Whatever hope is yours, was my life also;
I went hunting wild/ After the wildest beauty in the world…
—Benjamin Britten, The War Requiem (1962)
The Century begins and ends with the third movement of the Eighth Symphony under the baton of Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, 1997, the very best—among many Shostakovian bests—rendering of the sinister scherzo to this five movement cyclone in all of its galloping force and pulsing horror. The scenes that should begin to flash across the eye of one’s mind are those of the eerie, pastoral geometrics of Kasimir Malevich, the Supremacist painter-philosopher of post-Tsarist, pre-revolutionary Petersburg, whose technicolor intellectualism embedded a fervent Christian mysticism inside the bleakest of nihilist abstraction. The tempo is anxious; it is exhausting and frightening. Suddenly, this war-path, a lacerating C-minor melody astride a staccato motor-rhythm powered by trombones, timpani and a tuba, is interrupted by the shriek of a soprano clarinet blasting through the butchery—the cry of a mother who has lost her son? The grim whistle of a train car depositing the bacillus leninus at the Finland Station, woodwinds rising and descending to sweep that contamination across the body of The Century? The mechanized percussion of this clipped stampede continues: thumping, heavy strings and the alert syncronicity of snare-military drums drilling forth, repulsive in their summons to barbarity yet curiously seductive in their fearless crescendo. The statistics start to line up—plump ravens taloned to ravished corpses–as the tempi increase: one million and one, one million and two…. Now the moon-white facelessness of Malevich’s disjointed human triangles and ovals gives way to the multi-latticed cubism of a soldier’s stone-cut gaze. The war-tempo pushes aggressively further along while the charge of an imperial cavalry at first excites, then fades nostalgically into the distance.
Yes, the White Knights of St. Petersburg have gone dark: Prince Obolensky (who led a brigade of Crimean Tartars against the Bolsheviks), Prince Youssoupov (the assassin of Rasputin, later sent into fored exile in Siberia) and Count Nabokov (the writer’s father and anti-Fascist) were gallant anglo-Russian noblemen who returned from Oxford one day during the idyllic years before World War I to try to institute a British model of constitutional monarchy in their homeland. A burst of thrilling laughter now pockmarks the music—a too-bright trumpet, a too-cheerful chord—mocking the efforts of those valiant men. The rushing madness starts to taper off a bit, the music begins to soften, to fold into itself; to crumple, whither and die. A Malevichean black square is pounded onto this schizophrenic background while an acoustical black hole spirals downward, and further downward, the music increasingly inaudible, leaving behind its path of destruction a weak, shriveled century, its moral and physical deformation, the woodwind with its maternal cry, its fratricidal herald… But then, moments later and all at once, new, young life comes crashing forth—a call to arms, a reveielle to regenerate, rejuvenate morale: The Americans! Now the music races spectacularly–the snare-drums hammer out martial order, zealous cadenzas fly and whoosh back and forth across the scales, big billows of trumpets break down all resistance in a huge ocean of sound that goes surging through the cold arteries of the Neva, Volga and Dnieper with fresh vitality, possibly even hope…Yet, how will it end? An explosion of crash-cymbals augurs dawn, a lean, hungry future illuminated in the timbre and sheen of indefinite pitch. They explode again, only this time radiating uneasy waves of after-shock as the third movement spills over heavily, exhaustedly, into the fourth. The fourth movement is born, but it is no less foreboding than its forebear. It is calm, but not peaceful. It is the calm of dreadful reflection, of space, and plenty of it, given over to the contemplation of the horror that has come to pass—and to the anticipation of more to follow….
In the music of Shostakovich, the two sides of the twentieth century are revealed–the absurd and the tragic. From the agonizing strings and death-march percussion to the peppery ironies of a horn’s bright, lunatic’s grin, it is impossible to tell in his works whether the absurd is the tragic or the tragic is the absurd, just as the events of The Century made it impossible to distinguish between the two. This ugly dualism may be best summarized in an anecdote recounted by a violinist with the Leningrad Philharmonic during the fifties through seventies, who traveled one summer with Shostakovich by ferry from England to France. The violinist pointed out that one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Eighth Symphony was the major-chord transition to the finale, “like a ray of sunlight.” The violinist, according to Shostakovich scholar Elizabeth Wilson, never forgot the look in the composer’s eyes when the latter answered: “My dear friend, if you only knew how much blood that C-major cost me.”
