A fully packed Duke Chapel saw and heard a monumental performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Op. 66. Premiered in 1962 for the consecration of the restored St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, which had been destroyed in the Blitz of WWII, Britten himself conducted with a Russian soprano, an English tenor, and a German baritone. The score calls for full orchestra, chamber ensemble, organ, large choir, children’s choir, and the three soloists. The participants on this occasion were the Choral Society of Durham, the Duke University Chapel Choir, the Duke University Chorale, the Durham Children’s Choir (Scott Hill, director), organist David Arcus, an orchestra and a chamber orchestra, soprano Esther Hardenbergh, tenor William Hite, and baritone Christòpheren Nomura. All seemed intensely engaged in the immediate relevance of this remarkable work of art, in no small measure due to the leadership and inspiration of conductor Rodney Wynkoop. He and many of the participants were reprising their 1993 performance of this same work.

Whatever happens in the next fifteen years or the next four hundred years, the War Requiem will remain a monument to the 20th century and the pity, the awful senseless pity, of war. With the juxtaposition of the poetry of a soldier (Wilfred Owen) and the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead, Britten has captured, in awesome artistic genius, the soul of his century. From the opening ominous plea for eternal rest to the trumpets of the Day of Judgment, we are thrust into a turmoil that is deeply troubling. To me, some of the “trumpet” calls sound heroic and excited, and that is the most unsettling thing. Will men and nations never learn to tame this savage? Britten seems to say “no” in the Offertorium, in one of the most chilling moments in all the music I know. Owen retells the epic tale of Abraham’s test of obedience in these words, which the tenor and the baritone sing together:

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven.
(Britten with pure musical magic makes the angel appear.)
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.

It is an awful moment, hard to get past.

And following that, the glorious but painful “Sanctus” ends with Owen’s words: “Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified, nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried.”

The “Agnus Dei” (“Lamb of God”) is a gentle prayer, tinged with sorrow; the tenor reminds us, “But they who love the greater love lay down their life; they do not hate.” Still, the ominous and troubling tritone prevails, with no real resolution. So the work of worship continues with the “Libera me,” that great prayer for deliverance which comes to a close shatteringly, with one soldier saying to the other, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. …Let us sleep now ….” And then the children surround the dead soldiers with the gentle prayers of angels, joined by the chorus and soprano and orchestras swelling to white light before quieting down again. The piece ends with that exquisite choralel, repeated for the third time, resolving with a mystical cadence to a pure F major triad which rests the soul with condolence and hope.

The choirs, the orchestra, the soloists, the conductor – all put all they had into this performance. It was awesome from every perspective. It was unforgettable. It made it difficult to reenter the ordinary world of political hubris and human brutality – so much brutality. But it left that glimmer of light and that flicker of hope that enable us to live on. So on this day of Passover, after the Seder, we lift our glasses with the toast “L’haim!” To Life!!!