The most successful polemical art succeeds first as art. Benjamin Britten proved that with his War Requiem.
Robert Spano will make the case on Wednesday, April 30 at Carnegie Hall when he conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at 8 p.m. ET. NPR Music and WQXR will broadcast the concert, which also features soprano Evelina Dobračeva, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, baritone Stephen Powell and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Britten composed his War Requiem for the 1962 rededication of the cathedral in Coventry, England, destroyed in a 1940 air raid. The selection of Britten to write and conduct the work was both ironic and appropriate. As a pacifist, he had endured intense criticism during the war for registering as a conscientious objector. His Requiem's great innovation lies in the blending of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead and nine poems by Wilfred Owen about World War I.
Owen was an English soldier who died in 1918, one week before the armistice that ended the war. He had taken a medical leave because of the stress of the war. While convalescing, he had begun writing poems that didn't concern heroes or deeds but rather drew on the horrors he'd experienced as a soldier.
"Britten was aggressively pacifistic and taking the text of the Latin Mass for the Dead and refracting it through this poetry speaks eloquently to the ravages and horrors of war," Spano told WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon. Over 85 minutes, bold gestures of collective mourning are seamlessly mixed with intimate, song-like passages.
The Atlanta Symphony's Carnegie Hall show happens to fall on the birthday of Robert Shaw, who was the orchestra's hugely influential music director from 1967 to 1988. Under Shaw's direction, the orchestra and chorus became the gold standard for symphonic choral works by Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi and Britten, winning a clutch of Grammy Awards in the process. "Sometimes we refer to ourselves as Requiems 'R' Us," Spano jokes.
Directed by Norman Mackenzie, the ASO Chorus remains an all-volunteer organization, whose members are said to come from across Atlanta's spectrum of jobs and backgrounds. "Mr. Shaw was adamant that it was important to have an amateur aspect to the institution because of the word itself, which means 'the lover of something,'" Spano said. "So rather than meaning not good enough to be professional, [it means] so good as to be in love with one's work."
Britten: War Requiem
Evelina Dobračeva, soprano
Thomas Cooley, tenor
Stephen Powell, baritone
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Robert Spano, conductor