The poet W.H. Auden once observed, “Words have no words for words that aren’t true.” And so we return to Art—to music, above all—to express what everyday language cannot, or may not, say. The lowest estimate for the number of Russians murdered for political reasons between 1918 and 1941 is 7.9 million; The Black Book of Communism, published in 1997, puts the number at approximately twenty million. In World War II, Soviet Russia lost an estimated twenty-five million souls, half of that number soldiers, half civilians. We will never know, as The Century’s perversions–dictatorial, ideological, material, racial—were based upon the very destruction of Words, their deformation and degradation. Osip Mandelstam, the Warsaw-born poet so celebrated by Nabokov and tortured in camp after camp in the Soviet Union’s sub-artic hell, famously wrote: “Only in Russia is poetry respected. It can get you killed.” Such is the power of words, and of art, when they are true, as Auden might have reminded us, as well. Tacitus wrote somewhere that when a civilization begins to corrupt the first thing to go is language—it washes out, flattens, thins-out, losing precise corners and clear lines until it ends up… the Zhandov Decree of 1946 and 1948, purging artists and intellectuals suspected of poisoning the virginal springs of Socialist Realism, and banning their works from circulation or performance. Shostakovich and his Eighth were celebrity victims, as were his phenomenal peers Sergei Prokofiev and Aran Khachaturian. (Later, in the late fifties, the composers were rehabilitated, in the catchy lingo of The Century). The height of this tragedy-of-the-absurd was realized about a decade earlier, however, with the introduction of Article 12 of the Soviet Criminal Code of 1935, by which children from the age of twelve could be sentenced as adults and interned in the Gulag system. In a 1996 essay on Shostakovich, one British conductor recounted how the composer had been inspired by the story of a young girl sentenced to twenty years in one of those camps. Her crime was to have been overheard singing a Western song.
The dissolution of language became a terror of silence. When once asked where the meaning of music is “found,” the Georgian composer and philosopher Giya Kancheli answered, “In the silence that precedes the emergence of a note.” It is in that Silence that music takes over from Words, and where Shostakovich takes over the twentieth century. “He never lost the capacity to make his notes mightier than his masters,” noted an admiring, anonymous review of the composer in the BBC’s Classical Music Magazine of January 2012. Herbert von Karajan, who only recorded the Tenth Symphony of the composer (desert-island masterpiece that it is) said Shostakovich was the composer to whom he felt closest.
The Eighth, called “one of the masterpieces of 20th century art,” by conductor Litton, and singled out by the celebrated pianist Sviatoslav Richter as the composer’s best work, was written in a converted henhouse in the western Russian countryside after Shostakovich and his family were evacuated from Leningrad during the famous Siege of that city by the German Wehrmacht beginning on September 8, 1941 and lasting until late January 1943 (the famous “900 Days”). Though “Dmitri Dmitriyevich” was already recognized as Russia’s greatest living composer, the symphony angered the authorities at once. It lacked celebratory patriotism. It was too passionate about its hatreds –of tyranny, slavery, despotism. Its Mahlerian gusts of high-cylinder perpetuo mobile, wailing winds and the omniscient doom of so savage and glorious a line of percussion were too much for the purveyors of State-sanctioned Truth. The circumstances of the composer’s life grew increasingly vicious. Threats against him and his family became frequent, many of his artist and writer friends were deported to and died in the camps. He began to sleep in the hallway of his apartment in the event that the “knock on the door” came for him and his wife and his son might be spared. A child of Tsarist Petersburg schooled by the first Bolsheviks, “Shostakovich was a man who said that looking back over his life he saw nothing but mountains of corpses,” the anonymous BBC reviewer wrote of this tormented enigma. Owing to poor eyesight, he was not conscripted in the Red Army but enlisted instead as an auxiliary fireman, composing several of his fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets under torrents of grenades. His legacy, starting with the highly successful First Symphony at the age of nineteen in 1925, is a breathtaking chronicle of his century, and what Shostakovich could not say directly he suggested within cryptic musical passages—that secret Shostakovian code that musicologists, historians, and Shosto-cultists have debated with fascination ever since. Yes, art happens where words, “the acid-bath of words,” pace Lawrence Durrell, no longer have the power to communicate.
