Reflections on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

 Eugene K. Garber


From the first performance of  Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1962 to this day, popular and critical reception have placed it in the first rank of choral works of the 20th Century. The question proposed here, however, is not one of musical assessment but of meaning. What does the War Requiem say? It says that war is evil. Yes, but so evil that it vitiates the long tradition of western humanism? So evil that it casts humanity into a darkness inaccessible to the consolations of religion?


In October of 1958 a representative of the Coventry Cathedral Festival approached Britten about the composition of a large choral work which might use sacred or secular texts. No one could have predicted that there would be both and that the juxtaposition of the two kinds of texts would hold the forthcoming work in a profoundly provocative tension that has haunted listeners for half a century now.


Texts and Music.  Of primary interest in the search for meaning is the texts, their relationships and the way in which the music illuminates them.[1] The texts of Britten’s Requiem consist of the words of the Latin Requiem Mass and nine poems by Wilfred Owen, six complete, three excerpted. The full text of the work can be accessed by readers at


I will describe several sets of textual juxtapositions and the music which accompanies them. Every Owen poem lies between two sections of Latin from the mass and therefore looks backwards and forward. Take for instance the first of the Owen poems, the sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” which begins, “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” It comes immediately after the Requiem Aeternam and the hymn to God in Zion and before the Kyrie. The poem’s bitter indictment of war’s slaughter of youth and of those who would offer consolation in the form of traditional religious ceremony is in keeping tonally with the Requiem Aeternam, the dark musical colorations of which seem to offer little hope for rest, much less for lux perpetua. The hymn sung by the Boys’ Choir sounds a fragile note of sweet piety, and the tenor, whose voice in the singing of the poem has been full of a stentorian anger, also shows some sweetness when he sings, “not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes/ shall shine the holy glimmer of good-byes.” It is moist eyes and not the candles of the mass that truly express proper grief for war’s ravages. The Kyrie that follows is preceded by and punctuated with bells—the very bells of the poem, one could say, that sound for those who die like cattle. The Chorus’s singing of the Kyrie is unanimated, monotonous—a plea for mercy without salience.


This is dark indeed. War is monstrous. Traditional religion and its trappings are ineffectual if not downright hypocritical in the face of war. Rest and mercy are at best distant possibilities. Only children in their innocence, boys in particular, may make some true expression of piety and grief. And most ironic of all, this very liturgical form we are listening to—with its expression of grief, piety, terror, consolation and hope—is deliberately being undermined by invasions of alien texts and musical structures that it cannot reconcile. Will the rest of the work simply hammer home these bleak themes, or will there be some change?


A full examination of the Requiem text by text, accompanied by musical analysis, would be very rewarding, but it would constitute a sizeable monograph. Here I can only point to a handful of text/music cruxes.


The long Dies Irae encloses four Owen poems. The first is the opening three stanzas of the fragmentary “Bugles Sang,” gentle and elegiac in tone if also somewhat ominous. The second is the sonnet “The Next War,” which begins as a jaunty challenge to the power of Death and ends with the hope that in the future men will war against Death for life rather than against each other for national aims. The third is six lines from “Sonnet: On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought into Action,” a complex poem the basic  point of which is that the huge artillery piece is an instrument of necessary chastisement of those executing war but one to be purged in the future: “May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!” The last of the four poems, “Futility,” begins tenderly but ends wondering why sun and earth awakened humanity out of the elements.


Britten’s Dies Irae is suitably dark and fearful, but this is no thunderous operatic Verdi, whatever debt Britten may have owed his predecessor. There is a memorable fanfare and drums, the Women’s Choir unsettled by the all-encompassing book of deeds, a touching Recordare Jesu Pie again by the Women’s Choir, and a Lacrimosa of extraordinary poignancy. In the poems we have the same undercutting irony that we saw in the Requiem Aeternam. Sad bugles diminish the tuba mirum that calls the dead from their tombs. Death is a noxious nuisance, not a terror. The thunder of man-made guns assaults the heavens in a judgment that rivals God’s. A dead soldier was better never born. But the irony, in both words and music, has given up some of its edge. A more hopeful future for mankind is at least conceivable. The agency of God is called upon.


Britten’s treatment of the Offertorium warrants special attention. The Boys’ Choir sings with urgency its plea for the delivery of the souls of the faithful. Then baritone and tenor sing Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” a retelling of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In Owen’s version Abraham refuses to follow the injunction of the angel of God and sacrifices Isaac anyway: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” The musical setting of the poem borrows from Britten’s own “Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac” (1952) which, using text from the Chester Miracle Play, tells the story straight and ends with praise of obedience. When the poem is ended the Boys’ Choir returns to finish the Offertorium with “sacrifices and prayers” and with a reminder of God’s promise to Abraham that his seed will “pass from death to life.” Here ensues perhaps the sharpest irony of text and music. As the boys continue to sing of the promise, their song is invaded by repetitions, sung by baritone and tenor, of the last line of the Owen poem—the slaughter of the seed of Europe. What exactly is the point here? God requires obedience. He does not require human sacrifice. If the biblical story is to be seen anagogically as a precursor to the sacrifice of Christ, Owen’s version erases any connection between Isaac and Christ. For in the poem Abraham is no longer the biblical father. He is European nationalism hell bent on the destruction of his progeny. Isaac is no longer first son of the chosen people but European youth sacrificed to nationalistic war. The irony here turns not on God’s agency or on the agency of the Church but on human perversion of sacred promise.


The Sanctus contains the most glorious and triumphant music of the Requiem. The counterpoint here between the hosannas of the liturgical text and the gloomy denial of immortality in Owen’s poem “The End” is this time uncomplicated. The liturgy proclaims the glory of God. The poem declares that death is final. Though the doleful poem has the last word, the music of the Sanctus has the greater power.


The Agnus Dei interlaces the liturgical text and Owen’s poem “At a Calvary Near Ancre.” The liturgical text petitions what it always petitions: peace from the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The poem says that the gentle Christ is true to his sacrificial calling. It does not say he is a savior. The poem also says that Christ’s disciples have deserted him, that his priests are prideful, and that the scribes are busy whipping up nationalism. Only the soldiers bear with Christ. There is absolutely no bitterness in the tenor’s singing of the poem, which ends thus: “But they who love the greater love/ Lay down their life; they do not hate.”


Up to this point the Requiem has been moving definitely if not uniformly from expressions of bitter irony and anger toward resignation and even hints of reconciliation. Where does the Libera Me take us?


If the Sanctus has the most glorious music of the Requiem, the Libera Me has the most terrifying. Beginning with an almost inaudible drumbeat and deep strings, the chorus and the soprano slowly rise to a horrifying crescendo of desperate pleading punctuated by lash-like sounds from the percussion section. Mounting brass marks the reappearance of the Dies Irae, which plunges the singers into a panic of muddled voicings. Out of this comes the compulsive repetition of ignem, fire of war, fire of damnation, followed by the soprano’s equally compulsive repetition of tremens factus sum ego. So distraught finally are the singers that they have forgotten, we might say, to sing the last plea of this section of the liturgy: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis. Instead,they are reduced to a constantly diminishing and ineffectual repetition of Domine. The power of this section can scarcely be suggested. It has to be heard. It is preeminently the place in the Requiem where musical effect seizes text and wrings from it the last degree of terror.


The long poem that concludes the Libera Me, “Strange Meeting,” is sparely set; the words speak for themselves. Two speakers, tenor and baritone, once enemies in war, meet in the underworld. They reject enmity and mourn their loss. The second speaker wishes he could have lived to cleanse the blood-clogged chariot-wheels of war: “I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,/ Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,/ Even the sweetest wells that ever were.” But this is not to be. They are dead: “Let us sleep now.” Now comes the Paradisum. The tenor and the baritone continue to sing “Let us sleep now,” while the Boys’ Choir sings of entry into Paradise, joined at the end by the Chorus, foregrounding the voices of women. The Requiem ends softly.


So, if the work has been a sort of contest between the liturgical text, which reposes its final hope in God, and the Owen poems, which condemn war and its perpetrators without offering much hope of human betterment or of religious consolation, where do we stand at the end? Every commentator, virtually without exception, speaks of the enormous power of the work. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the baritone for the first performance at Coventry, was completely undone and could hardly be persuaded to leave the choir stall. There are many such testimonies. Some listeners identify religious consolation as the source of power. Others do not. Mervyn Cooke finds the ending of the Requiem “profoundly unsettling.”[2]  I take up these different responses in the Conclusion below.


Context.  Obviously the War Requiem did not spring from Britten’s imagination as a self-contained piece of musical art unconnected to history, culture, and his own life and thought. It is richly contextualized, and the contexts are embedded in the work, often very subtly. Here is a question that takes us to several important areas of interest. Why did Britten deploy the poems of a dead poet written about a war that did not destroy Coventry Cathedral? This will no doubt sound curious: I believe that there is a strong element here of nostalgia.[3] For Britten, a pacifist, WWI is a much clearer case than WWII. Britten’s pacifism, something of a work in progress in the thirties, grew ever more steadfast, so that when in 1945 he visited Belsen he was horrified but unshaken in his faith in non-violence. The visit would have confirmed knowledge which he already had, if fractionally, when he wrote the satirical Our Hunting Fathers (Opus 8, 1936), in which he ominously couples the words German and Jew.[4] But the fact remains that WWI with its useless carnage and its hideous jingoism is a better pacifist target than WWII, fought against imperialism and Nazism. If, however, we stop here we may be inclined to charge Britten with mere opportunistic anachronism. Let us look further.


We might ascribe the choice of Owen to the simple fact that WWII did not produce poetic indictments of war with anything like the directness and power of Owen’s. If Britten had turned to American poets (unlikely given the occasion for the Requiem) like Randall Jarrell or Henry Reed, he would have found images of war sufficiently grotesque, but he would not have found, as in Owen, the defeat of idealism, the loss of innocence, the sense of betrayal. And there was no British poet to turn to. Philip Larkin, perhaps the best alternative, himself saw the uniqueness of loss of innocence in the Great War and reflected it in his poetry.[5] So Britten chose to overlay at Coventry the devastation of WWII with the ravages of the earlier Great War. The Great War was more cruelly definitive of the destruction of any sense of historical purposefulness. Old Europe died in the trenches in Belgium and France. The effect in the Requiem of this layered double image of the two wars is striking, like watching an horrific action through a scrim of bloody memory.


But there is more to the choice of Owen, whose poetry and life Britten was studying. Owen’s struggle with traditional religion was far more dramatic than Britten’s. Young Owen began to prepare himself for the priesthood, but he could not go on with it. He found life at the parsonage where he served dull and mindless, and more important he felt hypocritical teaching boys Church dogma. Thus we see in his poems (and certainly the ones chosen by Britten for the Requiem) many ambivalent references to Christianity—the benightedness of the priesthood, the ineffectualness of religious ceremony, the presumptive power of God to strike down injustice, the futile drama of humankind with its disobedience to God and blindness to its own good, the fondness of the hope for immortality, the gentleness and trueness of Christ—a conflicted set that cannot be amalgamated. This comes close to what we know about Britten’s own religious condition. He wrote much church music, and it cannot be said that he did so only because of tradition or convenience of venue and audience. His music on religious subjects is too passionate. One thinks especially of the dark Donne holy sonnets, set shortly after Britten’s visit to Belsen, and of shorter works like the unforgettable setting of the old ballad “A Lyke Wake Dirge” with its impassioned refrain: “And Chrtise receive thy saule.” Thus we see in the Requiem Britten expressing both his and Owen’s unresolved ambivalence toward religion.


