Some pieces of music bring back strong memories. You recall key moments when you have heard the music before, or great performances that you have witnessed or taken part in. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a piece that brings back memories of one of the most intense experiences of my life.
I will be singing in a performance of the War Requiem on Sunday 10 Nov, at the Royal Albert Hall. I will be with my regular choir, Crouch End Festival Chorus, joining with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The concert marks both Remembrance Sunday and Britten’s centenary this year.
In the 1980s I moved to London, working in the suburbs but enjoying the cultural life on offer in the city centre. One of the highlights of my life then was my membership of the BBC Symphony Chorus – my first experience of professional music-making. We rehearsed in BBC Broadcasting House and performed regularly on the South Bank and in the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Though the Chorus was composed of amateur singers, we worked with professional musicians and conductors and all arrangements were professionally managed. We performed a wide range of music, including some less well-visited (i.e. obscure) corners of the choral repertoire. At my very first rehearsal we sang Bartok’s Cantata Profana - its often demanding 16-part choral writing and Hungarian language was quite a challenge but exhilarating. I was in at the deep end but swimming strongly. Not long after I joined the Chorus came the exciting news that we were to make an overseas trip. The Frankfurt Alte Oper (Old Opera House) had been bombed in the war and lain derelict for many years. It had now been rebuilt and was being reopened as a concert hall with a festival to mark the occasion. One of the highlights was to be a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, and the BBC Symphony Chorus were to join forces with the local orchestra (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) and their regular conductor Eliahu Inbal. The symbolism of having a German orchestra, a British choir and an Israeli-born conductor to perform this very special piece of music about reconciliation was lost on no-one.
The War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was built after the old cathedral was destroyed in a bombing raid during the second world war. The destruction of the old cathedral took place on the night that the city of Coventry suffered extensive bombing. The new cathedral was built just opposite the ruins of the old cathedral, and quickly adopted a theme of reconciliation. The cathedral’s cross of nails became a worldwide symbol of reconciliation. I went to visit the cathedral earlier this year, hoping to connect with the feelings that had inspired the music. The cathedral is a striking building, filled with visually arresting images and sculpture. The spirit of reconciliation is still very much in evidence. In the grounds of the old cathedral there is a small museum that commemorates the bombing of the city, so remembrance is there too.
The first performance of War Requiem (which should more accurately be called Anti-war Requiem) was a triumph and it has remained a firm favourite with performers and audiences alike, making a strong emotional impact. Britten uses the text of the Latin requiem mass, but he adds a new dimension by incorporating several poems about war by Wilfred Owen, the poet who served (and died) in the first world war. Britten used great skill in selecting and positioning the poems. It’s a bit like the way that Abba songs are retrofitted to the story in the musical Mamma Mia! Although they were not written for the story, they seem to fit perfectly. It is the same with the War Requiem; the poems shine a different light on the prayers of the requiem and feel like they belong in the whole narrative, while some of the Latin text provides a cooler and less passionate retreat from the pain of Owen’s poetry. The music bowled me over the first time I heard it, but my understanding of its subject matter has deepened over the years. Owen said “My subject is war, and the pity of war”. Britten expresses this in musical terms as well as the terror of war, matching and deepening all the emotions of the words.
Back in 1981, the Frankfurters were paying to fly the whole BBC choir to Frankfurt and to put us up in a hotel for three nights. I was not a seasoned traveller at that time, so this was an adventure. I was worried about how I would get to Heathrow for an early morning flight. The problem was solved when another chorus member offered to let a small group of us sleep over at his flat in Ealing, just a short hop to the airport. He even cooked us a tasty chicken casserole for dinner the night we stayed. Everything went smoothly and before long we were in our hotel in central Frankfurt. We found the Alte Oper, now gloriously restored, and we had an afternoon rehearsal with Eliahu Inbal, at first just him and the choir and then together with the other performers.
The War Requiem is a complex musical structure. Britten divides his forces: two male soloists sing the Owen poems and are supported by a chamber orchestra; a chorus of children’s voices is supported by a harmonium; the soprano soloist and full chorus are supported by a large orchestra. As these groups alternate throughout the piece the music ranges from massive awe-inspiring sounds to intimate scenes and heavenly imaginations. The groups are often described as three different planes of sound, but I prefer to think of it as looking upwards (heavenwards) with the angelic children’s voices, looking inwards (to the soldiers’ personal stories) with the male soloists, and looking outwards (to humanity’s shared emotional experience of mourning) with the soprano soloist and full chorus.