That symphony’s predecessor, the Seventh, is the more glamorous sibling, however. Taking Valery Gergiev’s brilliant rendition with the Mariinsky Orchestra as our starting point, one is introduced to the famous allegretto of the work’s first movement as it starts out grandly, full of happy bravura, then gives away at minute 1.05 to the vision of a sweet, unhurried idyll. One imagines the quiet countryside and landed-gentry estates outside of Petersburg circa 1910, a young Vladimir Nabokov chasing his adored butterflies around the brooks and woods of Rozhdestveno, his ancestral home and one of the most beautiful villas in western Russia. The cellos provide strong foundation to this youthful bloom, this spring morning transposed into the sigh of a lone, pale violin solo. Lingering woodwinds, the race of a piccolo, the swirl of a flute, coil upward, all bagatelles and meandering, while the clarinets and oboes are langorous and relaxed. Only the last few bars of this passage, that of the cellos growing heavier, seem to alter the mood a bit. And then it starts: those who know their Shostakovich know that the eerie “minute 6.55” opens onto one of the most gripping melodic leitmotifs in the history of twentieth-century music. A solo snare-military drum is heard in the distance; the light, almost abashed, plucking of the strings joins in. Everything is faint, a kind of shadow-music, but one grows anxious, sensing something on the horizon advancing. The impending invasion mounts and mounts as bass drums accompany the snare, their combined power wonderfully intense, until at minute 14.05 the melodic motive shifts an octave higher as the percussion maintains its aggressive discipline and the encroaching violence reaches the gates of the city, that beautiful city. Only the emotional outpouring of the work’s finale matches this level of the spectacular.
With German and Finnish forces encircling Leningrad and conducting artillery and air bombardments several times daily, it is estimated that 632,000 civilians were killed by the end of 1942; there were one million civilian and Red Army deaths in total. Temperatures regularly fell to minus-40 degrees (F/C), while the daily ration for civilians was reduced to 125 grams of bread (about a slice of bread) and an estimated 4000 died of starvation by early 1942. Stories of cannibalism became commonplace–so much so that a special division of the Leningrad police had to be formed to combat its occurrence. In his controversial but convincing transcripted memoirs (acknowledged by the composer’s son, Maxim, and those who knew him, such as the pianist and conductor Msistlav Rostropovich, to be accurate), it is recounted that the Seventh had been planned years before the war and not “only” as a reaction to Hitler’s invasion. “It is about the Lengingrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off,” the memoirs quote Shostakovich as saying. As word got out to the nomenklatura that Russia’s greatest living composer was writing a war symphony, they seized on the propaganda possibilities at once. Shostakovich was reluctantly evacuated to a village in southern Russia at the western boundary of the Volga to complete the work. Then the Roosevelt administration got wind of the work-in-progress and upon its completion, a copy of the score was microfilmed and smuggled to Teheran, from where it was then sent by naval ship to London (to be performed at Royal Albert Hall) and to America. On July 19, 1942, Arturo Toscanini conducted a performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra that was heard live by twenty million people. The following year the symphony was performed sixty-two times in the US alone. Shostakovich made it to the cover of Time.
