Benjamin Britten
War Requiem

Born: 22 November 1913, in Lowestoft (Suffolk)
Died: 4 December 1976, in Aldeburgh

{Biography} {War Requiem} {Works}


Edward Benjamin Britten was the youngest of four children of a dentist father and amateur musician mother.  The Britten family was fond of the letter B: Benjamin’s siblings were Barbara, Bobby, and Beth.  Britten was evidently an adorable child and at first thought his own name was “dear,” since that was what everyone called him. 

Prophetically born on the feast day of St. Cecilia (the patron saint of music), Britten was predicted by his mother to become the fourth “B” in music (after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms; despite youthful veneration, Britten came to think poorly of the latter two composers).  The family’s house faced the sea, and the sea was to play an important role in Britten’s creative life. 

Britten played piano and viola as a child, and started composing at an early age; by the time he was 14 his works list had 100 opus numbers (he started over with a new Op. 1 later on, though not all of his mature works were distinguished by opus numbers).  In 1927 he began studying composition with Frank Bridge (1879–1941), a composer today known almost exclusively for the fact that he taught Britten.  For his part, Britten was grateful throughout his life for both the strict training Bridge provided and for the introduction the older composer provided to contemporary music. 

From the autumn of 1930 through the autumn of 1933 Britten was a scholarship student at the Royal College of Music (RCM); two of his examiners for entrance to the school were John Ireland and Vaughan Williams.  The latter was easily the leading English composer of the day, but Britten was not a fan, nor did he think much of Ireland, his composition teacher, though he later stated that Ireland had “nursed” him “very gently through a very, very difficult musical adolescence.” 

Britten won various of the RCM’s composition prizes, and professionals began playing his works, which also started to be published.  After winning a post-graduation travel grant, Britten wanted to go to Vienna and study with Berg, but neither his parents nor the RCM supported that plan, and it came to nothing.  After some European travel he found employment in 1935 as a composer with the General Post Office Film Unit, where he learned to write very quickly to specific requirements—excellent training for a professional composer.  Here he met the older and far more sophisticated poet W.H. Auden, with whom he collaborated on several works (e.g. parts of the orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers and his first operatic work, Paul Bunyan, generally viewed as a “dramatic failure”).  Auden and his clever intellectual circle welcomed the composer; they were crucial for both Britten’s creative development and the recognition of his sexuality.  The most important encounter for Britten, however, took place in 1937, when he first met tenor Peter Pears, a member of a choral group (the BBC Singers) who happened to be performing one of Britten’s early works.  Two years later Pears and Britten became romantically involved, a relationship that continued for the rest of their lives.  Pears also served as inspiration for almost all the tenor parts Britten wrote thereafter, and Britten served as accompanist for Pears’s numerous recitals.  Just so you know, same-sex love was a crime (actively prosecuted) in Britain until 1967. 

Britten and Pears spent the years 1939 to 1942 in North America (both Canada and the United States), with Britten composing a wide variety of works.  In the summer of 1941, while in California, Britten first read The Borough, a narrative poem by eighteenth-century Suffolk poet George Crabbe that tells the story of tormented fisherman Peter Grimes.  As he later said, “in a flash I realized two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged.” 

These are gifts not given to everyone: the knowledge of what one needs to do, and the recognition of where one belongs.  Crabbe’s poem was the catalyst for Britten’s becoming a major opera composer, and Crabbe’s evocation of Suffolk led Britten back to the area where he had grown up and where he would spend the rest of his life.  But first he had to get back to England.  After many months’ wait, Britten and Pears embarked for England on 16 March 1942.  The return voyage generated one of Britten’s best-known works, A Ceremony of Carols, as well as another major choral composition, Hymn to Saint Cecilia.

Back in England, Britten and Pears both qualified as conscientious objectors but nonetheless gave numerous recitals around the country in hospitals, bomb shelters, and the like.  In 1944 Britten visited the Eichstätt POW camp, and in 1945 he accompanied violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a recital tour of Germany that included playing for concentration camp survivors.  Pears later said that “the experience...colored everything [Britten] had written subsequently.” 

Since January 1942 Britten had been involved with his opera Peter Grimes, the result of a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation (although actual composition did not begin until 1944).  The premiere at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945 (Peter Grimes reopened the opera house after the war) was a huge success—deservedly so, for many consider the opera to be Britten’s finest work (others give the War Requiem that accolade).  Peter Grimes catapulted Britten to international fame, jump-started English opera (earlier works by Vaughan Williams and others never achieved lasting success), and was the first of a long series of fascinating theatrical works that dominated Britten’s creative work for the remainder of his life. 

To fan the flame of opera by English composers, Britten (with others) started the English Opera Group in 1946; two years later the Aldeburgh Festival was founded as a home for (among other things) the performance of English opera.  Aldeburgh, a small seaside town, was where Britten and Pears lived, having moved there in 1947; it is barely 25 miles from Britten’s birthplace.  Aldeburgh was also the birthplace of George Crabbe, and “the borough” of his poem is, in fact, Aldeburgh.  The town was thus steeped in meaning for Britten. 

The first Aldeburgh Festival included Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring, choral music, chamber music, and recitals, but also art exhibits and lectures by figures such as E.M. Forster (on literature), Tyrone Guthrie (on theater), and Sir Kenneth Clark (on art).  Britten’s music played a major role in the festival, but it wasn’t for lack of performances elsewhere—his operas and other compositions were now widely performed.  The festival did give Britten a chance to hone his conducting skills, however, and the facilities were later used to make recordings, eliminating the need to rely on London studios. 

The festival flourished as the decades rolled by, with Imogen Holst, a composer and conductor who was the daughter of Gustav Holst, joining the festival in 1952 as a major figure in the organization.  The festival is still thriving today; this year (2020) the offerings include the War Requiem on June 21.  In 1967 the new “Snape Maltings” concert hall was opened by the Queen; it burned down just after the 1969 festival opened but was rebuilt by the following year.  In case you, like me, find the term “Snape Maltings” bewildering, “Snape” is the name of a village even smaller than Aldeburgh, close by, where Britten owned a home before moving to Aldeburgh. A “maltings” (also known as a malt house or malt barn) is a place that converts grain to malt, a substance used in certain foods as well as beer and whisky.  In Snape, the disused building underwent its own conversion into a concert hall.  Just where J.K. Rowling fits into all of this is unknown. 

Britten himself flourished in the succeeding decades, with major works and major concert tours and other travel: an American recital tour in 1949; five months in Asia in 1955/1956 (with a resultant big influence on some later compositions); a return to India in 1965; a concert tour of Australasia in 1970; and multiple visits to the Soviet Union, where he palled around with cello virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich as well as Shostakovich.  Along the way he piled up various honors: the Queen named him a Companion of Honor in 1953, he received the first-ever Aspen Award (for “outstanding contribution to the advancement of the humanities”) in 1964; he was given an Order of Merit by the Queen in 1965 (recipients are limited to 24 at a time; Vaughan Williams had held an O.M. earlier.  Britten filled the vacancy caused by T.S. Eliot’s death).  Britten was the dedicatee of Tippett’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1963 and Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony in 1969 (an orchestral song cycle whose texts mostly deal with early or unjust death).  Like Vaughan Williams, he declined a knighthood (Pears accepted one in 1978). 

Britten had always had a dodgy heart, and a bout of endocarditis in 1968 made him extremely ill.  Although he recovered, by 1972 cardiac problems had resurfaced.  The necessary heart surgery was postponed until Britten could finish his last opera, Death in Venice, but the operation, in May 1973, was not the success hoped for.  To make things worse, Britten suffered a small stroke as a result of the procedure.  The upshot was that, although he was still able to do some composing, he remained an invalid for the final three and a half years of his life.  In June of his last year the Queen made him a Life Peer (Lord Britten!), the first composer to be so honored.  On December 4 he died in the arms of Peter Pears. 

If you want to hear a beautiful tribute written after Britten’s death, listen to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus

War Requiem, Op. 66

On the night of 14 November 1940, 515 German aircraft descended on the city of Coventry, in the English Midlands, in a raid code-named Moonlight Sonata.  544 people were killed and 420 injured, and the beautiful Coventry Cathedral, which dated back to the fourteenth century, was almost entirely destroyed, with little more than the shell left standing.  Only a single aircraft of the German Luftwaffe was shot down.  For a wrenching photo of the cathedral taken shortly after the attack, see p. 332 of volume II of Alwes’s History of Western Choral Music

The story that you have probably heard in connection with this was that Churchill, Prime Minister at the time, knew about the attack in advance.  In May 1940, the British had cracked the German Enigma Code and used their secret knowledge (decrypts that were code-named Ultra) effectively for the remainder of the war.  But of course reliance on Ultra required that the Nazis continued to think that their code was unbreakable.  Any suspicion of British awareness would mean a change of code, and the British would lose their advantage.  Here was a real-life trolley problem if there ever was one, and supposedly Churchill chose to sacrifice Coventry to protect the secrecy of Ultra. 

In fact, this story is a myth.  Churchill did know that a major attack was pending, but the specific target was unnamed in the decrypts, and the information he received suggested that London was the actual target (as it had been for most of the Blitz).  The people of Coventry dug themselves out, the words “Father, forgive” were written on the wall behind the Cathedral altar in the ruins, and everything was placed on hold for many years.

On 23 March 1956, Queen Elizabeth II laid the foundation stone for the new cathedral (St. Michael’s), a modern structure to be built next to the ruins of the old (interestingly, this placed it on a north/south axis rather than the traditional east/west access—traditional because that direction faced Jerusalem).  Britten was first contacted about a full-evening’s choral/orchestral work in October 1958 (and was irked because the clergy evidently hoped to weasel out of a fee); he did not start actual composition until sometime later.  The new cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962, and the War Requiem premiered on 30 May (American Memorial Day, as it happens, but that was not on British minds at the time).  In one of those “small world” moments, the engineering firm for the new cathedral was the one used to convert Snape Maltings into a concert hall five years later. 

Although we think of the War Requiem as THE piece created to mark the consecration of the new cathedral, doesn’t it seem a bit odd that the work’s premiere took place five days after the actual consecration?  Well, it turns out that the War Requiem was part of a whole arts festival to celebrate the new cathedral, and it was neither the only musical premiere nor the only commission.  The music for the day of the consecration itself was by Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Music.  Like the War Requiem, Bliss’s cantata, The Beatitudes, was written specifically for performance in the new cathedral.  Unfortunately the extra rehearsals required by the War Requiem pushed Bliss’s piece over to Coventry’s Belgrade Theater for its premiere, where the crowded conditions did not help its reception.  Also premiering during the festival (and also performed in the Belgrade Theater, the night before the War Requiem premiere) was Michael Tippett’s second opera, King Priam.   In case you have forgotten your classics education, King Priam was the King of Troy during the Trojan War, and we all know how that turned out (you DO remember that part, don’t you?  The Greeks hide inside the Trojan horse, which is rolled inside the city of Troy, etc. etc.)  Anyway, the opera is about war and its horrible effects, so it’s not dissimilar to the War Requiem.  But you have to feel a little bit sorry for Bliss and Tippett and all the other musicians connected to the Coventry festivities (Lennox Berkeley, a friend of Britten’s, was another one), because the War Requiem basically blew everything else out of the water. 

