Saturday I attended a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, presented by the Yale School of Music, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the Yale Glee Club, and featuring the Philharmonic Orchestra of Yale. The piece, commissioned in 1958 to celebrate the consecration of a cathedral in Coventry, was first performed in 1963. Composed in the post-WWII period, it looks back at a half century of war by incorporating WWI poems by Wilfred Owen into the Missa Defunctis. Performed in 2007, the piece can be said to indicate effectively the "timelessness" of war: parts of the Missa, such as the "Dies Irae" and the "Libera Me," speak of fears and hopes in the face of death and easily embrace the condition of war as a factory of death. And Owen's poems, while written in occasions of trench warfare which must rank among the worst horrors war has devised, can extend to any situation of hostilities. There seems no hope of an age devoid of such things.
Mind you, I'm not someone who likes choral works, by and large. When I listen to classical music I go for symphonies and concertos, finding that music for voice tends to be distracting, the manner of singing too distanced from the popular song for my middlebrow tastes. This piece convinced me otherwise. At first put off by the tenor voice -- the singing simply seemed too pretty and nice for the subject matter of Owen's poems -- I gradually began to appreciate the singing. I still preferred the baritone because his manner of declamation was more appropriate to my ears. As to the soprano: when she sang I made no effort to follow the text provided in the handbill. Her voice was best received as an expressive instrument and she sang in Latin most of the time anyway. The various choruses gathered for the performance, including a children's group from New Haven, sang the Latin parts of the Missa and added immeasurably to the proceedings.
The effects achieved by use of these choral voices positioned up on the second tier of the hall were the most powerful of the entire performance. The "Libera Me"'s opening reached vocal crescendoes that put me in mind of the passage in Against the Day when Kit passes through the Prophet's Gate en route to Siberia and hears a vast wave of sound including many voices. And since the choruses were singing things like "Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda . . . Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem . . . Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra" the feeling of apocalypse communicated -- by a work written after the A-bomb and performed in what feels more and more like some late stage of the world as we know it -- was for me the peak of the evening.
But something should also be said for the masterful blending of the Agnus Dei -- "Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world" -- with Owen's lines: "The scribes on all the people shove / and bawl allegiance to the state, / But they who love the greater love / Lay down their life; they do not hate." Trusted home, this interplay makes of each fallen soldier a Christ figure, while at the same time Owen's poem derides the need for warfare and those smug 'disciples' who let someone else do their dying for them.
Finally there was the use of my favorite Owen poem in the midst of the Offertorium. Sheer genius. The prayer that the faithful departed be saved from hell is speeded by "sacrifices and prayers of praise," so that Domine may grant them passage into life as "promised to Abraham and to his seed." The Owen poem describes Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac, commanded by God. In the Bible, an Angel appears to say that the command was simply a test of Abraham's faith and resolve, that he may sacrifice a ram instead. Owen concludes: "But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one."
Owen was probably thinking of the Offertorium with its reference to Abraham's seed -- in the Bible, the chosen race -- but Britten's placement of the poem in the midst of this prayer on behalf of those "departed" provides levels of irony that unfold in concussive waves. The promise to be delivered from death is given when Abraham spares his son at God's dictate. The society which slays its sons, bawling allegiance to the state, can expect no such deliverance. And yet the prayer says that sacrifices are offered on behalf of the dead, thus letting us imagine how generations to come will live to be sacrificed for the sake of "the dead" -- which can include whatever man-determined truths we can't let pass away.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Et O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole!