Benjamin Britten was the UK’s most successful composer in the years following World War II, and his 1962 War Requiem, being staged by the National Symphony Orchestra tomorrow evening, was probably his most popular work. It was commissioned for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in the English Midlands after the wartime destruction of the medieval original by enemy bombing.
Britten was a lifelong pacifist, and the War Requiem is a passionate assault on war in all its forms. For this, it uses the World War I poems of Wilfred Owen, and juxtaposes them with the Mass for the Dead of the Roman Catholic Church.
Owen’s poems were the greatest literature to come out of the murderous battles of 1914 to 1918. They aimed to change public attitudes from glorying in the sacrifices of heroic youth to horror at the mutilation and slaughter, and they form the main pillar of Britten’s undoubted achievement. Owen had a strong ally in the composer, who in places ratcheted up his effects to a level of almost unbearable intensity.
A particularly harrowing moment accompanies Owen’s version of the Bible’s story of Abraham and Isaac, which ends with Abraham declining to sacrifice the ram caught in the thicket: “But the old man would not do so, but slew his son/And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Nevertheless, Britten’s diffident musical style isn’t to everyone’s taste. It could be argued, for instance, that in this work there’s a holding back from the massive intensity that should accompany the depiction of any apocalyptic event. He corresponded regularly with Shostakovich, and the two were seen as resisters to the clinical atonalism of the so-called progressive school. Even so, a war requiem by Shostakovich would have sounded very different.
But Britten’s most important choral work was an instant success, not only in the UK but internationally. It clearly caught a mood, and possibly something more profound. It will be interesting to see what a Taiwanese audience makes of it.
The NSO will be conducted by its resident maestro Lu Shao-chia (呂紹嘉), and three foreign singers have been brought in for the solo roles. They are Swedish soprano Annalena Persson, British tenor Daniel Norman and Japanese baritone Shigeo Ishino. All three have had distinguished careers, notably in Europe, and together with the redoubtable Taipei Philharmonic Chorus should make for a sobering, and probably also a memorable, occasion.
The NSO will perform Britten’s War Requiem in Taipei’s National Concert Hall tomorrow night at 7.30pm. Tickets are NT$600 to NT$1,500, available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com.tw or by calling (02) 3393-9888.