Benjamin Britten

War Requiem, for soprano, tenor, baritone, boys' voices, chorus, chamber orchestra, orchestra & organ, Op. 66

    Description by Blair Johnston

    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."


    1. Section 1: Requiem aeternam
    2. Section 2: What passing-bells for these who died
    3. Section 1: Dies irae
    4. Section 2: Bugles sang, sadd'ning the evening air
    5. Section 3: Liber scriptus profetur
    6. Section 4: Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to death
    7. Section 5: Recordare Jesu pie
    8. Section 6: Be slowly lifted up
    9. Section 7: Dies irae
    10. Section 8: Lacrimosa dies illa
    11. Section 9: Move him into the sun
    12. Section 1: Domine Jesu Christe
    13. Section 2: So Abram rose, and clave the wood
    14. Section 1: Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
    15. Section 2: After the blast of lightning from the East
    16. Section 1: One ever hangs where shelled roads part
    17. Section 1: Libera me, Domine
    18. Section 2: It seemed that out of battle I escaped
    19. Section 3: Let us sleep now...

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Brilliant Classics 95354BR
    2015 Warner Classics 552758
    2013 Supraphon SU 41352
    2013 EMI Classics 151565
    2013 Decca 4785364
    2013 Warner Classics 5099961544826
    2013 BR Klassik 900120
    2013 Signum Classics SIGCD 340
    2012 Challenge Classics CC 72388
    2012 Apex 2564659416
    2012 LSO Live LSO 0719
    2011 Helicon Classics 029645
    2011 Decca 4782826
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099924274
    2009 EMI Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921752
    2008 Cascavelle 3125
    2008 Haenssler 98507
    2007 VAI Audio 4429
    2007 EMI Classics
    2006 Decca
    2006 LPO 10
    2006 Decca 4757511
    2006 Edel Classics 0002332
    2005 Decca 475 6040
    2005 Gothic Records 49241
    2005 Berlin Classics 0010122
    2003 Chandos 5007
    2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4595092
    2000 BBC Legends 40462
    2000 Naxos 3898
    1999 DG Deutsche Grammophon 437801
    1998 Teldec 17115
    1996 Naxos 8 553558/9
    1991 Chandos 8983
    1990 Decca 414383
    1989 Telarc Distribution 80157
    1988 Angel Records 470348
    EMI Music Distribution 47033
    Klavier Records 11017