Britten's War Requiem

Andrea Gillum

In an evening united by poets and music, the MSO reminded us how art can serve as a warning against war.
Britten's War Requiem


‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity…All a poet can do today is warn.’ Wilfred Owen’s words were written by composer Benjamin Britten on the front page of the score of War Requiem. In these days of hero worship and glorification, the pity—the realities in the stories of war are often forgotten but they underlined the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s commemorative program of the Great War.

The first piece, Elegy, by Australian–born F.S. Kelly is a wonder. Written as a memorial for poet Rupert Brooke, a friend and fellow soldier killed during WWI, Kelly finished Elegy while recovering from wounds he received at Gallipoli. He premiered the piece at 10 Downing St in 1916, before being killed himself at the Battle of the Somme.

The MSO's performance of Elegy was enrapturing and immediately set the tone for the evening. From sombre though languid beginnings the piece then lifts, like the light fluttering of the wings of birds and ends as if in a dance. A dance of life and death perhaps. It is iconic with both its story and its quiet but powerful embrace, and I’m astounded it’s taken so long for the MSO to perform it.

Benjamin Britten, a conscientious objector and lifelong pacifist, wrote War Requiem as a warning for war. It was commissioned for and first performed in the bombed out – then rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England. Weaving Owen’s poetry throughout the 90 minute requiem, it takes the audience through the story of war from the ground up. The only triumphant fanfares of glory here are ironic. It’s interesting but not surprising how popular the piece was at the time it was first released, tapping into the undercurrent of post–war Britain. But it has also endured, coming to represent any and all nations and wars.

It began with the chanting of a Latin mass, which created an unsettling and ominous atmosphere. Then came the bells. Evidence of the MSO percussionists impeccable talent and timing the bells rung in the beginning as if being called to prayer, to a funeral, or a wake. Combined with the chanting, it was eerie and chilling and brought to my mind a cold morning —mist over the land, mud, and fear.

The dark heavy atmosphere continued throughout the rest of the performance. Interspersed in the Latin mass Owen’s words, sung supremely in turns by German bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel and English tenor Ian Bostridge, mixed the ideas of glory and sacrifice with slaughter, death and the idiocy of command.

With two choirs, three soloists, a main and a small (chamber) orchestra the performance was a challenge of choreography, but one the MSO, with Sir Andrew Davis at the helm, proved extremely successful at. From the boys choir in the audience balcony section, to the magnificent Russian soprano, Tatiana Pavlovskaya near the back of stage, each part blended together perfectly to create the many scenes of this story — heaven, earth and humankind. I became aware as the piece progressed that I was not just watching the performance but surrounded by it. It felt as if everyone there, audience included, was part of it.

This atmospherically charged performance was not one you could sit back and let wash over you. Which, I imagine was not only Britten’s point but the idea of the MSO themselves in selecting this program. The seduction of Kelly’s Elegy led us into the darkness of Britten’s War Requiem making it a powerful line-up. And a true warning indeed.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Britten’s War Requiem

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis
Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya
Tenor Ian Bostridge
Bass-baritone Dietrich Henschel
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus
National Boys Choir of Australia

Hamer Hall

Melbourne Arts Centre
11 June 2015

About the author

Andrea Gillum is a creative and professional writer. She often writes on the themes of identity and belonging. She is particularly passionate about the interaction of music, memory and place.