Sir Simon Rattle conducts Britten’s “War Requiem”

15 Jun 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Emily Magee, John Mark Ainsley, Matthias Goerne, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Benjamin Britten
    War Requiem, op. 66 (96 min.)

    Emily Magee Soprano, John Mark Ainsley Tenor, Matthias Goerne Baritone, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle in conversation with James Jolly (24 min.)

There are works with which one feels a special bond. They are true, lifelong companions. For Simon Rattle, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is such a companion, a work he has often performed. In this urgent anti-war appeal, the English composer juxtaposed the Latin Mass for the dead with the shattering poetry of Wilfred Owen, the “war poet” who fell in the last days of World War I at the age of 25. “I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass” (Britten).

The score’s title page contains the following lines by Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.” Britten set the various texts to music of immense vividness, expressive flexibility and dramatic consistency. The War Requiem was premiered with overwhelming success on 30 May 1962 in the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in a German air raid in World War II.

Five days earlier William Mann, long-time chief music critic of the Times of London, had written: “Any new Requiem setting has to compete with Verdi’s and Fauré’s and Mozart’s treatment of the same words. Britten has approached the task in his own fresh and deeply felt way. It is not a requiem to console the living. Sometimes it does not even help the dead to sleep soundly. It can only disturb every living soul, for it denounces the barbarism more or less awake in mankind with all the authority a great composer can muster. There can be no doubt This is Britten’s masterpiece.”

War and Peace

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

The gap, inexplicable as it may be, is enormous. And it cannot be denied – the facts of music history speak for themselves. After the early Baroque splendour of Henry Purcell had faded, England’s musical landscape long remained barren. The empire produced no outstanding composers for ages; not until the late 19th century did Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams bring this bleak era to a close. While these unquestionably talented composers produced only isolated significant works, however, a generation later the composer who would restore Britain’s hoped-for glory finally appeared on the scene: Benjamin Britten. In its entirety, his oeuvre is aesthetically compelling, since Britten by no means composed only timeless operatic works – a genre in which his skills are widely recognised. There are also splendid gems among his chamber music, such as the String Quartets No. 2 and 3 and the song cycle Canticles.

A Clear Sociopolitical, Moral and Religious Statement

One of Britten’s most personal works, due to the circumstances alone, is the War Requiem, composed in 1961. A more genuinely British work is scarcely conceivable; moreover, it is his only composition with a clearly recognizable political connotation and a sociopolitical as well as moral and religious intent. Its origins date back to the Second World War. During the night of 14 November 1940 a ten-hour bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe destroyed the entire centre of the city of Coventry in central England; more than 60,000 buildings, including the medieval St. Michael’s Cathedral, were levelled. After the war ended, work to rebuild the church began immediately. With Queen Elizabeth II and the Archbishop of Canterbury in attendance, the cathedral designed by Basil Spence was consecrated on 25 May 1962; five days later, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was performed there for the first time.

The War Requiem is a commissioned work. The composition must have been relatively easy for its composer, however. Britten was not only a Christian and humanist, he was also an avowed pacifist. He wrote this opulently scored work – in addition to a large orchestra and three vocal soloists, it also calls for a chamber orchestra, mixed chorus, boys’ choir and organ – as a highly personal antiwar statement. The ethical rationalist spirit of the War Requiem is obvious from the choice of texts. Britten not only set the traditional Latin requiem text of the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead but also interspersed it with sadly melancholy verses depicting the abysses of war in gloomy tones by the poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed a few days before the end of the First World War. The importance of Owen’s poetry for Britten and his admiration of him as a poet of humanity are revealed in the fact that Britten prefaced the score with a quote from Owen which can be understood as a memento mori for the entire work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.”

For Owen, warning meant exposing the inherently false terminology of war – its misguided heroism, which is bound up with a state-prescribed notion of patriotism that, particularly during the First World War, took on extremely strange characteristics at times – one need only think of Thomas Mann, for example, and his unfortunate patriotic lapses – and ultimately the deliberate aestheticization of battle as such. Britten assigned this morally subjective section of the War Requiem to the tenor and baritone soloists. These two parts reflect the horror of war with striking autonomy, accompanied by the twelve-piece chamber orchestra as the voices of the fallen soldiers. Opposite them, also separated, the soprano soloist, chorus and the immense, but always transparent, orchestra stand for the mourning of humanity in general, while the boys’ voices and the organ as a third independent musical semantic entity represent the remote, almost depersonalised, mystical world far above the battlefields.

Contradictions – Skilfully Expressed in Music

Britten’s approximately 90-minute opus magnum draws its tremendous fascination, nervous tension and suggestive power from these musical and structural contradictions. The fundamental programmatic constant is the tritone interval F-sharp – C heard in the tolling of bells at the beginning of the War Requiem, depicting the unresolvable conflict between war and peace which will not be resolved until the end of the work. The opening (“Requiem aeternam”) is a funeral march starting on a low A and underlaid with timpani blows, continuing with the words “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine / et lux perpetua luceat eis”, intoned by the chorus with breathless upbeats. Against this gloominess Britten brings in the boys’ choir, an ethereal, crystalline voice evoking a kind of redemptive transcendence. This utopia does not last long, however, and an important stylistic principle of the work is soon introduced – the antiphon. The prayer for eternal peace and perpetual light has barely died away when an expansive, expressive tenor solo begins with the disillusioned, agnostic words of the poet Owen: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”

This dialectical juxtaposition occurs throughout the requiem. While the Latin text embodies the Christian sphere of faith and is expressed accordingly, Owen’s words as set by Britten define the world as a scene of horror, madness and death but also a place of contemplation, as in the baritone solo following the Dies irae chorus, whose 7/4 meter and stumbling syncopations depict a terrified, stammering crowd. Symbolic of the entire work, the composer’s structurally dialectical approach becomes clear with the entrance of the soprano immediately following the baritone solo. Britten counters the concrete phenomenon with the abstract idea, the direct expression with the dogmatism of an assertion and the sudden intimate cry with the formal construction. The broad correlation of guilt and reconciliation is celebrated here, as though the composer wanted to say to the listener: it is always both, and always both at the same time.