The performance, which took place in the Cathedral, used the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Meredith Davies (Birmingham is the nearest big city to Coventry, and don’t get too excited here; this Meredith was a man) along with the Melos Ensemble as the Chamber Orchestra; this was conducted by Britten.  The chorus was the Coventry Festival Chorus, an ad-hoc amateur group made up of singers from various local ensembles (the piece was finished about five months before the premiere, but Britten had been sending the singers each section of music as it was finished so they had maximum time to learn the score; they began rehearsing in September 1961).  The boy choir was an amalgamation of the boy choirs of Holy Trinity (Leamington) and Holy Trinity (Stratford). 

The vocal soloists were a big deal, to put it mildly.  The plan was for three soloists: a tenor (Pears), a baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), and a soprano.  Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was one of the soprano possibilities, but then Britten heard Galina Vishnevskaya (who was married to Rostropovich) and wanted her for the part.  Vishnevskaya said yes, which meant representation of three major players in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union—excellent symbolism of a “universal desire for peace,” in Britten’s words (Vishnevskaya called these “the three nations that had suffered most during the war).”  Unfortunately the Soviets refused to grant Vishnevskaya permission to perform, which meant that last-minute replacement Heather Harper had ten days to learn the role—but not ten free days, but rather ten days that included three performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as another concert.   You go, girl! 

The cathedral, it turns out, had “lunatic” acoustics (said Britten), last-minute construction was still going on, with the resultant noise during rehearsals, a tiered platform for musicians in front of the altar was vetoed by church officials, and---ready for this?—the crowded conditions meant that someone proposed a reduction in the number of choristers.  At that point, the ENTIRE CHORUS threatened to walk out (yes! yes! yes!).  Imagine putting in all that work on a brand-new piece that one cannot exactly sight-read, and then being told you are superfluous?  And this, of course was before anyone could pop on a record (much less a CD) or sing along on YouTube for assistance with learning the music.  No, this was piecemeal slog via rehearsals and individual woodshedding. 

Recognizing that the chorus was (ahem) vital to the success of the endeavor, plans to diminish its numbers were dropped, and rehearsals went ahead.  On the evening of the performance, one further glitch arose: a single door into the cathedral was open, which meant that the capacity crowd entered v e r y  s l o w l y until finally additional doors were opened, and everything started late.  The performance was being broadcast live by the BBC, and there’s nothing quite like dead airtime to set the mood—the announcer ran out of things to say waiting for everything to start, but was happily complimented by listeners afterwards for “that wonderful pause” before the music commenced.  

Despite all the road bumps leading up to the performance, it was a huge success, with silence greeting the conclusion (as a performer, of course, it is immensely satisfying to be met with silence after a piece ends quietly, as this one does).  Tears, applause, performers who themselves were moved—just what the work deserved!  Agreement that the work was stupendous was almost universal, and Stravinsky (who acknowledged the composition as “one of Britten’s finest hours-and-a half”) noted that to criticize the War Requiem “one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for God Save the Queen.”  (Stravinsky was more than a little jealous—he was in his atonal phase by this time and nothing he composed was receiving this kind of reaction). 

The War Requiem, is, of course, a Latin Requiem mass (for basic information on the Requiem mass in general, see the entry on the Mozart Requiem), but the work goes beyond the norm for Requiem masses through its inclusion of anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, thus generating the unique title “War Requiem.”  Britten was a pacifist and a conscientious objector; by the time he returned to England in the spring of 1942, he was being watched by the FBI for his pacifism and liberal political views.  From the 1950s to the end of his life both he and Pears were “prohibited immigrants” in the eyes of the U.S. government; they had to jump through extra hoops for any visit to America, even long after the insanity of the McCarthy era had ended. 

Donald Mitchell believes that “no other composer so consistently preoccupied with violence and its aftermath,” and Britten has an extensive list of works that lead up to the War Requiem thematically, including his Pacifist March of 1937, the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, and his Ballad of Heroes.  Especially interesting is his Sinfonia da Requiem from his time in America.  This was a result of a bizarre commission in 1939 from the Japanese government to mark the 2600th anniversary of the establishment of the Mikado dynasty—not exactly what one would expect as a commission for a British composer given the world’s political situation. Ultimately the work was rejected by Japan as both inappropriate and insulting.  Britten intended it as an anti-war work and also a memorial to his parents; although it is symphonic, the three movements all have titles we would expect from a Requiem mass: Lacrymosa, Dies irae, and Requiem aeternam. 

Britten contemplated writing a requiem or similar piece twice before he wrote the War Requiem.  With the advent of the atomic bomb in 1945 he considered a “Mea Culpa” oratorio, and a “Gandhi Requiem” was a possibility after that leader was assassinated in 1948.  But nothing came of those; the world had to wait for the War Requiem to get, in Michael Tippett’s words, “the one musical masterwork we possess with overt pacifist meanings.” 

When Britten wrote to Fischer-Dieskau to ask him if he would sing the baritone part, he said, “I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works.  It is a full-scale Requiem Mass;” of the interspersed Owen poems, he wrote, “These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass.” 

Wilfred Owen, born in 1893, was eager to fight (he received the Military Cross for his valor), but the actual experience of battle changed his mind about war; his poems are considered by many to be the best to come out of the World War I.  He was killed precisely one week before the war ended, and in a horrible twist of fate, his parents learned of his death on the day of the Armistice. 

Dennis Shrock notes four English predecessors to the War Requiem in terms of substantial works that use war poetry: Elgar’s cantata The Spirit of England (his last choral/orchestral work, finished 1917); Bliss’s anti-war choral symphony Morning Heroes from 1930 (which uses some of Owen’s poetry); Vaughan Williams’s anti-war Dona nobis pacem of 1936; and Michael Tippett’s anti-war oratorio A Child of Our Time (finished 1941; it uses some of Owen’s work as well). 

Britten used far bigger forces for the War Requiem than he usually did for his compositions: soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists; SATB choir that splits into SSAATTBB; a boy choir; a full orchestra; and a chamber orchestra (Britten’s earlier Spring Symphony reads as a warm-up for the War Requiem, with its three soloists, SATB choir plus boy choir, full orchestra, and English poetry for the texts).  The full orchestra for the War Requiem consists of 3 flutes (the third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English Horn, 3 clarinets (the third doubling Eb clarinet & bass clarinet) 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, strings, piano, organ (or harmonium), strings, and a healthy percussion section requiring five players on timpani, 2 snare drums, tenor drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, castanets, whip, Chinese blocks, gong, bells on C & F#, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and antique cymbals on C & F#.  The chamber orchestra consists of flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English Horn), clarinet (in Bb and A), bassoon, horn, percussion (timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbal, gong) harp, 2 violins, viola, cello, and double bass. 

The musicians were split into three groups: soprano soloist, chorus, and full orchestra; tenor and baritone soloists and chamber orchestra; and boy choir and organ.  Ideally the groups would be spatially separated, though not all performance spaces permit this.  The male soloists/chamber orchestra group is assigned all the Owen poetry, with the mass texts split between the two choirs, the full orchestra, and the organ.  Britten thus uses orchestration to highlight the contrast between the Latin texts and the English ones. 

The score singers normally use when learning the music is the “choral score,” one of those crappy editions that has choral parts only, no solo parts, no piano accompaniment, the barest of cues, small note heads, a really ugly sans serif text font, and so on.  Ghastly.  But it’s affordable, which is why people put up with it.  The actual piano/vocal score is an investment that few besides choral conductors or obsessed musicologists will want to spring for.  When I bought my copy, years ago, it was $60 (ouch) and it probably costs more now (but I lucked out: since this 2020 performance is my fourth venture into War Requiem territory, the cost of the p/v score has now dropped to a reasonable $15 per performance—excellent ROI). 

The piano/vocal score has an elegant glossy cover (white letters on black, the same as the orchestral score, the miniature score, and the first recording), nice large note heads, all vocal parts (soloists as well as chorus), and a full piano reduction.  It is a million times easier to sing from.  Prepared by Imogen Holst, it also has lots of useful auxiliary stuff, including all the texts (both mass and poetry) and a German translation of the tenor and baritone solos prepared by Fischer-Dieskau himself.  The title page includes a quote from portions of the preface Owen wrote to an unpublished anthology of his poems:

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity...
All a poet can do today is warn.” 

The dedication page indicates that the work is “In loving memory” of four men.  Three had been killed in World War II: Roger Burney (a friend of Pears’s); David Gill (whom Britten had known growing up), and Michael Halliday (a classmate of Britten’s as a child).  The fourth dedicatee, who also served in the war but survived, was Piers Dunkerley, whom Britten had been close to at one point in his life.  Dunkerley had asked Britten to be best man at his wedding in August 1959; tragically, he committed suicide in June of that year. 

The War Requiem is in six movements, each titled with a component of the Latin mass for the dead.  Britten sprinkles nine of Owen’s poems throughout the Latin mass, normally one per movement but with four in the Dies irae (as usual, the longest movement).  Dennis Shrock points out that the nine poems divide into groups of three; the third poem in each group uses both tenor and baritone, while the other two poems in each group use tenor for one and baritone for the other.  The War Requiem was not Britten’s first use of Owen, by the way; his poetry had appeared in Britten’s song cycle Nocturne, finished a few years before the War Requiem.  Britten makes a few cuts in the poems, but he also makes a few cuts in the mass text. 

The layout of the work textually is as follows, with the correspondence to the liturgical components of a standard Requiem mass included.

I.  Requiem aeternam (= two liturgical movements, the Introit and Kyrie)

  • Requiem aeternam (the Introit antiphon; chorus)
  • Te decet hymnus (the Introit psalm verse; boy choir)
  • Requiem aeternam (repeat of the antiphon; chorus)
  • Owen poem: Anthem for Doomed Youth (tenor solo: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”)
  • Kyrie eleison (chorus)

II.  Dies irae (= Sequence)

  • Dies irae (chorus)
  • Owen poem: But I Was Looking at the Permanent Stars (baritone solo: “Bugles sang...”)
  • Liber scriptus proferetur (soprano solo and semi-chorus)
  • Owen poem: The Next War (tenor and baritone: “Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death”)
  • Recordare (women’s chorus)
  • Confutatis maledictis (men’s chorus) 
  • Owen poem: Sonnet: On Seeing A Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought Into Action
    (baritone solo: “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm”)
  • Dies irae (chorus) 
  • Lacrimosa (soprano solo and chorus)
    interspersed with
  • Owen poem: Futility (tenor solo: “Move him into the sun—gently its touch awoke him once”)
  • Pie Jesu domine (chorus) 

