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Benjamin BRITTEN: War Requiem — Poetry of Memory and Death in Motion

Benjamin BRITTEN: War Requiem — Poetry of Memory and Death in Motion

by Chia-Hsin CHOU Freelance Writer

BRITTEN: War Requiem, a transnational production as an operatic version, will reach the stage of National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying) on 28 February 2020. Presenting a program as such on Peace Memorial Day indeed would signal a profound message to the audience in Taiwan.

Written by Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976), one of the major figures of the 20th century British classical music, War Requiem was premiered to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962 as the old one had been destroyed by one of the German air raids in 1940. This large-scale choral work was solemnly offered for the repose of the souls of the deceased during the wars with the hope of consoling the survivors and for that BRITTEN made a special request to the audience not to applaud by the end of the performance. After the premiere, BRITTEN wrote to his family about his music. “I hope it will make people think a bit.” Perhaps his wish could be understood as a form of the cathartic effect of tragedy for renewal, described by Greek philosopher Aristotle. This reminds us of a quote on the title page of the score of 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.

These lines were from Wilfred OWEN (1893-1918), the British soldier-poet, to express a poet's duty in his time. As a lifetime pacifist, BRITTEN might take the words to heart that not only he was a conscientious objector during the Second World War but also dedicated himself to the work of creation, not of destruction, to compose music to soothe all the souls. But OWEN indeed fought and died in the front line for his own nation in the First World War and conveyed all of his experiences of horrific reality and human devastation in war through poetry that served as an alibi for BRITTEN.

From the beginning, BRITTEN intended to cooperate with the artists from the contending countries during wartime in order to make a symbolic gesture to celebrate peace on stage. He had British tenor Peter PEARS, German baritone Dietrich FISCHER-DIESKAU and Russian soprano Galina VISHNEVSKAYA in mind while creating the piece. But it was at the dawn of the Cold War that the Soviet Union refused to grant VISHNEVSKAYA the permission to leave the country. Heather HARPER, a soprano from Northern Ireland, had to step in and replace her on stage.

More than half a century after its original premier, in 2018, English National Opera mounted War Requiem under the directorship of American Daniel KRAMER, ENO's artistic consultant and former artistic director. What doesn’t change is that this still is a transnational production in which BRITTEN’s music remains the core of this new version. ENO's War Requiem, consisting of six parts, interweaves the old and the new, the high and the low by intersecting the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead with the English poetry of OWEN. The dual image of Christ as the holy Judge and the merciful Savoir is thus juxtaposed with the diverse war images of hope and despair. The past concerts with the present transcending the divide of the sacred and the secular. BRITTEN's music is both traditional and modern, highlighting the emotional impact via melodic harmony. In performance, the soprano and chorus with the orchestra represent humankind in fear together in search for hope; the children and the organ sing the texts of innocence and hope; the tenor and baritone with chamber orchestra interpret the poetry of OWEN and often embody the soldiers. The divide of gender seems to be deepened by the layers of the operatic landscape of the feminine and the muscular that put humanity and social relationship in a time of war on trial.

Three enormous projection screens on stage function as the sole scenery to create the flows and transitions of time and space, adding a contemporary note to the classic through visual representation with mix-ups between the virtual and the real. The imagery, created by the renowned German photographer Wolfgang TILLMANS, provides a fresh way of seeing as a visual poetry in motion—a pacifist book, the injured soldiers, a lamb, waves, pollution, uprooted trees, a white chrysanthemum, the football violence, a banner of Remembering Srebrenica, etc. Along with these images, the performers create a theatrical spectacle and an air of war in which the survivors, while mourning the dead, contemplate the insignificance of being human against the grand universe and the confusion and helplessness hit upon us within.

The trauma from the collective memory of the past still waits to be reconciled with the present as time goes by. By delving into this 21st century work of BRITTEN's thought-provoking War Requiem, co-produced by Weiwuying and English National Opera, we may think a bit about humanity and might find salvation on the 228 Peace Memorial Day.戰爭安魂曲劇照 ▲Photo by Richard Hubert Smith







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