The greatest performance, however, was that which took place in Leningrad itself on August 9th, 1942. With the famous Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra evacuated from the city, only fourteen members of the Radio Orchestra were still alive when the Soviet administration decided to mount a performance of this majestic work, other members having starved to death or been killed serving on the front. Posters were put up ordering every available musician to turn up and any soldier who could play an instrument was ordered back by Lt. Gen. Leonid Govorov, commander of the Leningrad front, to join the orchestra. Those who were around were in such a weakened state they frequently collapsed during rehearsals (there was but one completed); three died on the eve of the concert. The conductor, Karl Eliasberg, had to be taken to the rehearsal hall on a sled. Only a single copy of the 252-page score made through the blockade of the city, making it necessary for copyists to prepare by hand and around-the-clock 2500 pages of individual player parts. Then, in a Soviet military operation code-named ”Squall“, the Philharmonic Hall was surrounded by three thousand large-caliber military weapons to protect the concert from German fire, while nearby German artillery battery positions were pounded prior to the concert in order to silence them. The performance was broadcast the city through a loudspeaker network, and, in a psychological move, additional monitors projected the music toward the German lines. The orchestra willed itself feebly through the symphony’s brutal hour and a half score, while the audience, consisting of what those in attendance later described as the entire population of the city, spontaneously stood at points throughout the massive denouement of the work as a show of solidarity when any one musician appeared on the brink of collapse. Today, the event is seared in Russian consciousness as one of the most heroic civilian triumphs of the war. Its occasion brings to mind what had happened at a prisoner-of-war camp in eastern Germany a year and a half earlier in January 1941, when the Catholic organist and composer, Olivier Messiaen, composed and first performed his Quartet for the End of Time in freezing conditions and with fellow inmates as chamber orchestra members. Five-thousand prisoners and German guards witnessed the work’s premiere at the camp. Here again, another modern masterpiece born in unspeakable conditions; another triumph of art in the life of The Century….
H. L. F Helmholtz, one of the nineteenth century’s great eighteenth-century minds, wrote his monumental On the Sensations of Tone as a Psychological Basis for the Theory of Music (1862) as an attempt to trace the mystery of the physiology of acoustics. He sought to investigate the famous affirmation of Leibnitz: “Music is a hidden exercise in arithmetic, of a mind unconscious of dealing with numbers.” Leibnitz, in turn, sought to investigate the Pythagoreans’ theories of the mysteries of consonance and dissonance. How very interesting, then, that The Century should itself embody this ‘physiology‘ of music–the consonance and dissonance of its own tortured progression from trenches and shells to isotopes, nuclides and nukes. Still, at the root is something incalculable: “The hidden bond which draws together all activities of our mind and which also tends to revelations of artistic genius,” wrote the critic R.C. Archibald in an essay of 1913 on Helmholtz’s fascinating theories, “leads us to surmise unconscious expression of a mysteriously active intelligence.”
The music expressed by that ‘mysteriously active intelligence,’ Herbert Spencer theorized, developed from the emotional outcries of our primitive ancestors. “No other art“, wrote the scholar, Halbert Hains Britain, in The Philosophy of Music (1911), “with the possible exception of literature as exemplified in the drama and the novel, takes hold so firmly of our emotional nature and stirs so deeply the nether state this side of consciousness.” As Spencer explained, the moans of a sufferer excite our sympathy and pity as his emaciated form will not, and animals as well as men habitually communicate various states through tonal inflection or intonation. “As a result, sound qualities have become indissolubly associated with emotional states, and have come to be the most exciting, that is, the most impressive, stimulus of sense.”
But whatever the theory–physiological, psychological or emotional–of why music so deeply affects the human, in the end it is one’s reaction to a particular work that does all the explaining necessary, especially if that work happens to be Leontyne Price’s San Francisco 1957 ‘O Patria Mia’(Aida). Or Renata Tebaldi’s Naples 1958 “Pace, Pace O Mio Dio“ from La Forza del Destino. Or the 1962 Franco Corelli-Giulietta Simioniato ‘Ah! Dillo Ancor’ duet from Gli Ugonotti/Les Hugenots. Or the 1954 Karajan recording of the Ramón Vinay-Martha Mödl love-duet “O Sink Hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” from Tristan und Isolde, quite possibly the single most beautiful thing I have ever heard.
