Always Relevant: Ian Bostridge on Britten’s War Requiem [Royal Albert Hall, 9 November 2008, Armistice Day]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the British tenor ahead of his latest performances in this popular work…

Ian Bostridge. Photograph: Simon Fowler licensed to EMI Classics

Sunday 9 November 2008 marks the 90th-anniversary of Armistice Day and the occasion will be marked appropriately by a performance in the Royal Albert Hall of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Set up by the Royal Opera, it is the first time that Antonio Pappano has conducted the work in England although he has previously done it both in Rome and Los Angeles. Indeed, the soloists in Rome in 2005 were the same as will be heard in London – Ian Bostridge, Thomas Hampson and Christine Brewer. A second performance will follow next March, on the 21st, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and this will again feature Pappano and Bostridge with the other soloists on that occasion being Simon Keenlyside and Emma Bell.

War Requiem, first heard in 1962 in Coventry at the unveiling of the rebuilt Cathedral replacing the one largely destroyed in the Second World War, confronted the folly of war. It did this in a way that was fed both by Britten’s life-long pacifist beliefs and by the intense disillusionment of a fighting soldier, the poet Wilfred Owen who was killed in 1918 and whose words were set in this work alongside the Latin Mass for the Dead. The sentiments expressed caught the mood of the times and War Requiem immediately attained a degree of popularity rare for a new work in the 20th-century. The composer’s recording of it made by Decca in 1963 became a best-seller.

To consider the work today, there is nobody better to talk to than Ian Bostridge who has not only performed in it frequently but is an intense admirer of Britten’s work generally, as is evidenced by the number of Britten pieces featured in his Barbican series Homeward Bound which comes to a close on 6 December when Bach cantatas are paired with Britten’s St Nicolas. It is, of course, well known that Bostridge, a published author with a deep interest in history and philosophy, might well have taken up an academic career rather than a musical one. When it came to making a choice, his early musical background was not decisive but, judging by what he tells me, it must surely have played a part. “We did a lot of Britten at school starting with the fact that we used to sing in class those pieces written for that very purpose, Friday Afternoons. Then when I was about seven we did Noye’s Fludde and later A Ceremony of Carols. I was probably twelve when, as a kind of precursor of Captain Vere in Billy Budd, I was the captain in the children’s piece The Golden Vanity, and I think that within the choir I took part in St Nicolas too.”

Those who heard Ian on Desert Island Discs recently (BBC Radio 4 at the end of October 2008) will know that his appearance as Lysander in Baz Luhrmann’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Edinburgh Festival helped him to opt for singing. “Until then I didn’t see how I could make a living as a singer because, although I’d always been interested in theatre and had directed plays at school, I had never thought of myself as a stage animal and most singers make a living by singing opera. But on-stage in The Dream there was a moment when I did some improvising and I felt really at home there: that was the real significance of it for me. I do a lot of Lieder which is important for me, but so is opera and, if I don’t do as much of it as I probably should, it’s because I don’t want to go away a lot and that happens when you do opera.” Ian does not elaborate but this clearly relates to the fact that he and his wife, the writer and literary critic Lucasta Miller, have two young children.

Ian Bostridge. Photograph: Sheila Rock licensed to EMI Classics

One could readily find much to discuss regarding Ian’s career, but the focus this time is on War Requiem. We start, however, by discussing it in general terms. Britten seemed to regard it as a work for special occasions, so I wonder if in some way the fact that it continues to be frequently programmed would have disturbed him. “Some pieces are occasional works of a kind that justify digging them out but then they only merit limited performances. However, in the case of the War Requiem I can only say that I’ve done it forty-nine times and it just grows on me all the time: it’s a work of such depth. It’s true that Britten himself was in some ways uneasy to have with this piece a great popular success on his hands. In the fifties with works like Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw his style was becoming less lush and for public reasons the War Requiem was largely an exception to that. The public moments in the Requiem are written in a manner which is very comprehensible and also very reverential to the requiem tradition and it’s the Owen settings, the private bit for the chamber orchestra, that were closer to the up-to-date Britten style of the period.

“At one stage there was a certain backlash by some critics following the initial praise. They condemned the work’s ceremonial passages as vulgar, but I think they misunderstood what Britten was aiming at. The effect is theatrical which I believe to be true to the character of the work and, having done it before with Pappano, I can say that I think that he appreciates that aspect. Also he’s very anxious to create a great arc in this piece, a sort of symphonic arc. He is very good too at getting the colours out of the orchestra and he understands the shape of things in a way that gets this big apparatus going. It’s a very well constructed piece and very carefully notated, so you need to follow what’s actually on the page very closely. That’s particularly true of the accelerando in the Libera me which is absolutely crucial if the piece is to work. Out of the forty-nine performances I’ve done, I’d say that as many as thirty-five didn’t fully work, but Pappano’s did.”