It is not surprising that such a bipolar and colossal work already had an enormous emotional impact at its premiere, and not only the listeners were moved. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was the baritone soloist on 30 May 1962, later recalled this memorable concert in the Coventry Cathedral and expressed his profound inner emotion when he said “that by the end I was completely undone; I did not know where to hide my face.” A remark by Dmitri Shostakovich verifies that Britten’s work was not only able to move listeners in the Aristotelian sense but on the basis of its dialectical construction could also produce quite different reactions – perhaps intentionally. In a letter to a friend the Russian composer wrote: “I have been sent a recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. I am playing it and am thrilled with the greatness of this work, which I place on a level with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and other great works of the human spirit. Hearing the War Requiem somehow cheers me up, makes me even more full of the joys of life.” That is what one would call successful dialectics.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

John Mark Ainsley studied in Oxford, later continuing his training with Diane Forlano in London, at the same time building up a formidable reputation as a concert singer while working with conductors of the eminence of Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Marc Minkowski, Seiji Ozawa and Roger Norrington. Central to his operatic repertory are the roles by Mozart and Handel that he has sung at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, San Francisco, as well as the State Operas in Munich, Dresden and Berlin. In recent years John Mark Ainsley has taken a greater interest in the 20th-century repertory and also in contemporary works: At the Frankfurt Opera, he has been heard in Britten’s Curlew River and in Billy Budd, while his performances of the role of Skuratov in Janáček’s From the House of the Dead have been admired in Vienna, Amsterdam and Aix. In September 2007, he took the part of Hippolytus in the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s opera Phaedra at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. That same year the Royal Philharmonic Society voted him Singer of the Year. John Mark Ainsley is also a committed recitalist with a repertory extending from Purcell to Britten, and is a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1991 and since then has returned on many occasions, most recently for Joseph Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in September 2009.

Matthias Goerne was born in Weimar and studied singing with Hans-Joachim Beyer in Leipzig and subsequently with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He is now equally acclaimed as an opera singer, concert artist and lieder recitalist in musical capitals all over the world as well as at international festivals. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Riccardo Chailly, Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel and Seiji Ozawa. He first appeared as Papageno at the 1997 Salzburg Festival in a production of Die Zauberflöte conducted by Dohnányi. Although he limits the number of his operatic appearances, the range of his roles is wide, extending, as it does, from Mozart’s Papageno and Wagner’s Wolfram to the titles roles in Berg’s Wozzeck and Aribert Reimann’s Lear. Among the pianists who have accompanied his lieder recitals are Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes and Christoph Eschenbach. A fellow of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Matthias Goerne taught as an honorary professor of song interpretation at the Robert Schumann Academy of Music in Düsseldorf from 2001 to 2005. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1998 and has returned on frequent occasions since then. His most recent appearance was in June 2012, when he performed a selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler, in two concerts conducted by Andris Nelsons.

Emily Magee studied at Indiana University with Margaret Harshaw and has won a number of competitions. She made her stage debut as Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte) at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She attracted international attention with her first performance on a German stage in a new production of Lohengrin at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. As a result, she was invited to take on the role of Eva in the Meistersinger at the Bayreuth Festival in 1997. Her wide ranging repertoire includes works from Britten to Zandonai, concentrating primarily on the works of Richard Strauss, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, and Janáček. Emily Magee has performed in many leading opera houses, such as those in Hamburg, Munich, Zurich, Milan, Paris (Théâtre du Châtelet), London (Covent Garden), San Francisco and Tokyo, as well as at the Salzburg Festival. She has worked with major conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Antonio Pappano and Franz Welser-Möst. Emily Magee made her debut as a soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 2011 in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Salome, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The Rundfunkchor Berlinis a sought-after partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Founded in 1925, the choir produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April this year with the world premiere of Brett Dean’s The Last Days of Socrates as well as Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The Staats- und Domchor Berlin is one of the most famous boys’ choirs in Germany, with a history that goes back to the 15th century. Today, the choir provides music for services at the Cathedral of Berlin and also for state occasions. In addition, it participates in performances in opera houses and concert venues in Berlin, and holds its own concerts with a repertoire which includes the great works of the Western choral tradition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Since 2002, the choir has been led by Kai-Uwe Jirka, professor of choral conducting at the Berlin University of the Arts. In addition to many other awards, the Staats- und Domchor Berlin won the European Youth Choir Culture Prize in 2002. Tours have taken the choir to other European countries, Asia, the USA and Israel. The Staats- und Domchor most recently participated in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in April 2013 in performances of Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, celebrating the 10-year-jubilee of the orchestra’s Education Programme.

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