The Shostakovich Century spread elsewhere into Europe, into Great Britain and the United States, as well. “I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowksi,” said Sir Simon Rattle in an interview with the British magazine Gramophone on the occasion of his recording of that composer’s works in 1994. “For you cannot expect objectivity or reasonability from someone in love. And reasonability is out of place where this music is concerned. Szymanowski for me is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.”
Born to the wealthy landed gentry in 1882 in Tymoszówka, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Karól Szymanowski lived a life of exile, and self-imposed spiritual exile, after his family lost its fortune and saw their estate burned to the ground by Bolshevik forces in 1917. Openly contemptuous of the idea of a proletarian, let alone Communist, society, he took to years of wandering North Africa and the Mediterranean, his life adrift a mental maelstrom of religions, materialist philosophies and utter disgust for politics, only to re-emerge from it all Poland’s most celebrated composer after Chopin. Szymanowski’s symphonies are vast, melodic and dream-like; they are suffused with Oriental langour and sensuality, slow nocturnes and surprise arpeggios, but also strains of delicacy and religious piety which are woven into the melancholic undercurrent of these works. The Fourth Symphony is the most gorgeous of them all. (It also happens to be one of this writer’s favorite symphonies ever). Schopenhauer and Nietzche were profound influences on Szymanowski‘s intellectual aesthetic–the world of will and of the supremacy of the artist who is above morality, law, convention–and the composer’s increasing isolation from the political and moral breakdown of Europe was recast as an impassioned clarion call for the nineteenth-century conviction in l’art pour l’art, “art for art’s sake.” He wrote: “The only aim of art is itself. It reflects both the Absolute and the soul of an individual. Art stands above life: it knows neither limitations nor laws. It can only be denigrated by the inclusion of patriotism, civic instinct, or morality.”
And yet. It would just so happen that the magnificent Karól Szymanowski would go down in European history as the author of what many scholarly critics consider to be one of the most supreme works of religious music of the twentieth century, the Stabat Mater, (written in Latin but a work he insisted be sung in Polish when performed in Poland). He died in 1937, as lonely as he had lived, of tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium, his last correspondence complaining bitterly of the Polish government‘s refusal to recognize him, except for propaganda purposes, as he had acquired a reputation abroad. But the sentiments of his people could hardly be suppressed when, during Szymanowski’s grand funeral procession from Warsaw to the Holy Cross Church in Kraków, “the performance of the Stabat Mater,” a national poet in attendance described, “became an experience which I even find difficult to describe.”
The Estonian Arvo Pärt followed in the same tradition. Do not let the labels of “serialism,” “dodecaphonic,” or “tonal idiom” so often associated with Pärt’s reputation scare you away, for here are some of the most searing religious harmonies in modern composition. The brilliant German painter, Gerhart Richter, having grown up in a communist household in Dresden, once remarked in an interview that the first time he stepped inside a cathedral he knew he was witnessing the greatest civilization of art ever created by man. Pärt, as well, never abandoned the spiritual side of music—a defiance that almost cost him his career and his life. The second part of the third track to his Tabula Rasa is achingly lovely violin music (and the violin must be Gideon Kremer’s for this particular work) and the ‘Agnus Dei’ of his Te Deum is a work that has been described as “the love and fear of God“ at once. But it is his Credo that stands out above all. The 1968 premiere of this divine work, Pärt’s first overtly sacred piece, opens with a dramatic Orthodox chant and breaks softly into a contemplative piano solo later rejoined by the choir and a passage of dynamic strings and horns. This is then supercharged with a hard section of chordal dissonance that is “disturbing“ and contrasts the fragility of the choir and of somber solo piano passages with bursts of brisk, aggressive horns. I must warn you–one is not in Missa Brevis territory here until, at minute 10.04 until 12.05, the work recovers a straight melodic line that quietly dissolves into something that is absolutely sublime. Credo drew the wrath of the authorities as an act of dissent and Pärt’s music quickly disappeared from the concert halls. When attempting to voice his beliefs publicly, this Estonian sacred fire soon found himself in exile in Berlin. In 1968, Pärt’s fellow countryman, conductor Neeme Järvi and father of the Los Angeles Philharmonic director Paarvo Järvi, braved the Soviet authorities when he conducted a performance of the Credo. It resulted in the elder Järvi’s banishment, but also in the free-world foundation of the younger Järvi’s phenomenal career as a champion of Pärt’s work, a mission he has so passionately pursued ever since.
