Was delighted to accept invitation to join a colleague who writes about such things to attend one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”. I was not familiar with it other than by snatched extracts on Radio 3 and a general awareness that it is one of the 20th century’s most powerful and moving works. Of course it is an obvious choice for a concert, given the year, but it is far from an obvious work. Like much of Britten it takes a concept and reinvents it, making it fresh and new. Britten adopts a traditional theme beloved by composers-the Requiem Mass, but by juxtaposing it with war poems by Wilfred Owen he offers a rereading of the whole idea of a Requiem mass-the pacifist composer enlisting the words of the soldier poet to commemorate the dead, and to make us think.
The Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, built to replace the 14th century St Martin’s, destroyed in the infamous blitz of that city on the night of 14th November 1940. Coventry was badly damaged; so too were many other British and German cities as aerial bombing became more sustained and widespread. And so, during this excellent performance I was reminded of my recent visit to Nurnberg in Franconia. Nurnberg, designated one of the most “German of cities” was the jewel in the crown of the Third Reich. As such it was a target for the massive bombing raid in 1944 that razed about 90% of the old Medieval town to the ground. In the church of St Sebaldus, now rebuilt as the rest of the city in the traditional style, is a potent symbol of the power of reconciliation- a cross made from three nails from the ruined Coventry Cathedral, the so-called “Nagelkreuz von Coventry“. This nail cross stands for reconciliation and forgiveness, versöhnung. It is the focal point for meditation and prayer, and renewal. And amidst the rage and fury that Britten summons forth, there is at the end that final consoling plea for sleep, for peace, for versöhnung, with which ends Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Strange Meeting”
The Distinguished British conductor Sir Andrew Davis marshalled a trio of international soloists, (with tenor Toby Spence in particularly fine voice), the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, NYCoS, and the Philarmonia orchestra through extremes of emotion. From the innocence of the boys voices to the intense whispered opening; the thunderous , near overwhelming climax and finally the deeply moving and sparsely orchestrated “Strange Meeting” this detailed, disciplined performance brought out Britten’s inspired orchestration of the Latin Mass and Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. The choir maintained a controlled, staccato emotion to the Dies Irae, and sensitivity to the dying moments, but the tumultuous climax of the terrifying Libera Me unleashed the full firepower of large orchestra and chorus to call up all the energy and terror of war like no other. A memorable evening at a packed Usher Hall.
“..For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
“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 loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”