Consumed By Violence, With Hope For Peace: Britten's 'War Requiem' : Deceptive Cadence For conductor Marin Alsop, discovering Benjamin Britten through his monumental War Requiem has been both easy and complex — a perfect summation of the man himself.
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Consumed By Violence, With Hope For Peace: Britten's 'War Requiem'

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Consumed By Violence, With Hope For Peace: Britten's 'War Requiem'

Consumed By Violence, With Hope For Peace: Britten's 'War Requiem'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The world celebrated Benjamin Britten's centenary this week. The revered British composer was born November 22, 1913. He's remembered for helping revive British opera with "Peter Grimes," as an inspiration to children with "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" and finally, his crowning choral work from 1962, "War Requiem."

(SOUNDBITE OF "WAR REQUIEM")

SIMON: This is a 1963 recording with the composer himself conducting the Bach Choir, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. His piece was also performed earlier this month by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which or course is led by our friend Marin Alsop. The maestra joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Maestra, thanks so much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: You've written a wonderful essay on the "War Requiem." It's posted on our website. And you say even at this point in your career, you've discovered a new hero in Benjamin Britten.

ALSOP: Well, in delving into the "War Requiem" and reading - there's some fantastic new biographies that have come out to celebrate the centenary - and I started understanding what an incredibly principled human being Britten was. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, in the day when that was definitely not in vogue whatsoever. He left England. He had to, of course, come back and face the government on these charges. He was openly gay in a day when that certainly was not accepted. And the crowning characteristic for me is the fact that he wrote the music he felt, at a time when there was pressure to be avant-garde or to do things that were crazy and outside of the box. He stuck to his own principles about art.

SIMON: Take us through this remarkable piece, if you could, the "War Requiem." The first section sounds to be filled with apprehension and worry. So let's listen a bit to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WAR REQUIEM")

ALSOP: It does feel angst-ridden, and that's because Britten takes an interval. Now, this isn't important to know but everybody feels it. He takes an interval that we call the tritone. In olden days it was called the devil's interval because it's a very - I mean, in the scheme of things, it's the ugliest interval you can have and it requires some kind of resolution. But he dwells on it. When you hear those chimes, they're playing those two notes, the two notes outlining a tritone.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WAR REQUIEM")

ALSOP: And everything - and there's no resolution. No resolution. So, for we human beings, since we're all hotwired to react to this, we feel uncomfortable. And, you know, those bells tolling, the gongs going. So, all of this adds to a sense of an ominous feeling and a sense of dread.

SIMON: Yeah. The tenor soloist then begins to sing. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WAR REQUIEM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle can patter out their hasty orisons.

ALSOP: Britten has brilliantly set up the structure. He has the sections of the requiem mass, and interspersed between them is essentially a song cycle for two male soloists. And they're singing texts from a poet named Wilfred Owen. And these texts are clearly anti-war. And Wilfred Owen was a decorated soldier in the First World War, whose parents got a letter on Armistice Day saying that he had been killed, 25 years old, and, you know, writing these lines like, you know, their flowers the tenderness of silent minds and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WAR REQUIEM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And each slow dusk a drawing-down of those blinds...

ALSOP: You know, a requiem, it's almost like a cathedral unto itself. And yet in between these pillars, we have this intimate song cycle that speaks to Britten's devout objection to war.

SIMON: Then the second section has a military brass fanfare. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WAR REQUIEM")

ALSOP: That's amazing, isn't it? I mean, it's so powerful and evocative. For me, and I think most people who have heard the Verdi "Requiem," it immediately brings that "Dies Irae" from the Verdi "Requiem" to mind, you know, these shouting brass sort of from the rooftops. But in this case, Britten takes that association and he also adds this element of military fanfares. And then when the chorus sings, he wants there to be some sense of discomfort. So, they're singing in a meter of seven, which is not a comfortable meter for us.

SIMON: Is that a signature in this work by Benjamin Britten, that he's not looking to always comfort the audience, but to lift us out of our seat sometimes?

ALSOP: Yes. I think, you know, he's writing music at a time - the 1960s - when, you know, you have people like Boulez and Cage writing these very avant-garde, you know, unexpected kinds of works. And he's taking a very traditional form and really just kind of bending all of the edges of it. So, he's not only trying to pay homage to everyone who's passed away and honor this new cathedral that - it was commissioned to inaugurate the new cathedral, written right next to the one that had been destroyed in the Second World War. So, he's got all of this agenda but then, of course, he's got his own personal agenda, which is trying to reach out to us and challenge us in terms of our feelings and our vision about humanity and warfare.

SIMON: And, Maestra, you led the Baltimore Symphony in performances of "War Requiem" earlier this month. I don't know if you ever turned behind to take a look, but what's audience reaction like to this work that's now half a century old?

ALSOP: You know, I didn't have to turn around. I could feel the audience just on the edge of their seats. There was no coughing. There was no movement. There was just, you know, they were completely engaged and engrossed in this compelling music and narrative. And at the end, there was just silence until, you know, everybody exhaled and the applause erupted. It's an amazing piece of music.

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALSOP: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And you can read the maestra's essay about Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" at our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF "WAR REQUIEM")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Amen, amen.

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