Preparing the Britten War Requiem

Next weekend the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. My initial trepidation at taking on this modern piece – for the first time, for me – has been replaced with the familiar joy of being fully immersed in learning a choral work until you feel it in your bones. And given the situation in Ukraine, its inherent pleading for peace is a powerful statement for our times.

But first let me say, what a joy it is to be back to singing again, and at performances for the first time without masks since before the pandemic. Mind you, we could be singing a three part harmony of “row, row, row your boat” on stage and I’d still probably find it satisfying. Taking on this great work is all gravy.

If you’re not familiar with the Britten War Requiem, first understand that it’s fairly recent compared to other well-known choral requiem settings. There’s no classical Mozart or romantic Verdi here! Composed to celebrate the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral after its destruction in World War II, the piece premiered in 1962 in England, and with the BSO in 1963. Like many other 20th century pieces, it explores a lot of non-traditional, dissonant harmonies and chord progressions, including using “the devil’s interval” (a tritone) as a recurring motif. What better way to depict the horrors of war? And while you’re unlikely to walk out of a performance humming any catchy melodies, the complex effect of its many emotional, technical, and tonal layers has left many listeners overwhelmed by the experience.

Getting one’s arms around the piece was, at first, a chore. Just learning what connected to what, untangling the odder chromatic passages, and deciphering how on earth were we to get our next entrance from the preceding notes… it necessitated more than a few evenings at the piano or blasting Cyberbass, score in hand, methodically pounding out the notes and singing along. It was akin to intentionally getting lost in a new city until you learn how to get from here to there. Soon, the geography of the piece made sense – not just the flow of the six movements, but their connective tissue. Learning it became much easier with tips and tricks from our choral conductor, James Burton, who regularly pointed out hidden logic to the harmonies or framed the exercise of finding those chromatic entrance notes within an existing tonal progression. He’d have us convert staggered stretto entrances into block chords, or just sing the first note of succeeding sessions, and suddenly what was “how am I going to find that” became “oh, we’re just singing in G minor, down the scale.” He also relentlessly worked with us on deciphering the rhythms: syncopations, hemiolas, time signatures wavering between 3/4 and 4/4, 6/8 and 9/8, or 5/4 and 7/4… the distinctive elements of its unique sound.

As we head into our tech week and begin working with the maestro (Sir Antonio Pappano) and the children’s chorus, I feel like I finally have the whole piece in my head. My score has pencil markings all over the place: circles and arrows to show me where to get certain notes, vertical slashes to help me keep track of the beat when time signatures change, and tips from James on how to approach sections. My pencil even yells at me to “Count!” and “sing longer” and even “Ignore Greg!” — the last because to my right is a Bass 1 who has sometimes been asked to double tenor entrances, which kept making me think I’d missed an entrance. More importantly, getting all the technical details down means we can start moving past them to the emotional content: the pleading of the Libera me, the fury and destruction of the Dies irae and Confutatis maledictis, the sadness of the Lacrymosa, the peaceful rest of the finale. Let me tell you, the moment in the quam olem Abrahae, after the chorus has sung about God’s promise to Abraham, and then the Wilfred Owen poem diverts from the Biblical story with “But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one” is just chilling.

We’re all looking forward to a great performance of this masterpiece and taking the audience on that emotional journey with us.

One response to “Preparing the Britten War Requiem

  1. It kills me to have had to back out of this one. Such a brilliant piece, and never more timely.

    Stupid Covid…

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