Monday, April 19, 2010

Introduction to War Requiem

[This brief introduction was given at Bishop's Ranch on Good Friday Evening, 2010. I've quoted the section of the libretto at the end of this post more than once on this blog, but it bears repeating again. I've drawn on the liner notes and (unusually) Wiki. The Pavilion referred to in the text is the Swing Hospitality Pavilion, a multipurpose building (see Bishops Ranch website) that is extraordinarily welcoming.]

You'll notice that there are several boxes of kleenex scattered around the Pavilion. You might want to help yourself before we start, for if ever there were a work of art about the lacrimae rerum, the tears in things, it is this one. The phrase is Vergil's. He puts it into the mouth of Aenaeus as he weeps over the futility and waste of the Trojan war. It has come to have a broader meaning, signifying the fragility, pain and contingency of existence itself.

There is a great tradition of holy weeping in Christianity, from Jesus' remark to the women of Jerusalem on his way to Calvary to weep for themselves and their children; to Isaac of Nineveh who speaks of tears giving birth to the soul; to present day Coptic monks who have a special weeping room set aside for those who wish to be discreet after receiving communion. Tears are about letting go—our claims, our fears, our rage, our sense of possession and entitlement, our ideas about God, our selves— everything. They are more than cartharsis: they open the way to the deep silence in the heart where we behold God.

I must warn you that I find it difficult even to call the War Requiem to mind without weeping, so there may be some fits and starts to this short talk. I have listened to this requiem, weeping, every year on Good Friday from the time the first recording became available. For me it sums up the entire human tragedy. In a sense, anything said about this work is too much, an intrusion, and yet it might be helpful to set it in context.

If Christianity's institutional god lost credibility in the First World War by its "God on our side" attitude, its claims to be aligned with the overweening policies of the warring powers, by the end of the Second World War, the institutional god was dead. The bombs that destroyed Coventry cathedral were symbolic of the folly, of the growing irrelevance of a religion based on class and privilege, one that with shameless cynicism trumpeted duty and honour while the peoples of the world were slaughtered.

As the liner notes remark, ". . . what had been entered upon as a war of defence and liberation [had] become one of aggression and conquest." The relevance of this phrase will not be lost on Americans in the 21st century. The notes continue: "Officialdom suppressed, and the majority of non-combatants shunned and resented, all truthful reportage of fighting experience. No-one wanted to know how bad things really were, nor to think of the 'enemy' otherwise than as a faceless monster that had to be destroyed at all costs."

Enter Wilfred Owen who shattered the romantic, even sentimental, jingoism, which was the fashion in British war poetry, with an appalled and appalling realism that spoke truth to power in no uncertain terms. He was born in 1893 in Shropshire, and raised in very modest circumstances, though his talent was recognized early on. He died in the trenches a week before the armistice at the age of twenty five. His mother received word of his death even as the town bells were ringing out to celebrate the end of hostilities, and he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for bravery in leading his troops.

He himself underwent a profound shift between his first and second tours on the Western Front. He was shell-shocked after being trapped for an extended period in a German bunker. He was sent to Scotland to recuperate, where he met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was from the wealthy merchant class, attended Marlborough College and Clare College, Cambridge. His background could not have been more different to Owen's, yet he encouraged Owen's poetry and in turn, Owen, whose reputation was to eclipse that of his mentor, admired Sassoon almost to the point of idolatry.

Owen did not see the enemy as a monster, nor, he thought, should anyone:

But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

By the time Coventry Cathedral had been rebuilt in 1961, ". . .the full sorry failure of twentieth-century humanism in regard to international relations could be seen in perspective." [Liner notes] The War Requiem was commissioned for the rededication of Coventry in 1962, using the most searing of Owen's poems to form the libretto set to music by Benjamin Britten.

Britten's weaving of this poetry together with the text of the medieval Requiem exposes the vacuity of panoply, of propaganda, politics, international diplomacy, military splendor and religion. They are as nothing before the final silence, Death. The flowers for the dead, Owen observes, are not the sentimental clichés we employ in a futile attempt to frame and control death, to avoid genuine emotion, but rather "the tenderness of silent minds,/and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds." The shuttle wound with threads of memory whispers across the shimmering warp, slows and stops.

For Owen unspeakable grief and bitter irony form a stark memorial for the young men and women for whom there was no ram in the thicket, sent off to war in the name of God by uncovenanted Abrams who refused to sacrifice their pride, just as today's world leaders refuse to sacrifice theirs; who refuse to listen to any word that will not support their arrogance; who refuse to notice, much less pay attention to the carnage; who refuse to question whether they just might have got it wrong.

We cannot divorce our individual selves from this narrative: it is alive in each one of us in our refusal to have mercy on our own and on one another's weakness; in our refusal to sacrifice our selfishness so that others may survive; in our refusal to change our ways so that the planet might remain habitable for all creatures.

The solo voices in the War Requiem were written for specific people and nationalities: the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, the English tenor Peter Pears, and the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In Vishnevskaya's first harrowing entrance in the Dies Irae, we hear the agonized screaming of butchered innocence, the holocaust of 20 million Russians and 6 million Jews, the incomprehension of the incomprehensible madness of tyrants and fools. In Pears we hear the jaunty stiff upper lip alternating with resigned compassion at the inevitability of senseless death, the squandered hopes and shattered dreams. His duets with the German Fischer-Dieskau, whose voice resonates grief and remorse, remind us of the clandestine kindnesses German and British troops did for one another in both wars; taking breaks for soccer games, exchanging Christmas presents in the no-man's land between the trenches; then returning to their posts to resume the killing.

Owen's words in the Libera Me sum up the ghastliness and the hope, and bring us to a paradoxical resolution. The scene is set by the liner notes: ". . . the soldier encounters his enemy-comrade in some phantasmal remoteness, beyond the living world yet envisioned from a tunnelled dug-out of the Western Front. All the poem's . . . timelessness is incorporated in that cold G minor chord of imperceptibly-changing nuance, and . . . when the second soldier sings for the first time, the chord relaxes its grip and warms into another, and the human bond is establish."

"Strange friend," sings the first soldier, the English tenor, "Here is no cause to mourn."
"None, said the other, the German baritone, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold.
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go upon and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried, but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now.


Blogger Bo said...

Wonderful and deeply moving, Maggie.

1:41 pm, April 20, 2010  

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