III.  Offertorium

  • Domine Jesu Christum (the beginning of the refrain; boy choir)
  • Sed signifer sanctus Michael (continuation of the refrain; chorus)
  • Quam olim Abrahae  (the end of the refrain = repetendum; chorus)
  • Owen poem: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young (tenor and baritone: “So Abram rose, and clave the wood”)
    interspersed with
  • Hostias et preces (the verse; boy choir)
  • Quam olim Abrahae (repetendum; chorus)

IV.  Sanctus

  • Sanctus (soprano solo)
  • Pleni sunt caeli  (chorus)
  • Hosanna (chorus)
  • Benedictus (soprano solo and chorus)
  • Hosanna (chorus)
  • Owen poem: The End (baritone solo: “After the blast of lightning from the East”)

V.  Agnus Dei

  • Owen poem: At a Calvary near Ancre (tenor solo: “One ever hangs where shelled roads part”) 
    interspersed with tripartite Agnus dei
  • Agnus Dei...dona eis requiem (chorus)
  • Agnus Dei...dona eis requiem (chorus)
  • Agnus Dei...dona eis requiem sempiternam (chorus)

VI.  Libera me (= the responsory “Libera me” and the antiphon “In paradisum,” both sung after the actual Requiem mass in the liturgy)

  • Libera me (chorus)
  • Tremens factus sum ego (soprano solo)
    interspersed with
  • Dum discussio venerit (chorus)
  • Libera me (soprano solo and chorus) 
  • Dies illa (soprano solo and chorus)
  • Libera me (soprano solo and chorus)
  • Owen poem: Strange Meeting (tenor and baritone: It seemed that out of battle I escaped) 
    interspersed at end with
  • In paradisum  (boy choir and chorus)
  • Requiescant in pace, Amen  (chorus)

Britten’s musical language remains strongly informed by tonality, in contrast to that of many of his peers, predecessors, and followers, but his very free use of dissonance, rapid tonal shifts, and changing rhythms make his music thoroughly modern and at times quite challenging to perform.  The choral writing throughout the War Requiem is filled with ascending and descending scalar patterns, for example, but Britten constantly switches from one kind of scale to another (e.g. major, minor, whole tone, octatonic [alternating whole and half steps]).  A great example of this is the writing for “mors stupebit” at Rehearsal 23, where no two of the descending fragments are alike until we get to the clarity of G minor in the four measures before Rehearsal 24.  Or check out the Agnus Dei, where the rising C major scale four measures after Rehearsal 98 is followed by a descending whole tone scale.  Plus, Britten sometimes uses confusing spellings for some of his intervals; for example, (in that descending scale just noted), C to A# is, technically, a diminished third, but it sounds the same as a whole step.  Sometimes you just have to get the melodies in your head rather than tie yourself in knots deciphering the notation. 

Dennis Shrock has pointed out how various movement of the work emphasizes specific intervals: the seventh for the Dies irae, and the second for the Offertory, but most especially the augmented fourth for the first, third, and fifth movements, with the final movement bringing back all of these.  The augmented fourth was considered a dissonance as far back as the Middle Ages, where it was known as the “diabolus in musica”—the devil in music, which can serve as a symbol of evil.  Britten made prominent use of the tritone in other compositions as well, including his Sinfonia da requiem, Ballad of Heroes, and the Nocturne as well as the Missa brevis that he finished not that long before the War Requiem. 

Writers have seen various influences on Britten in the War Requiem, including Ives (in the Pleni), Fauré (in the setting of the “In paradisum” text), and the music of Bali (in the gong strokes of the first movement and the treatment of percussion in the Sanctus).  But the biggest influence seems to be the Verdi Requiem, as many writers have noted (both Verdi and Britten, of course, were major opera composers, keenly aware of the drama inherent in the text of the Requiem mass).  Parallels include most of the overall layout (though Verdi inserts a Lux aeterna before the last movement, and avoids the In paradisum), the choice of same keys in several places (e.g. G minor in the Dies irae, Bb minor for the Lacrimosa, where both use soprano and chorus), the hushed opening and closing of each work, the reiterated opening pitches, the Dies irae repetition after the Confutatis, offbeat drums in the Dies irae, brass fanfares in the Tuba mirum, pitch/rest alternation in the Lacrimosa, and so on. 

A few comments on individual movements:
Although the tritone plays an important role throughout the War Requiem, it is most prominent in the opening movement, where, until the very end, the chorus sings nothing but the two pitches C and F# (the pitches of the bells that sound throughout the movement as well, bells that are referred to in the Owen poem for this movement).  The music for the boy choir, though more melodic, also emphasizes C and F#, while the violins accompanying them alternate these two pitches.  Tritones appear in the Owen section as well, and the final Kyrie features tritones in parallel motion.  Only at the very end do we get a consonant resolution to the ceaseless harmonic tension throughout the movement, with a gentle cadence on an F major triad.  The Kyrie music, in slightly different forms, will appear two other times in the War Requiem, each at a structurally significant place. 

The chorus is instructed to stand for the Dies irae.  In the p/v score the indication is for the very beginning of the movement; in the (surely less accurate) choral score the instruction is at Rehearsal 17.  Not all performances follow this instruction, instead putting the chorus on its feet from the very beginning of the work. 

The Dies irae is the longest text of the Requiem mass, and even though Britten omits some of it, this multi-sectional movement is still the longest in the War Requiem, with the four Owen poems contributing to the expansive layout.  Like the first movement, the Dies irae spreads dissonance lavishly over a tonal foundation, with resolution occurring only at the close of the movement.  Here, for the final “Pie Jesu” text, Britten brings back the Kyrie chorale setting of the first movement, very slightly altered, with the glimpse of F major at the very end the long-delayed resolution to the harmonic tension that governs the Dies irae.  Among the many contrasts Britten generates in this movement, an especially compelling one is the shift from the lyrical female chorus Recordare section (“remember, loving Jesus”) and the jagged male chorus Confutatis part (“with the damned confounded.”) 

The Offertory is an unbelievably powerful movement—not so much for its music but for its text.  Or maybe a better way to put that is the way that the music underscores the meaning of the text is unexpectedly powerful. 

As a liturgical movement, the Offertory represents the presentation of gifts to God (or the church as a stand-in for God).  The Latin text refers, somewhat obliquely, to “Abraham and his offspring” (quam olim Abrahae), a text that returns at the conclusion of the movement, following the standard formal layout for the Offertory (refrain with concluding repetendum [= quam olim abrahae]; verse; repetendum).  “Abraham and his offspring” are Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament.  In the biblical story, to test Abraham’s loyalty, God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac (back in the days when human sacrifice was not unknown).  Abraham prepared to do so, but was stopped by the appearance of an angel (sent by God), who said that a nearby ram was okay to use instead of his son.  So Isaac was saved, and the ram was sacrificed instead.  The story fits well with the “offering” function of the Offertory, as this was the greatest offering Abraham could make.  And of course there are quasi-parallels with the New Testament, where God the Father requires the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his son. 

I hated the story of Abraham and Isaac long before I became a parent.  There is something wrong with you if you think you need to test someone’s love or loyalty.  Those tests occur often enough by themselves—why create them?  And this is the main reason I’ve always disliked the plot of Cosi fan tutte—what kind of cruelty prompts such actions? 

Britten had already dealt with the story of Abraham and Isaac in his Canticle II (1952, written for Kathleen Ferrier, Pears, and Britten himself), and he turned to that music when composing his Offertory.  It’s traditional to set the Quam olim abrahae section as a fugue, and Britten does so, extracting his fugue subject (and well as other bits throughout the Offertory) from the material of Canticle II.  The first Quam olim abrahae section is boisterous and bouncy, shifting between 6/8 and 9/8, changing harmonically but frequently touching on major keys (G, Bb, A, etc.), with forte as the default dynamic.  How very jolly! 

The transition from choir and full orchestra to soloists and chamber orchestra (Rehearsal 69) puts us quite solidly in G major (initially), and baritone (narrator) and tenor (Isaac) begin to tell the full biblical Abraham and Isaac story from Owen’s poem.  The tension builds to the grim “And stretched forth the knife to slay his son,” when lo!  At Rehearsal 74 everything is magically interrupted.  “Slow recitative” is the instruction, the dynamic shifts to pianissimo, the orchestra shimmers with gong, harp, strings, the key switches to C major, and the tenor and baritone combine to sing in sweet shifting intervals, thirds, parallel fourths, unisons, and so on, as they become the part of the angel, here to save the day: “lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him”—use the ram, there, caught in the bushes, instead! 

But Owen identifies the ram as “the Ram of Pride,” and Abraham, representing all the men who led Europe into war to defend their “honor,” cannot sacrifice his pride, the ram, and instead proceeds to murder his child.  The baritone returns as narrator, saying “But the old man would not so, but slew his son,” and the tenor joins him to add “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”  At this sucker punch Britten changes everything again.  Tenor and baritone repeat “half the seed of Europe, one by one” again and again, with their only orchestral accompaniment being single sharp E major chords at the beginning and end of each phrase.  Over them the organ accompanies the boy choir (the symbol of slaughtered innocence) singing the Offertory verse, “Hostias et preces” (sacrifices and prayers we offer thee, Lord...receive them for the souls of those whose memory we recall today).  And when boy choir and soloists are done, the chorus is back for the return of our Quam olim abrahae fugue, but now the world is upside down: we are subdued, with a ppp dynamic, half the time the fugal subject is inverted, we’ve mostly said goodbye to major keys and are now in minor (usually E minor), and we fade out in hushed homorhythm at a pppp dynamic. 

This movement is about as ghastly a depiction of war and its blind stupidity as one can get. 

While portions of the Sanctus come across as very traditional (e.g., the bright D major for the Osanna sections, with its reiterated triads), other aspects were quite up-to-date for the time.  Britten invents a notational symbol to indicate accelerating tremolos (visible in the p/v and orchestral scores, but not the choral score) at a time when the leading experimental composers were constantly creating new notational devices to capture extended techniques.  Further, Britten’s Pleni is “aleatoric,” i.e., using “chance” as a compositional device, where each of us singers sings the words at whatever speed we wish (again, a modern technique).  And our entering pitches cover each of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale—one of many nods to “dodecaphony” that Britten uses in late compositions.  All this wild and crazy stuff, though, is followed by that rather straightforward Osanna.  Owen’s sad poem on death appears at the end of the movement. 

