Here’s another feature in my occasional flashback series, from ten years ago, when the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presented Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.
It was the perfect disguise. Discreetly homosexual, an animal-loving pacifist and, doubtless, on first name terms with the vicar, England’s most famous composer inhabited a world of tweed jackets and tennis, cucumber sandwiches and cream teas. But, says Australian conductor and Britten scholar Paul Kildea, he believes Benjamin Britten to be one of the most subversive artists of the twentieth-century.
“It was almost as though he was an undercover agent,” says Kildea. “He wasn’t a spy. But in effect he was an agent for left-wing thinking, an agent for anti-war. He did all these things behind the most perfect disguise, one of those middle-class English gentlemen who has tea with the Queen. He pulled it off amazingly. That’s where I think his radicalism is.”
Britten’s profound radicalism will fill the Sydney Opera House when Kildea conducts the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Australian Youth Orchestra and Gondwana Voices in his epic choral work, the War Requiem.
The War Requiem was commissioned to celebrate the consecration of St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry (UK) in 1962, the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the construction of the Berlin Wall. The new cathedral was built to replace a fourteenth-century church destroyed by German firebombs during the Battle of Britain.
Britten’s Requiem, like Mozart’s and Verdi’s before, follows the Catholic mass for the dead, and even echoes their stirring choruses, but Britten, who was a pacifist from boyhood and conscientious objector during the Second World War, intersperses the Latin text with poems by Wilfred Owen, writing from the battlefields of the First World War. Therein, says Kildea, lies the key to the work, and to Britten’s attitude to war.
“He lures us in by using the great nineteenth-century traditional requiem with God in the clouds, an all-powerful man with a beard,” says Kildea, “and then, once people are there he brings in these deeply, deeply nihilistic poems that criticise a Christian society that can allow war to happen, that can send young soldiers off to their death…”
Kildea hopes to add another edge to the pathos by his choice of performers. The work is sometimes considered the territory of the ‘grand old men’ of English music, but Canberra-born Kildea, who spent several years as head of music at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, plans to take it to a new generation. Sydney Philharmonia’s performance will feature the acclaimed Irish soprano Orla Boylan, tenor Allan Clayton and baritone Ronan Collett, soloists who are all more or less the age that Wilfred Owen was at the time he was writing his poetry. The men will stand before the Australian Youth Orchestra like the two soldiers, one German and one English, in Owen’s Strange Meeting, to sing:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”
It is a moment almost guaranteed to send shivers up and down the spine.
But can art change things?
“It has to, and ultimately I think it does,” says Kildea. “But only because it prompts people to think. Everytime I’ve done [the War Requiem] there’s been this extraordinary stunned silence. It would be far better if no-one applauded, if everyone just crept out with their own thoughts. Conventions dictate that people must applaud, but that minute of silence before anyone makes a noise or moves seems to indicate that people are left with their own thoughts about love and war and destruction.”
The photos I’ve used here will be part of a book I’m currently working on called ‘Sanctuary’. It’s crowdfunding right now at Unbound, and I’d love you to take a look.