“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity…All a poet can do today is warn.” These words by Wilfred Owen are inscribed on the title page of British composer Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.” Britten combined the Latin text of the Requiem Mass with nine poems of the World War I soldier/poet Wilfred Owen.
The contrast of words is stark and dramatic, plunging giving poignant prophetic meaning to the mass as well as questions of the interplay between mercy, judgment, grief, and hope. The first words of Owen cut sharply in, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” Then later the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). The sacrifice by Abraham of Isaac, halted by the divine intervention to present a ram is contrasted to the slaughter of “half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Britten was a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II. He dedicated “War Requiem” to three friends killed in World War II and one who committed suicide afterward. Britten composed the requiem for the dedication of Coventry Cathedral. The Cathedral had been destroyed by German bombs during the Battle of Britain. Its reconstruction and rededication in 1962 was an act of reconciliation and witness for peace. (Click here for the Coventry Cathedral website and a history of this witness to the horrors of war and the labor of reconciliation). In the premier concert during the dedication of the Cathedral Owen’s poems the part of the tenor soldier was sung by British Peter Pears and the baritone soldier’s part was sung by the German singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, an embodiment of the reconciliation theme.
Watch a 1964 BBC broadcast of the composer conducting his “War Requiem” with the BBC Symphony Orchestra:
Watch a 1968 CBC interview with Benjamin Britten: