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Without question, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is one of the greatest choral achievements of the 20th century. Britten was not only a severe artisan in the endeavor of composition, but he also had a heart that perceived the truths of the soul. The performance at Meymandi Concert Hall on Saturday evening, April 23, under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis, was outstanding in all respects.
Ever since its first performance at the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1962, this masterpiece has been a critical and popular success. It gives people what they want and need to hear – an experience of international mourning that recognizes no flags or frontiers. The epochal forces called for in this epochal work included The North Carolina Master Chorale, members of the North Carolina Symphony (who formed the main orchestra and a chamber group), The Raleigh Boychoir, and three soloists as well suited for their parts as I can recall. The tenor, Richard Clement, and the baritone, Grant Youngblood, left us with powerful and haunting images of the cost of war and the suffering of the young men we call soldiers. The soprano, Sue Lee, singing from the choir loft, was chilling in her pronouncement of the opening of the book of judgment in the Dies Irae and later exultant in her introduction to the Sanctus.
The text is taken from the liturgy of the service for the dead, some four hundred years old, intermingled with poetry by an English soldier, Wilfred Owen, who died of injuries just one week before the armistice in 1918. His famous statement about war and poetry surely guided Britten's selections:
I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
This most eloquent, yet devastating anti-war composition begins with the text of the Latin Mass for the Dead: "Requiem aeternam dona eis" – "Grant them eternal rest." Yet it begins with the most un-restful of all musical intervals, the augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) also call a tritone - in this case a C natural and an F sharp, heard against a background of knelling bells. It is not a pleasant sound to our ears and cries out for resolution. The boychoir sings the ethereal hymn of praise – "Te decet hymnus" – as though above and aloof from the unsettling goings-on below. For this concert they were cleverly placed in one of the boxes above the choir to the audience's left. It was perfect. Owen's pondering words for the tenor (the English soldier) – "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" – bring us down to the horrible realities of war. (The parts for the English and German soldier were written for and sung in the premiere by Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.)
The "Dies Irae" ushers in the Day of Judgment. We hear not the trumpets of Gabriel as in Verdi's or Berlioz's requiems. Here the trumpets are the military bugles – charge, reveille, taps, etc. In 7/4 time and choppy rhythms the choir sings disconcertingly of "what trembling there shall be when the judge shall come to weigh everything strictly." The soldier's sing of their flirtation with Death. The choir sings a pitiable prayer; "Remember, gentle Jesus, Do not cast me out on that day" ("Recordare...") But then the reality of the Judgment Day returns with the chorus and the soprano reprising the "Dies Irae," adding this time the "Lacrimosa" ("On this day full of tears..., O Lord have mercy"). One of the unforgettable images of Britten's creativity coupled with the words of the soldier-poet, Owen, occurs as the tenor sings of the near delusional plea that another soldier be moved into the sun – perhaps to revive him. When he realizes that his buddy is dead, he sings plaintively "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" The "Dies Irae" whispers haltingly to a close and the choir reverently sings the Pie Jesu, ending so softly that you feel the prayer is coming from your own soul. Britten's marking in the vocal scored is pppp.
The Offertorium section begins with the boychoir singing a hymn: Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae – "Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory." Here again Britten's writing brings in the ethereal sound of the boychoir almost as an uninvolved commentary. One of the most awesome moments in the piece is the retelling of the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, out of his loyalty to his God. A shimmering harp arpeggio and the sound of a temple gong accompany the words, "Behold, a ram caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him." Then, astonishingly, the old man slays his son anyway. Here, Britten sets the words, "And half the seed of Europe, one by one..., one by one." It was stunning, and it left my eyes wet with tears, partly at the beauty of the performance, partly at the tragedy of the truth.
The "Sanctus" was absolutely stunning, arising out of distant, perhaps nearly forgotten, confidence in the almighty to an exultant shout. It is as though the composer were calling our attention to the ambiguities and ironies of human existence and commenting that there as a hopeful constant - if not achieved, at least available.
The "Agnus Dei" intermingles one of Owen's poems with the gentlest text from the mass: "Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest." To this, Britten has the soldier add, "Donna nobis pacem – Grant us peace."
In the closing section, "Libera me" ("Deliver me"), the prayer builds as a plea growing more and more desperate before dying away in despair. The two soldiers encounter each other in death. One says, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend.... Let us sleep now." The boys join with the "In paradisum" ("Into Paradise may the angels lead thee"), the choir enters, swelling the affirmation, and then, finally, the soprano brings an overwhelming sense of healing. Reconciliation settles upon all, and the War Requiem ends with the quietly whispered prayer one more time – "Let them rest in peace. Amen."
My old spiritual mentor, Carlyle Marney, in a talk on the syntax of worship, once said, "There are times when the only proper worship is when we meet to weep together." At the conclusion of this performance there was an absolute silence of nearly ten seconds – with no coughing or sneezing (of which we heard aplenty during the concert). The audience seemed to sense it improper to applaud, needing rather a few moments to perhaps brush aside one more tear and to finish the catharsis of grieving before returning to the tasks at hand. And then it was right to applaud, vigorously, enthusiastically, and long.
I am confident that many in the audience this night will look back on this performance as one of the most memorable of a lifetime. The North Carolina Master Chorale was awesome, the Raleigh Boychoir, directed by Thomas E. Sibley was superb, the orchestra was incredible, the chamber orchestra was something really special, Sue Lee was just perfect, Richard Clement and Grant Youngblood were outstanding and left us emotional images that seared the soul. I don't know what to say about Al Sturgis since I've run out of descriptive adjectives, so I'll just say, with the audience and with the community, "Thanks." From the depths of our hearts, "Thank you."