I love the way that Britten manages the transitions between the ‘planes’. The dramatic setting of the Dies irae (Day of wrath) features brass fanfares in the tradition of the Berlioz and Verdi settings. It leads directly into the words of Owen: “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air”. In another section the choir sings of Abraham and his descendants: “Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus, followed by the soloist singing “So Abraham rose… and slew his son and half the seed of Europe one by one”. The Sanctus is one of my favourite movements. Britten’s music for the Hosannas sounds like fireworks ricocheting around the choir, and it ends with an astonishingly abrupt and powerful ExcelSIS! that leaves you temporarily blinded in shock. Then the soloist whispers ‘After the blast of lightning from the East…”. For me the emotional heart of the work is the Libera me. It contains two pages of the loudest music. In the vocal score these pages look quite innocuous. Different sections of the choir sing Libera me to a wailing musical phrase, with a chord playing in the orchestra. Except that chord is played by full orchestra and organ, with an array of deafening percussion. It is a representation of hell on a battlefield. The music dies away and a long exchange of great intensity begins between the two male soloists, leading up to the chilling words “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. After this comes the closing section of the work, when all performers join together for the first time. The male soloists sing ‘Let us sleep now” as the choir sing “In paradisum. Requiescant in pace“.
A large choir and orchestra can produce a great deal of sound, but some of the most magical moments of the piece are achieved when the choir is directed to sing very softly. Paradoxically, you need a very large choir to achieve the quietest singing. The vocal score has several moments when we are directed to sing ‘ppp‘, or three degrees of quietness (hardly audible), and then to get quieter still, down to ‘pppp’. So you are singing as quietly as you can and then you have to get quieter. This is a hard trick to pull off. I recall that Inbal spent a good 30 mins with us rehearsing these very quiet passages until he had us singing as quietly as he wanted, each singer just at the border between making a sound and not making a sound. This contrasts with the diaphragm-busting moments in the Dies Irae and Libera me when you have to deliver maximum horsepower singing fit to blow the roof off.
It was a thrilling performance to be part of. The sense of an important occasion added to the excitement. The male soloists were Robert Tear and Thomas Hemsley, two British singers at the top of their game. The soprano was Julia Varady, a German soprano of Hungarian origin, who had exactly the thrilling timbre required for the role. I recall she made a great deal of fuss about the air-conditioning in the new concert hall and had to be placated by regular supplies of drinking water to keep her throat from drying out.
We were to perform the piece on two successive nights but this first evening we were free to explore the city. My group of friends planned to visit a bar or two and get some food. A couple of them were not feeling well so stayed in the hotel. We visited some risque establishments in the area near the Hauptbahnhof, then we went to a pleasant bar and sampled a glass or two of Apfelkorn. But I started to feel a bit strange and a little later had to go out to be sick. My friends walked me back to the hotel, as I was feeling really poorly. I felt a little explosion in my rear and wasn’t quite sure what had happened, but I suspected it wasn’t good. Once in the hotel I made a dash for my ensuite bathroom and all hell was let loose. I spent most of the next 12 hours in the bathroom, exploding from both ends. Happily the basin was just opposite the toilet, so I could stand up and be sick or sit down and diarrhoeaise. Later I found out that five of us who had eaten the chicken casserole in Ealing were all suffering in the same way, though mysteriously the sixth person survived unscathed. I had never before nor have since experienced such a virulent form of food poisoning. I had to throw away the trousers that I had been wearing that evening. For reasons of delicacy I will not spell out why, but I think you can guess.
By the morning I was drained, weak and dehydrated. It was clear that I and my similarly afflicted friends could not perform that evening. The worst thing was that the other choir-members assumed we had been out on the razzle and had too much to drink, which was not the case at all. By early afternoon I was able to keep down a glass of water, and I ate an apple. It tasted good. We managed to go out of the hotel and take a short walk. I saw a stall selling cooked sausages – pink and glistening – and was nearly sick again at the thought of eating one. (It was three or four years before I was able to face eating a sausage again.) We soon felt well enough to joke about the whole experience. I coined the expression “Happiness is a dry fart” – the confidence to pass wind in the knowledge that there would not be any follow through was a wonderful feeling.
We missed the first performance but were well enough the following day to take part in the second performance. I was a little anxious as we approached the moment of full volume in the Dies Irae, fearing that the physical compression of the diaphragm needed to push the sound out might have an unwanted side effect, but all was well. It was a magical and magnificent concert, and the audience received us enthusiastically.
The concert and the illness became memories. About six months later a large box arrived at the BBC chorus office. The Frankfurters had sent each of us an LP of the performance. I note that this recording is available now on YouTube. I cannot say for sure whether I am on the recording as it depends which night the recording was made.
Back to today. We have had one rehearsal with the conductor Semyon Bychkov and he showed himself to be a wonderful communicator and a very able moulder of performers who quickly endeared himself to the choir. In short: he knows what he wants, he is in control and he persuades you to give of your best. We now have an intense weekend of rehearsal leading up to the performance on Sunday night. I will be avoiding chicken and sausages until after the concert. I think it will be an intense experience for me again but this time on a purely musical and emotional level. I don’t know if there are any tickets left for the Royal Albert Hall, but you can catch it live on BBC Radio 3 at 7pm on Sunday 10 November.