I am able to recall the work’s premiere and to make the point that changing attitudes have robbed the work of one aspect that was certainly felt by its first listeners. In 1962 the bold concept of bringing together in one piece the formal ritual of the Latin Mass with poems about the feelings of soldiers in the First World War, poems that were, so to speak, earthy, created an initial sense of shock. “That is interesting: I hadn’t thought of that, but it fits in with what Britten was doing in his operas from Peter Grimes onwards. Whatever his beliefs or lack of them, Britten around the period of The Rape of Lucretia did participate in the religious renaissance of the post-war period, yet you find instances where he uses church music to underline shocking things. In Grimes it happens when Ellen Orford discovers that the boy has been beaten and there’s that moment in The Turn of the Screw when the children sing the ‘Benedicite’. The latest volume of Britten letters suggests that his librettist Myfanwy Piper needed to be reassured by him that it was not shocking and he described it as being a last opportunity to show the children behaving innocently. But in fact it’s the most sinister bit of the opera. Was he being disingenuous in what he wrote to her, or was it a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing?”

If performances of War Requiem continue to be well attended, so too do those of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem which influenced it, and it’s the same with Bach’s Passions. I ask Ian if he finds this strange in an age in which religion is more often attacked that approved. “I think that in an era when rationality dominates in the way that society is organised, people find in music some escape from that, some release for that hunger in human-beings for the ecstatic, irrational or not. Even Richard Dawkins may have that need! Those who can’t turn to charismatic religion and who would be unable to give themselves up to theological statements about such things as transubstantiation or atonement can find a place of release for those desires, subconsciously perhaps, by giving themselves up to music. They can be comfortable with what they experience there because it goes beyond words. Music is one of the last remaining reservoirs where rational people can give themselves to the irrational and the ecstatic. We’ve lost that in religion and feel disenchanted with the world, but there’s still the fact that music can move us very deeply in ways that we can’t explain and it makes us metaphysical.”

At this point, I turn to questions that follow through the tenor’s contributions to War Requiem beginning with the first Owen setting, the poem being ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’. This solo is arguably akin stylistically to Britten’s Nocturne but since this is not a song-cycle Ian confirms that his interpretation is very much coloured by what comes before and what it leads into. ‘Out There’ shared by the tenor and baritone continues to underline the contrast between the liturgical element and the Owen texts, but, before the Dies Irae is over, the gap is lessened. That’s when the tenor’s next solo combines with the Latin interpolations of the soprano and the chorus to express a similar sentiment of sadness over the human condition, “Yes: we are on the same path there. It is a progression, and the same is true of the Agnus Dei.”

Before that is reached, however, we have the Offertorium in which the Owen poem ‘So Abram rose’ bitterly recasts the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac which Britten had made the basis of his Second Canticle. Not only does Britten quote from his earlier composition but he duplicates the vocal structure that assigns one voice to Abraham (the tenor), one to Isaac (here the baritone) and then uses both together when dealing with God in the earlier piece and with the Angel in this one. In performing this part of the Requiem does Ian have the Canticle in mind? “It just contributes to my feeling that the work opens out from being a war requiem into something that’s about innocence and sacrifice. In terms of its dramatic theme, Abraham and Isaac is related to Billy Budd and the fact the War Requiem is at this point related musically to Abraham and Isaac brings all these issues to one’s mind.”

The tenor has no part to play in the Sanctus which comes next, but the baritone setting of ‘After the blast of lightning’ represents the nadir, the point at which no salvation of any kind seems possible and when the Agnus Dei follows and then the final Libera me we seem to be dealing with a counter to that extreme pessimism. “I think that’s true and for the audience that is what makes this a redemptive work. In my experience, however well or badly you sing it, the Agnus Dei always elicits an incredible response – people find it very beautiful.”

In dealing with these two concluding sections of War Requiem we are coming on to the question I particularly wished to raise. It’s true that the Agnus Dei ends with a kind of reaching up on the part of the soloist in that after the close of the poem ‘One ever hangs’ Britten interpolates the only Latin phrase for the tenor: ‘Dona nobis pacem’. This could be taken as a kind of reconciliation closing the gap between the religious world of the Mass and Owen’s depiction of warfare, but, if this could support what I take to be the general view that this is a Christian work, other elements found here indicate the opposite.

The words by Owen used in the Agnus Dei may indicate a mutilated wayside Calvary but War Requiem never suggests a crucifixion involving a Christ who can save. The Libera me featuring the Owen poem ‘Strange Meeting’ brings together the tenor and the baritone as dead soldiers not in heaven or hell but in some tunnel-like limbo where they make peace. The shared phrase “Let us sleep now” follows key words by Owen: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” and, if this work offers salvation, it comes only from the possibility of enemies being able to put that status aside to recognise their common humanity. Such a solution may indeed be Christ-like, but it is miles away from the Christian concept of redemption through Christ crucified.

Time prevented any long response to this idea from Ian, but he did say this much: “I think I would agree with that. There’s also the fact that if listeners find the work redemptive but also cathartic musicologists looking at the keys used at the end of the Libera me like to point out that the music doesn’t resolve itself but concludes in a rather strange place.” That can, I think, support the view I have put forward because if Owen’s soldiers have been capable of reaching out to one-another the question left is how many others, how many of us, can follow their example. But, whether you accept this view of the work or not, what is beyond doubt is the fact that Britten’s War Requiem continues to have an extraordinary impact emotionally and musically and also confronts us with questions that only serve to confirm further its importance.


  • Antonio Pappano conducts Britten’s War Requiem – on 9 November 2008 in Royal Albert Hall, London and on 21 March 2009 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham
  • Royal Opera

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