The Agnus is built on an orchestral foundation of a recurring rising and falling motive in an unusual 5/16 meter; the chorus uses this motive as well in our lines that alternate and overlap with the tenor presentation of Owen’s poem.  To this poem Britten has attached at the very end the phrase “dona nobis pacem”—grant us peace.  Evidently this addition was the idea of Peter Pears; while it is the final text of the Agnus in a regular mass, it is not part of a Requiem mass.  In a regular mass, the first two Agnus statements end with “miserere nobis” (have mercy on us), with “grant us peace” the conclusion of the final one.  In the Requiem, the first two Agnus statements end instead with “grant them rest” and the final one with “grant them eternal rest.”  The inclusion of Dona nobis pacem, of course, is completely appropriate for an anti-war composition. 

Britten’s final movement combines the responsory Libera me (the text with which Verdi closes his Requiem) and the antiphon In paradisum (the closing movement for Fauré).  Neither is, strictly speaking, part of a Requiem mass.  Rather, they are texts sung over the coffin after the mass.  Britten provides a slow build for the Libera me part of the movement, starting out as a dead march and slowing increasing speed, volume, and performing forces.  The soprano soloist joins us at “Tremens factus sum ego”; there are various dips back to softer dynamics but overall the increase in force feels inevitable.  The build at Rehearsal 111 is especially powerful (and fun to sing: for both the alto and soprano lines you can mentally substitute the words “its / a / whole / tone /scale” as the melodic line rises). 

We need this big build up because at Rehearsal 113 we have our fugue (Verdi’s got one in his Libera me, and Britten is not to be outdone!—though Britten sets a different portion of the text).  Relatively speaking, this is not a long fugue at all (much shorter than Verdi’s)—it’s only 33 measures, and when we actually sing it in concert, it’s over pretty quickly.  But we certainly get a choral workout here.  Although we start firmly in G minor, it would be cheating to stay there (or at least Britten seems to think so), so we get a gnarly patch beginning at Rehearsal 114.  And let’s make it a stretto fugue while we’re at it (= each voice part enters before the previous one has finished presenting the subject).  Oh, and keep the meter shifting between duple and triple, too—we wouldn’t want things to be too easy, now, would we?  And of course all of this zips by, because the tempo has just doubled. 

Now, while we are singing all of this, counting madly and minding our half and whole steps as Britten tosses fresh accidentals at us, there’s actually a solo soprano part going on.  The **** choral score gives no indication of this, of course (and to be fair, who could possibly have any brain cells available to pay attention to the soprano while singing our fugue?), but what she’s doing is pretty neat.  But first look how our phrases are laid out: a series of imitative descending lines (four measures for the first phrase, four for the second, five for the third).  The fourth phrase (Rehearsal 114) descends for four measures and then ascends for two; the fifth phrase descends for two and then ascends for two.  The sixth phrase also descends at the start.  So the basic structure is not all that complicated. 

Now look at the pitches that the first set of phrases begin on:

  • Soprano = G, F, Eb, Db
  • Alto = D, D, Bb, A
  • Tenor = G, F, Eb, E natural
  • Bass = Bb, A, G, A

This layout also explains why the fugue can be a bit tricky.  These imitative phrases *almost* form a descending sequence—but they don’t! So the constantly shifting harmonies are another reason we need constantly to be on our musical toes. 

What’s the soprano solo doing while we slip down our scales, lower and lower?  Well, for the first four phrases she just sings a repeated note: for phrase 1 it’s a high G, for phrase 2, an F, for phrase 3 an Eb, and for phrase 4 a C#, which is enharmonically equivalent to the soprano section’s Db.  Why looky there!  Britten has outlined a tritone! 

Phrase 6 of this section begins at Rehearsal 115, and once again we plunge down (though now sopranos start higher than ever before, on A).  This time when we get to the bottom we turn around (as we did for a few of the phrases before) but now we continue ascending to the climax, and we are all loud and high—sopranos up there on Bb, altos on G, tenors on Ab, basses on F: notes that none of us ever uses on a regular basis but that are certainly thrilling to sing. 

The instant we get to Rehearsal 116 we begin winding down (the p/v score observes this nicely with a page turn), immediately moving to individual voice parts and gradually getting both lower and softer as we go along.  After our last “libera me domine,” it’s time for the Owen poem.  This one is titled “Strange Meeting,” and the poem is written in two voices representing two soldiers, set by Britten for the tenor and baritone soloists (and in the premiere, of course, representing a British and a German soldier).  Britten highlights this text that observes the waste of war by restricting the orchestral part almost entirely to soft sustained chords: it is probably easier than anywhere else in the War Requiem to hear the text, which is presented recitative-like in arhythmic measures.  And at the key line that begins “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” the orchestra is completely silent. 

As the poem ends, tenor and baritone begin repeating the words “let us sleep now” over and over again.  The boy choir begins the final section, “In paradisum,” and we join in as well, while the two soloists continue “let us sleep now;” eventually the soprano solo is added to the mix so that everyone is participating.  This section is an almost completely unclouded Lydian mode (transposed to D)—paradise indeed.  But Britten refuses to end that way.  It is us, the unaccompanied choir, that concludes the work with the same tritone-based chorale that ended the Kyrie and the Dies irae, now on the words “requiescant in pace,” rest in peace.  Bells sound the tritone C and F#, and then we are alone to sing our final Amen, hushed at a pppp dynamic, that resolves gently to an F major triad. 

This is a piece that puts one through the wringer, and not just because it’s a challenge to sing.  It is emotionally wrenching as well, as it was meant to be.  Yet while most people consider the War Requiem to be one of the great works of the 20th century, a few criticize it, citing (for example) the lack of any reference to the Holocaust.  Philip Brett, a noted scholar of Britten’s work and the author of the New Grove article on the composer, felt that Britten was uncharacteristically and inappropriately trying to emulate the English oratorio tradition (à la Elgar).  So not everyone thinks the War Requiem is a masterpiece.