In the United States, The Century saw the power of art break down barriers more profoundly, more enduringly, than may be said of the march and cry of politics. Two great operatic artists and revolutionaries, Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson happened to change the course of American history. First, there is the story of Hayes, born to two former slaves in the late 1880s who would be the first African-American artist to demand desegregated seats at his concerts in the US and the first of his race commanded to the court of the British monarch, King George V, to receive the United Kingdom’s highest honor for artistic achievement. Hayes’ greatest epoch-making performance took place on May 10th, 1924, at the Beethoven-Saal in Berlin. On that occasion, the tenor, greeted by jeers and hisses from the German audience upon his appearance on stage, waited calmly until the chaos settled down. Hayes then opened his concert of an all-German program with a Schubert lieder that, the legend so wonderfully goes, won him over to German audiences for the rest of his career. Hayes later described the experience as one of the “greatest triumphs over hatred” in his lifetime, according to his biographers. By his late thirties, Hayes was one of the highest paid performers in the US.
He was the hero of Marian Anderson, the first black woman to appear on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera (Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera), a 1955 debut squarely delayed by racism as she was fifty-seven years old at the time. Meanwhile, there had been so much acclaim in Europe, that the continent was said to suffer from “Marian Fever.” In Austria, Toscanini proclaimed her a voice that one heard “only once in 100 years.” In 1933, Anderson embarked on a twenty-concert Scandinavian tour and sang before King Gustav of Sweden, who decorated her. She performed for King Christian of Denmark and in Finland, she received an invitation from the composer Jean Sibelius, who dedicated his song “Solitude” to her. Back home, the reception was quite a different story: Anderson was frequently on the receiving end of third- or fourth-class hotel or train accommodations while touring her US opera engagements. She was once blocked from a “Whites Only“ train platform only to be redirected to a “Black“ exit just as a huge throng of fans appeared to greet her arrival. Deeply spiritual, Anderson’s faith sustained her, and it was the power of this faith that propelled her to the center stage of one of the most wonderful milestones in the destruction of racial barriers in the country. After being refused to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., owing to the protest of some members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, her scheduled performance, by way of the heavenly intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, was moved to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The result that Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, was a crowd of 75,000 in attendance and millions more hearing Anderson’s voice broadcast for the event. Thereafter, she would go on to sing at the inaugurations of Dwight D Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Though described as “a queen, a national treasure“ by The New York Times, the angelic-voiced soprano’s views of herself were typically humble: “I hadn’t set out to change the world in any way,” the newspaper quotes her as saying. “Whatever I am, it is a culmination of the goodwill of people who, regardless of anything else, saw me as I am, and not as somebody else.” If that is not the power of art over politics, over life, I do not know what is.
And then there is the power of art in service of Memory—not to overcome it, but to sanctify it, and here we turn, lastly, to Benjamin Britten and his War Requiem, the work that may be called the last of the great classical music compositions in scale and grandeur. With its premiere on May 30, 1962, at the Anglican Cathedral in Coventry, Britten’s symbolic-artistic focus as the site of ferocious German bombing in 1941, the work is composed in the Latin form of the Requiem Mass, one of the oldest service for honoring the dead. Its movements had gestated in Britten’s mind during World War II when, having moved to the US as a conscientious objector, the Sussex-born Britten returned to native shores to make his contribution as a performer for troops, plagued, as he was, with doubts about being away from his country as it suffered so greatly. (“It is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to, or for his fellow human beings“, he had written at the time). Britten’s star had joined the firmament with his 1945 opera, Peter Grimes, but the Requiem would soon eclipse that splendid work in fame and national symbolism. The Requiem is best known, of course, for Britten having set it to thirteen poems of Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet-soldier whose bitter and beautiful art, like the war-poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling, defined the emotions of that catastrophe. The particular poignancy of Owen, as many know, comes from the fact that the twenty-four-year-old young man was killed a week before the signing of Armistice on November 11, 1918.
