Benjamin Britten spent most of the 1950s adding to a string of successful operas that had begun with Peter Grimes in the mid-1940s. Though he took a brief sojourn from opera to write the War Requiem, it is clear that the dramatic spirit that fueled his operatic efforts carried over into this work, his most monumental effort. While the Requiem is in its own way even more overtly theatrical than Verdi's well-known Requiem (described by Hans von Bülow as "an opera in ecclesiastical guise"), it cannot properly be thought of as an opera without staging. The musical procedures of Britten's operas were quite well established by 1961, and the War Requiem really has little to do with them. The work instead relies on simple, sectional musical means to convey a pattern of thought that even listeners unfamiliar with the often confusing realm of mid-twentieth century music can follow with little trouble.
Indeed, such an immediately accessible idiom was one of the composer's basic goals when he set himself to interpolating the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen (killed in action just one week before the Armistice of 1918) into the traditional requiem scheme. The War Requiem is by no means pure music, nor could its various sections conceivably stand alone. It is a work with a basic human message, simple and uncontrived and utterly reliant on the distribution of textual materials (separate instrumental and vocal forces are assigned to the two disparate bodies of text) to achieve its impact. The work attained an almost immediate rapport with English-speaking audiences around the world after its May 9, 1962, premiere at the new Coventry Cathedral, and to many it remains Britten's supreme achievement.
On a structural level, the War Requiem is massive, its six large movements, each comprising several smaller sections, of some 90 minutes' total duration. From the bells and chantlike chorus in the opening bars of the Requiem aeternam, Britten's use of the tritone as a basic unifying device is obvious. A boys' choir breaks in with the Te decet hymnus, only to be interrupted by Owen's poem "What passing-bells" set as a tenor solo. (The solo tenor and baritone sing all the poetic texts.) The restless tritone gives way to a moment of temporary repose at the end of this first movement, which resolves on an F major chord.
The Dies Irae, containing no fewer than ten separate subsections, is the longest of the six movements, while the following Offertorium and Sanctus together comprise only six sections of music. The Dies Irae closes with a quiet choral Pie Jesu, while the Sanctus is the only movement to end with one of Owen's poems, the grim baritone solo "After the blast of lightning." Chillingly, the closing Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace) of the following Agnus Dei is sung not by the chorus, as might be expected, but rather by the anguished tenor soloist. At the end of the final Libera me, however, some peace, or at least rest, is reached at last as the unaccompanied chorus finds the strength, after a lengthy and tortured tumult, to resolve the burdensome tritone to the sonorous F major chord of the final "Amen."