In the autumn of 1939, Benjamin Britten received an odd commission via the British Council in London: a foreign power, which wanted for the time being to remain unnamed, asked the composer to write a celebratory work in its honor. Britten may have been leery, but he accepted, provided that he not be “expected to write anything jingoistic,” as he made clear in a cable he sent to London. Only in his mid-20s at the time, Britten had recently left England for the United States, deeply disturbed by the outbreak of war, so we can imagine what went through his mind when he learned the identity of his patron—Japan—and that the occasion he had agreed to commemorate was the 2,600th anniversary of that country’s imperial dynasty. It’s true that Japan was not yet allied with Germany, yet its military intentions, at least in China, were clear. Britten persisted. He completed the commission relatively quickly, describing the work to his sister, in the spring of 1940, as “a short symphony—or symphonic poem,” submitting it to the Japanese government for approval later that year. True to its name, the Sinfonia da Requiem was both pessimistic and gloomy, the title of each of its three movements taken from the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead. Let’s just say, the Japanese were not amused. They rejected the Sinfonia, astonished that its composer would have the gall to submit so melancholy a work to mark a joyous national event, and to offer an overtly Christian one at that. Britten insisted that he had meant no ill will. Even so, I like to think of this composition as a delightful act of musical subversion.
The Sinfonia da Requiem may be an early instrumental work, yet it remains one of Britten’s most dramatic and emotionally searing pieces—a response not only to a world overheated to the point of war but also to the deaths of his parents not long before. His mother’s passing, in particular, “had an especially powerful emotional effect” on him, he wrote: it “set me, in self-defence, analysing my feelings in regard to suffering and death. To this personal tragedy were soon added the more general world tragedies of the Spanish and present wars.” Not since the final symphonic utterances of Gustav Mahler, it seems to me, did a composer set down so anguished a conflation of personal and universal despair. The mood is felt right from the start, with the hammer blows of the timpani that begin the Lacrymosa, the repeated notes gradually growing softer until the drumbeat morphs into a heartbeat: from death to life, then, in the span of just a few measures. Britten described this first movement as a “slow marching lament,” yet I also sense in its 6/8 time signature a distinct dance-like character: stately and lilting, but morbid to the bone. The music continues to be unsettling—brooding, full of tension and drama, asking a series of questions that seemingly cannot be answered, every moment fraught with the potential for unfathomable violence. Sure enough, this violence erupts, after a sweeping crescendo leads to the movement’s climax, in the following Dies irae.
As we might expect from a proper Dance of Death, Britten’s depiction of the day of wrath is fast, rhythmically incisive, obsessed with repetitive figures and patterns. There are wonderful coloristic touches throughout, including a trumpet line of strongly articulated triplets that sounds to me like some demented Irish jig. The saxophone, which in the Lacrymosa took on a sorrowful character, sounds a note of eros here: sexuality and death evoked in the same breath, a feeling at once dangerous and alluring that Britten would later explore in such operatic works as Death in Venice, Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes. The score becomes more menacing as it spans every register from low to high, culminating in an almost unbearable explosion of sound. After this, the musical line breaks off; it starts and stops and starts again, breaking down into its constituent parts, note by note, a remarkable disintegration that leads directly into the final movement, the Requiem aeterna—as serene as the previous movement was full of rage, the somber theme reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. An uneasy tranquility exists here in the aftermath of the Dies irae. Only the gentlest swells upset the calm. As this last movement unfolds, a lovely orchestral hymn is heard before the orchestra swells, via a grand crescendo, to a climax that Giacomo Puccini might have written—not the composer of La Bohème or Tosca, but the one whose infatuation with the East revealed itself in such works as Turandot and Madama Butterfly. The joyousness does not last, however, and the ending seems uncertain to me, as if these last measures were suffused with the memory of all the violence that has come before. We sense at best a false calm: this is music that searches in vain for peace, its young composer wise enough to know that any real, lasting peace in the world is forever unattainable. Thus do we have a Requiem aeternam in which eternal rest is felt by none.
Britten made no apologies to the Japanese for the Christian sensibility that informs this symphony, made no apologies for being a Christian and for calling upon his faith. In the Sinfonia da Requiem, he was drawing from his mother’s deep religious character, too, even if she had ceased to be the emotional fulcrum of his life; that role was now taken up by his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten would invoke his Christianity again, when he and Pears ended their American sojourn and returned to England in 1942. Back home, Britten declared to an appellate tribunal that he was both a pacifist and a conscientious objector to military service. Like the pianist Myra Hess and others, Britten would do his part during the war as an artist, performing in hospitals and bomb shelters, trying to raise the morale of a shaken but determined nation. And yet, long after a temporary peace would settle upon Europe and the world, the memory of death and war lingered with him. In the early 1960s, Britten was commissioned to write a piece commemorating the construction of the new Coventry Cathedral (the 14th-century original having been destroyed during the Blitz). He returned to the form of the requiem, this time incorporating choral and solo vocal writing into a rich orchestral score. Interspersed among the Latin texts in this massive War Requiem are verses written by that celebrated poet of an earlier war, Wilfred Owen. So it is that a work with the word war in its title is one of the most persuasive anthems for peace in the repertoire. Britten even inscribed the title page of the score with a few lines from Owen—still chilling today, as we continue on, headlong, in our age of perpetual conflict:
My subject is War, or the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.