This massive work for chorus, children’s chorus, and orchestra combines the text of the Latin requiem mass with verses on the horror and pity of war by Wilfred Owen, the English soldier and poet who died in action in 1918. It’s probably one of the most profoundly anti-war pieces ever written. The performances of it at Orchestra Hall in Chicago by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Chorus, Children’s Chorus and soloists this week under the baton of Charles Dutoit fully capture the emotional power and narrative force of this profound (and profoundly sad) music.
The first performance of the “War Requiem” was intended to feature soloists from three nations devastated by the war: English tenor (and Britten’s long-time companion) Peter Pears, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of famed celling Mistislav Rostropovich). At the last minute the Soviet government refused to let Vishnevskaya perform, but she did sing the work with Fischer-Dieskau and Pears in the 1963 world premiere recording with the composer himself at the podium.
The current Chicago Symphony concerts repeat the international composition of that first recording with Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, English tenor John Mark Ainsley, and German baritone Matthias Goerne. All three are powerful and polished singers. Ms. Pavlovskaya’s “Libera me” was particularly gripping, Mr. Goerne’s “Bugles sang” beautifully captured the tragedy of Owen’s verses, and Mr. Ainsley’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”)—the Owen poem that interrupts the opening “Requiem aeternam”—was devastating in its effect.
The placement of that poem, by the way, is just one of many inspired decisions on Britten’s part. When, for example, the chorus responds with “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison” (“Lord, have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us”), it becomes a plea for forgiveness of the mortal sin of war. Throughout the “War Requiem,” the placement of Owen’s poems repeatedly cast the traditional Latin mass in a new light. It becomes, ultimately, a requiem for innocence, decency, virtue, and all the other noble emotions killed by the insanity of war.
The “War Requiem” is a big piece, calling for a full symphony orchestra with expanded brass and percussion sections as well as harp, piano, and a positive (portable) organ to accompany the children’s chorus. It makes big demands on an orchestra, but the Chicago musicians were more than up to the task. The great dramatic moments like the “Dies Irae” were appropriately impressive when we attended Friday night, and the more intimate sections that make up the bulk of the piece came through with crystalline purity. Placing the children’s chorus and positive organ up in the balcony occasionally made the sound balance a bit odd for those of us seated up there, but I think it was a good decision in terms of the overall sonic picture. And besides, the kids sang like angels.
This was my first opportunity to see Mr. Dutoit at work and I have to say I was fascinated. He’s not a conductor given to big gestures, but the ones he uses are clear and focused. His command of the orchestra appears to be precise and total, and he shapes phrases beautifully. He also seems to appreciate the value of silence—especially at the very end of the piece, where he allowed the final “Amen” to fade out and be held by just a bit of quiet before lowering his baton for the applause.
The Symphony Chorus, if this concert was any indication, is a truly impressive organization. Diction was wonderfully clear and their dynamic range was remarkable.
As Phillip Huscher writes in his program notes, “1961, the year Britten devoted to the War Requiem, was marred by the building of the Berlin Wall, an ominous escalation of U. S. action in Vietnam, and the incident of the Bay of Pigs. Owen’s poems, ‘full of the hate of destruction,’ and Britten’s new score, with its call for peace, couldn’t have been more timely.” They’re even more timely today, as (to quote an Owen poem used in the piece) “the scribes on all the people shove and bawl allegiance to the state.”
In the Permanent Warfare State, presenting a work like the “War Requiem” isn’t just an artistic act, it’s a political one as well. I’m not sure how many of the patrons at Friday’s concert saw it that way or even whether the symphony intended it that way, but it seems inescapable to me. To quote the Owen lines that Britten used as the epigraph for his score: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity…All a poet can do today is warn.”
The “War Requiem” will be repeated Saturday, November 16th, at 8 PM. For more information: cso.org.