Boston Symphony performs Britten’s “War Requiem”

Monumental work reminds listeners of the human tragedies of war


Assistant Arts Editor

“The composer’s duty, as a member of society, [is] to speak to or for his fellow human beings.” Benjamin Britten, a prominent English composer dedicated to pacifism, wrote “War Requiem” for full orchestra, chamber orchestra, organ, mixed chorus, boys’ choir and vocal soloists. Created in response to World War II, the piece uses text from the Latin mass for the dead juxtaposed with modern antiwar poetry by World War I veteran Wilfred Owen. It is a strange composition in many ways because Owen’s writings often directly contradict the Latin texts, and Britten’s musical language frequently edges on atonality.

The Boston Symphony (BSO), led by Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit at Symphony Hall, performed a deeply moving “War Requiem” on Saturday evening. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus joined the BSO onstage, and the boys’ choir stood, as is a common practice for this piece, at the left upper balcony of the hall. The effect was eerie, particularly in the first movement, “Requiem Aeternam” (Eternal Rest). The pure voices of the American Boychoir seemed to be coming from a different world. Both choirs showcased the clarity of the acoustics in Symphony Hall, and one could nearly hear the exact enunciation of every word.

The piece is organized into six movements, each referring to a text in the Requiem Mass. The musicians are divided into three groups: the soprano and chorus are accompanied by the full orchestra; the baritone and tenor with the chamber orchestra; and the boys’ choir with a small pipe organ. The soprano, chorus and boys’ choir sing in Latin while the baritone’s and tenor’s parts are interspersed throughout with Owen’s poetry.

Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya gave a powerful performance, particularly during a poignant section of the typically brutal “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) movement. In the same section, some of Owen’s text, sung beautifully by tenor John Mark Ainsley, was inserted between Pavlovskaya’s verses. Mattias Goerne’s rich and mellow baritone filled the hall throughout the piece, most touchingly near the end as he sang: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. / I knew you in this dark for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed / I parried; but my hands were loathe and cold.” The chamber orchestra, made up of the principal musicians of each section, served as gentle accompaniment to the two male vocalists. Despite the inherent sorrow present in the piece, this rendition of “War Requiem” was not without energy and intensity. Particularly in “Dies Irae,” the violent, turbulent side of war was deafeningly proclaimed by the choirs, soloists and full orchestra.

Amid all the musical talent present at Symphony Hall, it was easy to forget the message behind “War Requiem.” Britten’s genius in writing this massive work was that he was not content with simply writing a normal requiem mass—countless composers before him had already written their own. Britten was concerned with letting the human experience, in the form of a war veteran’s poetry, speak for itself in juxtaposition with traditional Biblical ideas of war. A clear example of this contradiction is the third movement, “Offertorium.” Translated from Latin, the chorus sings, “But let the holy standard-bearer Michael / lead them into the holy light, / as once you promised to Abraham / and to his seed.” The baritone and tenor respond with: “So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went, / And took the first with him, and a knife. / …And stretched forth the knife to slay his son. / …And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

“War Requiem” shows the painfully human side of war and destruction, and serves as a beautiful and terrifying warning to future generations.

Galen Chuang is a first-year interested in studying computer science and music. She plays violin and Ultimate Frisbee.

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