War Requiem, part one

This hour, over 300 musicians from five countries give a performance of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" in the Cologne Philharmonie. The motto of this massive musical project: "May War Rest in Peace!"

"All a poet can do today is warn," wrote Wilfred Owen, an English poet who died in battle just days before the end of World War I in 1918. In 1962, after another catastrophic world war, English composer Benjamin Britten took those words of warning and built them into his War Requiem. That's what we'll hear in this Deutsche Welle Festival Concert. 

In 2018, Europeans look back on tragic historic milestones. Three hundred years ago, in 1618, the disastrous Thirty Year War began. A hundred years ago, in 1918, came the end of World War I. 

2018 is also the year of European Cultural Heritage throughout the European Union. Celebrating that was a performance in the Cologne Philharmonie in April followed by repeat performances at the new National Forum for Music in Wroclaw, Poland, and finally at the Philharmonie in Berlin. 

Benjamin Britten ca. 1948

Benjamin Britten in 1948

With youth orchestras from two countries and youth choirs from four countries, American conductor Daniel Spaw saw great symbolism in the lineup:

"Many of our grandfathers or great-grandfathers were instructed to kill each other about seventy years ago." Spaw explained to DW. "They had license to do so or were expected to do so or were praised for doing so. And now we can sit together seventy years later and make music together. That is what art is for." 

The point of departure for Britten's work was an act of destruction on November 14, 1940. For eleven hours, five hundred airplanes of the German Luftwaffe dropped multiple waves of bombs on Coventry, England, turning it into an ocean of flames.

Six hundred people died and most of the inner city was destroyed, including St. Michael's Cathedral from the 14th century.

In the mid-1950s, a new cathedral was built right next to the ruins, and in 1958 Benjamin Britten was asked to write music for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral. 

We'll hear the first three sections of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem this hour, one by one.  First, the Requiem aeternam is followed by Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed youth," with the line "What passing bells for these who die as cattle?" 

Wilfred Owen

Poet and war casualty: Wilfred Owen

The following section, "Dies irae" (Day of Wrath), includes four poems by Wilfred Owen. The titles: "But I was looking at the permanent stars," "The next war," "Sonnet: On seeing a piece of our heavy Artillery" and "Futility." 

Related Subjects

Within the Offertory of Britten's war Requiem, vocal soloists James Gilchrist and Erik Sohn intone a poem called "The parable of the old man and the young."

The words go, "An angel called him out of heaven, saying: 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. Behold, a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.' But the old man would not so, but slew his son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one."

Benjamin Britten 
War Requiem
1. Requiem aeternam 
2. Dies Irae     
3. Offertorium 

Banu Böke, soprano 
James Gilchrist, tenor 
Erik Sohn, baritone
Coventry Cathedral Girls' Choir
Polish National Youth Choir
Les Pastoureaux
Youth Choir of St. Luke's Church in Bonn
Choir of the Bach Association Cologne
National Youth Orchestra of Germany 
French National Youth Orchestra
Conductors: Thomas Neuhoff, Daniel Spaw 

Recorded by West German Radio, Cologne (WDR) in the Cologne Philharmonie on April 6, 2018