The result is one of the most devastatingly moving musical works you will ever know (not just ‘hear‘), and if the “Lacrimosa“ beginning at minute 28.04 does not chill your spine to the last nerve-ending, then I must assume you are not human. (“Perhaps no setting of the ‘Lacrimosa’ has so poignantly kept the mood of the text since the musical setting of Mozart,” wrote a critic in the British classical music magazine Tempo, after the work had its premiere). Do keep in mind that the stylized melodies of Verdi and Brahms are not what one seeks here, nor the “glory“ of major chords or chordal resolution (though the work is illuminated throughout by these). The brilliance of the Requiem is that this biting statement of man’s non-reconciled relationship with his fellow man or his God is suffused with profound Christian piety, and Britten achieved this musically by taking the foundation of the formal Mass structure and building upon it a thematic idiom known as the “tritone,” an interval separated by three whole tones and a form of musical writing that was forbidden in early writings in music because of its dissonant sound. Only the “Sanctus“ provides comfort to the mood of pre-occupation with horror and war, and minutes 52.06 to 1:00.21 are the most exquisitely beautiful of the work. (“Britten turns to the bright key of D major beloved of Bach, Beethoven and their masterpieces of their songs of praise,” wrote the reviewer from Tempo of that section). From the opening bars of the ghostly and despondent “Requiem Aeternam” to the unsettling might of the “Libera Me” with its soaring soprano solo against the backdrop of relentless musical-military aggression, one is submerged in an encounter with a modern work of art that is so steeped in reverential compassion for the victims of nihilistic tragedy that its stature as a classic seems almost inarguable. The recording of John Eliot Gardiner is this author’s preferred, while many swear by the original issue of the work conducted by Britton himself. There is also a gorgeous version with the great Carlo Maria Giulini, who symbolizes the work in many ways, having been drafted into the Italian army as an anti-Mussolini, anti-Fascist pacifist who refused to fire a gun at human targets.
This work must be listened to with the text in hand. The deep, metallic sheen of wrath at the beginning of the “Dies Irae” is colored the hell-bronze of the gates of Tartarus. “Out there, we walked quite fed up, to Death/sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland…/We chorused when he sang aloft/we whistled while he shaved his scythe“, thunders the passage. The duet between tenor and baritone in the “Offertorum” beginning at 44.05—the famous paraphrase of the Abraham and Isaac parable—takes the distant plaintiveness of the children’s choir crying “Domine Jesu Christe“ and juxtaposes it with the two soloists’ repeated refrain: “But the old man would not so/But slew his son and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Moral confusion is interpreted through Britten’s use of dissonance, but choral grandeur takes over when the music reaches its climax between hour 1:07.10 to 1:12.38. The emotional summit of the work comes when tenor and baritone, enemy and enemy, sing-speak to each other as brother to brother, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend…Let us sleep now.” As the reviewer from Tempo wrote of this wrenching section: “Often the dead have spurned our mourning. We are fittingly reminded that there is much to mourn in ourselves.”
It breaks one’s heart to read in a letter Owen wrote to his mother just before he enlisted, “Do you know what would keep me together on the battlefield? The sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!” Words, Owen’s and Keats‘, when words speak words of meaning. Nothing can surpass this memorial to the young men killed in that war. It sums up the tragedy of its absurdity, and vice-versa. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Shostakovich himself is said to have called The War Requiem the greatest work of the twentieth century–the century that bore his name, and his tears.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.