First performed in 1962, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem immediately made its mark as arguably the grandest and most outspoken anti-war statements to be found in ‘high culture’. This remains so, and the centenary of the end of World War One is a fitting moment for its revival.
The scale of the work is obvious as you arrive. A full orchestra, a chamber orchestra, chamber organ, a choir of some 100 voices, and a youth choir stand ready to nail you to your seat.
The work itself is a masterpiece of juxtaposition, its power to shock undiminished. Latin liturgy collides with English lyric; the massed chorus collides with the soloist; full orchestra collides with chamber orchestra in a dialogue filled with tension, friction, swelling rise and dizzying fall.
What works so well in this setting is the WW1 poetry of Wilfred Owen, which already invoked Christian sentiment and the public school Latin that transmitted the dogma of nationalism and unquestioning loyalty to Church and Crown, in order to tear it down. Britten intensifies this quality, allowing Owen’s bitter laughter and desperation to give the lie to the Christian certainties of the requiem mass, as each lyric interrupts the choir and orchestra to show the unredeemed suffering that is the soldier’s plight when used as the expendable implement of ignorant state power.
If the music itself no longer seems as dissonant or challenging as it once did, so many experimental and avant-garde compositions having appeared since War Reqiuem, the meaning of the work, so effectively executed and orchestrated with such a wealth of invention, pierces the heart even now, and feels as urgent and relevant as if it were composed yesterday.
And all who performed it tonight were immaculate.