bells, prevent all suggestion of repose, and
are not articulate enough to formulate the prayer for peace with any glib

·       Uncertainty mirrored in orchestra – tenuous link between tritons and D

·       Reminiscent of Sinfonia’s lacrymosa in key but has a deeper inner

these words are of the liturgy, their tone is not: it is the living who here
commemorate the dead, and they must do so weighed down with their own
self-searching. The liturgical note is sounded by the hymn of the boys’ choir
and organ; cool, chiselled and immanently certain, it is not irrelevant to the
foreground scene but it is significantly distant from it. The crucial tritone
is still there, but appears sublimated as the poles of phrases that are
complemented by their inversions ex 2

·       Roots of the chord twelve tone charmed circle – second act midsummer –
feeling of weightlessness while triton in gentle oscillation – nullifies attempt
at D minor cadence

·       Poem – ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – in tenor solo

·       Tritone now in harp accompaniment

·       Urgent pulse

effect is dramatic but not melodramatic: both poet and composer offer a
challenge to the luxury of opulent mourning, ‘mockeries from prayers or bells’,
that implies a conflict between this and the preceding sections”

athleticism and wiry textures of the new, but related, theme (bass of Ex.

3-also another distant relation of the Sinfonia’s Lacrymosa) seem like a
reproach to the heavy propulsion of Ex. i, even though they depict the rifle’s
rattle and the wailing of shells

work presents so subtle an interfusion of its sources and resources that, when
we have marvelled at the aptness of its evocative cross-references, we still
have no idea of their chronology. Did Britten use a boys’ choir and organ to
profit from his experience in the Missa Brevis? Or to provide the third, and
most ethereal, dimension in his spatial plan? Or, as we now wonder, was it Owen
who prompted this with his references here ‘What candles may be held to speed
them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes, Shall shine the holy
glimmers of good-byes’ -a passage which inevitably, and movingly, brings back
the musical shape of those boy-servants of the liturgy, first heard as ex 2?

·       Below the augmented final tenor line ‘at each slow dusk’ stir the ‘rhythms
of war’ again

·       Ex 3 forms transition to Kyrie – form is ABACBC

·       Coda – return to A and tritone interval in bells and chorus

·       Extremely short Kyrie – draws attention to its awful meaning

the dead have spurned our mourning, we are fittingly reminded that there is
much to mourn in ourselves.”


Dies Irae

we are prepared in some measure for a Dies irae which eschews grandiose horror;
though the words continue to be those in which the living commemorate the dead,
we await the moments at which the dead reinterpret them to the living –
climaxes of the movement are the battlefield – opening bugle calls the ‘last

Owen’s world is the central context of
these movements but does not invalidate the use of liturgical texts in
combination with this – “if
he refuses to portray a God of wrath, his man-made dies irae must appear the
more terrible a denial of the God of pity so sublimely invoked elsewhere”

·       Vast structure – whole liturgical sequence integrated with 4 texts
from Owen

·       Exploitation of fanfare motives in previous movements have prepared
Britten for this movement unified by parade of ideas in ex 6

·       Fanfares so dense that tuba mirum (the trumpets casting a wondrous
sound) is heralded by a splendour of sound which loses its aggressive edge
before the mors stupebit grasps feebly for a key

shatters splendour and sets tone for Owen’s poem “Bugles sang, saddening the
evening air” in which motives of ex 6 reappear as pathetic commentaries by the chamber

line almost built solely from fanfare arpeggios – climax achieved when this lulling
shape is abandoned on are
abandoned, at ‘Voices of old despondency, resigned, Bowed by the shadow of the

Britten implies this section begins in
G minor and ends in A which is the tonal centre of the whole middle section of
the movement; one of his most fluent essays in the expressive use of conflicting
tonal fields


·       Spatial separation of groups helps us accept gull between the ritual
quality of the Latin text and the specific, urgent quality of the English
poems, and Britten makes distinction absolute in his material

·       Soprano’s proud flourish ‘liber scriptus’ (a written book will be
brought forth) patterned extensions and inversions

·       Chromaticism in 7b underbinned with tonic-dominant pedal – keeps ‘quid
sum miser tunc dicturus’ firmly rooted

·       Buoyancy of tenor and bass solos ‘Out there we’ve walk’d quite
friendly up to Death’ reflects on timorous apprehensions of preceding chorus.

·       Ironic mult-tonality is at work, however, with particular ferocity at
the cadences which begin each line

·       Thematic cross reference is more tenuous here, but at ‘We chorused when
he sang aloft’ the vocal line derives from ex 7a while piccolo and clarinet
frankly deride he pitiful twist of ex 7b

·       There is a will to survive in this music to which the return of the ‘Bugles’
fanfare adds a sense of outrage

·       Unusual cadential structure throws into relief the final crucial words
shared between the soloists: ‘When each proud fighter brags, He wars on Death
for Life; not men for flags.’

·       Recordare for women’s voices followed by confutatis for men’s voices –
rely on schematic procedures without suggestion academicism


·       Above a pulsating figure a single theme is wound round itself into an
eventually four-part texture


Categories: Music


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