I’ve been wanting to be at a full performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem ever since I first heard about it on a troop ship going to summer training at the Naval Academy, already quite dubious about the career I’d been sent to pursue.  I was probably reading the news of its first performance a month earlier at Coventry Cathedral in May, 1962.  In the years since I’ve heard bits and pieces on classical radio but never could hold my attention still long enough for the entire performance.  Like many undertakings, one needs to be fully present to fully appreciate.  I got the chance at the San Francisco Symphony on Wednesday night — a proper evening of Thanksgiving.

What an amazing several hours! 

Frankly, I was somewhat expecting long passages of “difficult” Schoenbergian music, something I’d have to “understand” rather than enjoy.  Not at all!  From the opening quiet, foreboding strings, picked up by the massive chorus with the Latin “requiem aeternam” to the explosive first Dies irae this was music that entered the orifices of the soul not those of the analytic faculties.  I literally jumped when the chorus began Dies irae, dies illa [The day of Wrath, that day.] [A sample here.]

The layering of strings, brass, bass voices, soprano was as rich a sound-scape as I can remember hearing, and the range from pianissimo to astounding volume just amazing. Far from being “difficult” much of the music was the kind that enters the emotions, bringing a catch to the throat, if not tears.  Only some of the great bel canto arias can regularly do that to me (think Casta Diva in Bellini’s Norma for one.) I will say, I wish Britten had found some of his inspiration for the war poems in such wondrous predecessors. Like the Italians who booed at the lack of memorable tunes in their operas, I long to wake up hearing last night’s melody.

I sang for four years in a Catholic choir (long abandoned) so I was familiar with some of the Latin and the structure of the requiem mass which Britten uses but more, I knew the rehearsal and repetition needed to produce a sound like we were hearing.  Our 60 man choir never came close to the power [158 voices] and elegance of last night.  Along with the main choir, often seconded by the powerful , warm soprano of  Christine Brewer, was the Pacific Boys choir, hidden from view, which, as the notes suggest, were sometimes the voices of angels, sometimes of children, the innocents of war. 

War Requiem Choir at San Francisco Symphony

War Requiem Choir at San Francisco Symphony

 Britten’s motivation for the piece was the culmination  of the  reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by an air raid in 1940, not in praise of heroism and survival through war but, following his life-long pacifist beliefs, to speak about war’s ravages.  Interspersed in the Latin choral pieces are tenor and baritone solos of Wilfred Owen‘s WW I anti-war poetry.  Wisely, the lights were left bright enough that we could follow the texts while they were being sung.    As the tenor voice lifted in “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”, we knew we were not in an ordinary musical celebration, or even honoring, of the dead. It was Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.

[I would have wept had Britten included Owen’s most famous poem, which I have by heart, Dulce et Decorum est , but he did not.  I’d be curious if he considered it, and why rejected –perhaps just too famous in England to be integrated with the others, a cliche almost.]

As befitting a war piece, there were eight percussionists playing dozens of instruments: kettle drums, bells, gongs, vibraphone, cymbals, triangle, castanets, Chinese blocks, whip, bass drum, two side drums, tambourine, and tenor drum.

The notes in the Symphony program are extensive, covering both Britten’s biography and the music itself.

And since I don’t have a deep musical background to talk the musical talk,  here is Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle who can be, shall we say, acerbic in his views.  Not here. 

Don’t know if there are tickets for the only remaining performance, Saturday the 30th, but my goodness, if there are and you have the smallest inkling of interest in choral music, grand symphonic themes, statements against war, go see it.