In 1962, the renowned British composer Benjamin Britten presented the world with his War Requiem – a bitter, sombre setting of war poems by Wilfred Owen alongside the text of the Requiem Mass. The piece had been commissioned to celebrate the consecration of Coventry’s new cathedral, following its predecessor’s complete destruction in the Blitz.
The premiere performance ultimately involved three conductors, two orchestras, and two choirs, and had been intended to combine soloists from Germany, England and Russia, symbolising a final concord between the formerly-combatant nations. Unfortunately – and somewhat ironically – the Soviet authorities revoked Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya’s permission to participate at the final moment, for political reasons.
Despite the Requiem’s being utterly embedded in the aftermath of what was universally perceived as a far greater and more terrible conflict, Britten turned to the pity and horror of Owen’s Great War poetry for his first major musical engagement with the theme of war – although he had briefly entertained the notion of composing an artistic apology to the people of Hiroshima during the late 1940s.
Previously, Britten’s conscientious objection, his self-imposed wartime exile in the United States, and his general anti-war attitude had left him, at best, on the fringes of the British establishment. Now, however, with the Cold War hotting up, and CND the campaign of the moment, here at last was a socially and politically acceptable public vehicle for the composer’s pacifist conscience.
The piece garnered instant critical acclaim, despite Stravinsky’s mordant observation that one would have to attend the performance with ‘Kleenex at the ready…, knowing that if one should dare to disagree with “practically everyone”, one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for “God save the Queen”.’*
For Britten himself, the War Requiem represented ‘an attempt to modify or adjust the wrongs…or the pains of the world with some dream, with some aesthetic kind of object.’* It was a form of reparation, dedicated to friends who had died in the conflict, yet it was also a conscious attempt to change popular perceptions of the 1914-18 war. The composer would undoubtedly have been gratified to learn how many performances of the Requiem have already been staged worldwide to celebrate the centenary of that war’s initial conflagration.
Today, however, with the First World War gradually receding beyond the realm of living memory, a new form of aestheticisation and mythologisation of the conflict is afoot in British culture – a process tellingly outlined in the final chapters of David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (2014).
While Owen knew the horrors whereof he wrote, having had to stare gruesome death in the face countless times, and while Britten was struggling with his own tortured conscience, and the knowledge that, had the Second World War not been fought, he could have expected little quarter as a homosexual in Nazi-occupied Britain, a new artistic generation who have never experienced war or its privations can regard the conflict with more equanimity. World War I may be the preserve of their grandparents or great-grandparents, but, ultimately, it has become a symbol of national identity and cultural heritage, a historical topos with the power to move, but no longer to cause utter despair.
This new mode of artistic reflection in comparative tranquility is well-exemplified by a new work for chorus and orchestra by composer Oliver Rudland, setting Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Christmas Truce, which will receive its premiere at St John’s Smith Square, London, on 6 December 2015.
Duffy’s poem describes the legendary impromptu ceasefire of Christmas Eve 1914, when German and British soldiers alike suspended hostilities, and began to forge bonds of mutual respect and affection (or at least cordiality) through shared carol-singing and joint football matches. Momentarily, at least, a quick end to the slaughter had seemed possible.
Presented as a fable in verse, complete with touchingly childlike illustrations by David Roberts, the poem turns this historical episode into a sort of pacifist fairy-tale for our times. Heartrending though Duffy’s beautifully-crafted language can be, her depictions of ‘barbed wire, strange tinsel’ or ‘a rat on the glove of a corpse’ are distanced, anaesthetised from the true horror that Owen and his companions knew only too well.
This impression is also heightened by the fact that The Christmas Truce is published as part of a series alongside Duffy’s other seasonal poems, respectively entitled Mrs Scrooge and Another Night before Christmas – which are featured on the little volume’s endpapers. Thus, ‘the yawn of History’ which Duffy invokes on the final page of her narration is almost in danger of subsuming the war into a cloying sweetness – of kitsch, rather than decomposition.
Almost, but not quite – for the poem is rescued by a pathos that is utterly genuine rather than feigned, and by Duffy’s effortless mastery of the telling turn of phrase:
But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief
thrilled the night air,
where glittering rime on unburied sons
treasured their stiff hair…
All night, along the Western Front, they sang,
the enemies –
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems
in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.
Rudland’s musical adaptation takes full advantage of Duffy’s poetic celebration of the soldiers’ singing – the catalyst which returns them to humanity – incorporating old favourites such as ’Silent Night’ and ’The First Noel’ in an entirely novel setting.
In terms of its scale and artistic ambition, Rudland’s work could be termed a War Requiem in miniature – a 20-minute dramatic cantata for choir and chamber orchestra, with the narrator as soloist. Yet this is also a fresh interpretation of the Great War for a new century (or even millennium), not jaundiced by any personal experience of war, or the guilt that avoiding war can bring.
Rather, it orchestrates Duffy’s fable in a way that encapsulates both horror and fragile hope, capturing the strange lunar beauty of the frostlit mudscape of the Western Front – yet also celebrating the joy of that camaraderie which can arise among us, even in the most desperate of circumstances.
The first movement of Oliver Rudland’s setting of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The Christmas Truce’ will be premiered by the London Choral Sinfonia, directed by Michael Waldron, at St John’s Smith Square, London, at 7.30pm on Sunday 6 December 2015. The programme will also include Benjamin Britten’s cantata ‘St Nicolas’ and a selection of carols and other festive music.
Tickets and more information available here: http://www.sjss.org.uk/events/britten-st-nicolas
* Quotations are taken from Paul Kildea’s biography, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century (London: Penguin, 2013).
This post was originally written for History Today magazine.