However, they are wrong. 

Works (Selected)

Britten was a prolific composer across many genres.  He wrote for the world’s leading professionals (including Rostropovich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Janet Baker, viola virtuoso William Primrose, the Vienna Boys Choir, etc.), but he was also deeply committed to writing music for amateurs and for children.  The relative accessibility of much of his music, in contrast to that of many of his contemporaries, meant that he was sometimes considered behind the times during his lifetime.  Now, however, performances of his music far outnumber those of his supposedly more progressive peers.

Five pieces comprise the BESK list (Britten Everyone Should Know), a list that corresponds exactly to the MFB list (My Favorite Britten).  Lest you think this number is small, remember that this is five more than most composers have.  In chronological order, these five are: A Ceremony of Carols; Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings; Peter Grimes; A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; and War Requiem.  Note that four of these five are vocal! 

Once we get past the big five, different people would add different works to the “must hear” list: I’d probably start with Billy Budd and then move on to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The list below (highly, highly selective) includes both works I know and works I’ve only read about but that others consider significant.  Overall, though, I’d put Britten in the camp of “this is all really interesting!”  I enjoy every piece I listen to. 


Britten is the best English opera composer, hands down.  In addition to his own works, he also reworked compositions by others, including Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen

  • Paul Bunyun
  • Peter Grimes 
    So beautiful and so, so, sad.  The Four Sea Interludes and the Passacaglia are often played separately.
  • The Rape of Lucretia 
  • Albert Herring 
  • The Little Sweep (part of “Let’s Make an Opera”)
  • Billy Budd 
  • Gloriana
    Commissioned for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and the first opera ever commissioned by a sovereign.  The Choral Dances from the opera also have a separate existence.  Britten later wrote a Welcome Ode for the Queen’s silver jubilee, the idea harking back to Purcell’s Welcome Odes for British royalty.
  • The Turn of the Screw 
  • Noye’s Fludde
    A performance of Noye’s Fludde provides a key plot point in Wes Anderson’s weird but enjoyable movie Moonrise Kingdom, which also includes music from The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Friday Afternoons, Simple Symphony, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Owen Wingrave (originally for television, but not very successful in that medium)
  • Death in Venice

Church Parables

(a genre of musical theater created by Britten)

  • Curlew River
  • The Burning Fiery Furnace
  • The Prodigal Son


  • The Prince of the Pagodas


Britten wrote a TON of choral music—hooray!  But I’ve sung very little—boo!

With Orchestra

  • Saint Nicolas 
  • Spring Symphony
  • Cantata Academica
  • War Requiem
  • Cantata misericordium

With Solo Instrument or Ensemble

  • A Ceremony of Carols
    What a great name for a piece!  This was the first Britten I ever heard, when I was asked to review a performance at Swarthmore College a million years ago.  Britten originally wrote this for adult women, who gave the first performance; it was revised for trebles (boys).  My favorite part, right from the very first time I heard it, is “This Little Babe,” which I always hear as symbolic: the three parts enter in close canon (= a challenge to sing! we’re all fighting for ourselves).  We then sing homorhythmically (= we are singing in harmony; we are each doing what we do best), and then we sing in unison (= we are all in this together, and will only succeed if we work as one).  Political allegory, anyone? 
  • Rejoice in the Lamb
    This was a commission from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, our Chichester Psalms friend—see the Bernstein entry elsewhere in CSC.  In fact, Hussey contacted Britten first about the Chichester commission, but BB was unable to take it on. 
  • Festival Te Deum
  • Missa brevis
  • Jubilate Deo  (1961)

A Cappella

  • A Hymn to the Virgin 
  • A Boy was Born
  • A.M.D.G.
  • Hymn to St. Cecilia
    The poems for this were a birthday present from Auden to Britten—we should all have such gifted friends.  I especially like the line “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire!”
  • A shepherd’s carol
  • Chorale
  • Five Flower Songs
  • Sacred and Profane


  • Simple Symphony
  • Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
  • Piano Concerto
  • Violin Concerto
  • Sinfonia da Requiem
  • The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
    This was written for an educational film, “The Instruments of the Orchestra”; I’ve never seen it but it’s supposedly quite stiff.  The music now has its own happy existence; it’s a set of variations on a catchy tune from Abdelazar (or “The Moor’s Revenge”) by Purcell, one of Britten’s favorite composers (Britten saw himself as a modern Orpheus Britannicus, the epithet applied to Purcell in his day).  The work ends with a spectacular fugue; at its climax the theme returns in a fabulous metrical mash-up.  Simply glorious!


  • 3 String Quartets
  • Six Metamorphoses after Ovid
  • Cello Sonata
  • 3 Suites for Solo Cello

Orchestral Song Cycles

  • Our Hunting Fathers
  • Les Illuminations
  • Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
    Absolutely gorgeous! Check out the recording with Ian Bostridge.
  • Nocturne
  • Phaedra

Song Cycles / Songs

  • On This Island
  • Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo
  • The Holy Sonnets of John Donne
  • Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine
  • A Charm of Lullabies
  • Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac
  • Winter Words
  • Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain
  • Songs from the Chinese
  • Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente
  • Songs and Proverbs of William Blake
  • The Poet’s Echo
  • Who are these Children?

February 2020