Leonard Slatkin on Britten’s War Requiem

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

When I was a student in the early sixties, no single work of music
represented the collective beliefs of the anti-Vietnam conflict more than Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Here was Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish and Bob Dylan all rolled up in a classical setting. Never mind the religious element of the work. We only lived for the Owen poetry.

How things have changed. Over the years, the message of the piece began to come into total focus and what had once seemed like a clever but forced device of combining liturgy with pacifism now melded into one seamless line of unity. But things have changed yet again since the September 11 tragedy. I find that my sympathies continue to go with those innocents who have lost
and are continuing to lose their lives. But my attitudes have been altered as well. Gone is the longhaired semi-radical who marched in the demonstrations at Columbia University in 1966. He has been replaced by someone who is devastated by the loss of almost 6000 civilians in his homeland.

Should the current conflict end with the capture and execution of those responsible, I am not so sure that I will feel the same as the sentiment expressed by Owen when he wrote, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. Nonetheless, the Requiem still makes its strongest argument on musical grounds. For our performances in London and Birmingham, we have an outstanding group of soloists representing the nationalities of those who
participated in the first performance. And, I guess, the presence of an American conductor makes this even more poignant.

Britten came to Aspen one year in the mid-sixties. My father had recorded the Young Person’s Guide and I asked the composer if he knew the recording. He did not but was pleased that the work had received some attention by an American label. I then asked him to autograph my copy of one of his pieces. There had been only one other composer of whom I had asked the same thing: Aaron Copland. In that instance, the work was Appalachian Spring, a piece that musically looks to a simpler, more peaceful society. In the case of Britten, the score was War Requiem. I have no idea if there ever was any relationship between the two men, but I like to think of both pieces as having a somewhat similar meaning, but expressed in two very different ways.

  • Elena Prokina, John Mark Ainsley, Thomas Mohr, New London Children’s Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin
  • Saturday 10 November, Barbican Hall, London at 7.30 (020 7638 8891)
  • Sunday 11 November, Symphony Hall, Birmingham at 6.30
  • Live relay of Birmingham performance on BBC Radio 3. Click here to Listen on-line

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