And finally Britten’s choice of the Owen poems helps him focus sharply on war’s destruction of innocence and youth, a horror heightened by a highly subtilized element of homoeroticism. Fussell, treating the role of homoeroticism in the poetry of the Great War, says: “It is most conspicuously in the poetry of Wilfred Owen that these impulses of Victorian and early-twentieth-century homoeroticism converge, and it is there that they are transfigured and sublimated with little diminution of their emotional warmth.”[6] I will show how, musically, a transfigured and sublimated homoeroticism adds a special element of poignancy to the Requiem. But first let us remember that for three decades, from the writing of Peter Grimes (1945) through Death in Venice (1973) Britten works and reworks the theme of the love of boys and the destruction of innocence. Carpenter in his analyses of Britten’s operas is quite perceptive about the ways in which operatic characters play the roles of innocence and corruptor of innocence: Grimes’s apprentices/ Grimes (Peter Grimes); Billy Budd/Claggart (Billy Budd); Miles/Peter Quince (The Turn of the Screw); Tadzio/ Aschenbach (Death in Venice). Each opera comes at the theme from a different angle, but common to all is a transaction, always fatal, between the older man and the youth, a transaction tinctured—sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly—with homoerotic elements. Throughout his adult life Britten was powerfully attracted to the innocence of boys and struggled to find a way to express warm affection free of erotic interest. The operas are a dramatic, musical record of the dilemma, perhaps one not psychologically resolvable.


How is this theme manifest in the Requiem? Consider Britten’s careful spatial arrangements for his sizeable musical forces. Peter Evans describes them in this way. “ . . . the three spatially distinct ensembles move most often on quite separate planes, presenting the impassioned calm of a liturgy that points beyond death (boys and organ), the mingled mourning, supplication and guilty apprehension of humanity in the mass (choir and main orchestra, sometimes sublimated, rather than personalized, by the soprano soloist) and the passionate outcry of the doomed victims of war (male soloists and chamber orchestra).”[7] Evans is accurate, but this arrangement does not mean that Britten has at last found a way to protect the innocence of boys (as he did not in the operas). Remember that in the Offertorium the boys’ prayers of sacrifice and praise are invaded by the male soloists repeatedly singing the last line of Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:  . . . “and half the seed of Europe one by one.” And later when the boys sing the Paradisum, the male voices again interrupt, though less ominously, with “let us sleep now,” the last line of Owen’s “Strange Meeting.” And so again, as in the operas, the purity of the boys is assailed by older men.


Owen and Britten understand, then, that in any circumstance perpetual purity and innocence is not possible. But the destruction of the young male body in war is the final evidence of a nation gone mad, become the anti-Abraham who kills his sons despite the injunctions of the angel of God.


Conclusion.  In preparing to write this essay I have listened to the Requiem many times.[8] I cannot listen as others, but here is my feeling. Darkness and light are here too finely balanced on the fulcrum of irony to allow for a simple either/or. Too much is held in suspension: blessings and curses, salvation and damnation, immortality and dust, belief and doubt, hope for the future and the nightmare of history. We Christians may wish that Britten had come to believe firmly in God’s infinite grace, but he remained true to the terrible equipoise between yea and nay that haunted him all his life. Yet I believe that the Requiem does provide, if not a declaration of faith, still a powerful emotional expressiveness that brings the gift of all great tragic art, catharsis. By capturing for us musically a huge mass of yearnings, fears, and hopes, the work allows each of us to gather into the experience of the work, the emotional roots of our own history, our own losses, our own faith, and to achieve a degree of release and even purification.








[1] I am deeply indebted to the musical insights provided by Mervyn Cooke, Britten: War Requiem, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1996) and by Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, 1979)

[2] Cooke, War Requiem, 77

[3] I am deeply indebted in what follows to Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1975)

[4] For biographical information I have referred always to Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: a Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons (New York, 1993)

[5] For an extended discussion of the loss of innocence in the Great War, see Fussell, 18-28

[6] Fussell, 286

[7] Evans, 451

[8] The performance I have is by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (1988)

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