Bonnie Ashby and Dr. E. Harrison Powley, Music
The focus of this project has changed as I have researched and analyzed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, studied the history of the Requiem mass, and compared other major historical Requiems. Britten=s contribution to the Requiem tradition is unique in its contemporary sound and the insertion of Wilfred Owen’s poetry into the liturgical text. Yet, the War Requiem is strongly rooted in the historical tradition of Requiem settings. The first section of my paper describes that tradition: its origins in Gregorian chant, the ways it changed through the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, and the major Requiem settings of each era. The second section of my paper compares Britten’s twentieth century work with its closest nineteenth century predecessors: the Requiems of Verdi, Berlioz, and Cherubini. My goal in this section is to show how the War Requiem, though modern in sound, derived from the Requiem tradition and is essentially conservative in its approach to the liturgy.
The final section of my paper then discusses the contemporary aspects of Britten’s piece to demonstrate that the War Requiem extended the historical tradition by incorporating outside elements, the Wilfred Owen poems, to create a social statement beyond the original religious significance of the Requiem mass. Here I explore Britten=s masterful musico-drama: the juxtapositions of text and interrelationships of music that create a dramatic musical commentary on the liturgy and decry society=s attitudes towards war and death. Britten’s modern additions alter the focus of the liturgical texts as the Owen settings comment on, and even at times contradict, the Latin ritual. To this textual reinterpretation Britten adds musical commentary which creates associations, interjects irony, or even criticizes the immediate action. Thus, the musical material becomes symbolic as well as accompanimental. This transformation of ideas and musical structures creates an intellectual drama beneath the more obvious Verdian dramatic surface.
This musico-drama originates in Britten=s stylistic eclecticism. As a composer Britten responded most readily poetic images, which he then illustrated musically in his settings of the text. Consequently, Britten readily incorporated into his work any musical technique that he considered appropriate to the particular poetic image he was setting. This creates compositions consisting of dramatic sound impressions rather than abstract symphonic development of musical ideas. As an opera composer, Britten’s eclecticism enable him to develop a system of subtly symbolic musical commentary, which he later applied to the War Requiem.
Britten’s most common symbolic devices fall into four broad categories: motivic manipulation, symbolic tonal structures, textural contrasts, and musical borrowing. The most interesting example of motivic manipulation in the War Requiem is the return of the “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue in the Offertorium. Before the Offertorium psalm verse, Britten inserts “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” in which Owen rewrites the Abraham and Isaac story and ends with the old man slaying his son “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Textually, Owen has turned the Biblical tale upside down, and in the return of the fugue, Britten reflects this by inverting both the fugue=s melodic shape and its texture. God’s promise to Abraham and his seed has been completely inverted by Owen=s altered parable. Britten also uses symbolic tonal structures, such as bi-tonality, chromaticism versus diatonicism, and tonal instability. For instance, Britten sets “Qui Mariam absolvisti,” where the Requiem asks that the Lord purify the soul as he absolved Mary Magdalene, in C major Lydian mode. C major, a key without sharps or flats, represent purity; however, within C major, the raised fourth of Lydian mode creates the tritone, C-F#, which dominates so much of War Requiem.
Britten’s most often recurring technique of musical commentary is musical borrowing: the use of musical material originally presented as part of the liturgy in the Owen settings. Such quotation or manipulation of material creates direct, and often ironic, ties between the religious ritual and the horrors of war Owen describes. One of the most powerful instances of this is Britten=s setting of Owen=s fragment, “Bugles sang.” The music of this poem is derived almost entirely from the Dies Irae, but the liturgy’s forceful brass motives are ironically transformed by their repetition in the woodwinds. Shorn of their militaristic glory, the motives are only faint, mocking echoes underlining the irony of Owen’s poem. The ironic effect of the changed instrumentation makes this Owen setting a poignant response to the power and militaristic grandeur of “Dies irae” and “Tuba mirum.” Through these and other modern techniques, Britten expands the Requiem tradition to create a masterful social critique of the twentieth century.
Though I have not yet completed this paper, I have learned many things about musicological research in the process. I have also gained a greater appreciation for the craftsmanship of the War Requiem, a better understanding of the Requiem tradition, and a respect for how Britten drew from his musical heritage to forcefully portray a theme so relevant to our time. If only his work could truly be the Requiem for all war!