Nashville Symphony & Chorus
feat. Blair Children’s Chorus & soloists
8 p.m. Jan. 23-24
Jackson Hall, TPAC
In the mid-20th century, Benjamin Britten was asked to write some music to be used at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II. The conjugation of his genius and the occasion brought forth his War Requiem, one of the world’s musical masterworks. This weekend, our city will have a chance to hear it. Led by Kenneth Schermerhorn, the Nashville Symphony, together with the Nashville Symphony Chorus, the Blair Children’s Chorus and three accomplished and experienced soloistssoprano Twyla Robinson, tenor Don Frazure and baritone Dean Elzingawill perform the Requiem in TPAC’s Jackson Hall.
The Requiem’s 1962 debut resonated with archetypal significance. The first cathedral in Coventry had been St. Mary’s Priory Cathedral, built in 1034; amid the 16th century religious controversies swirling around Henry VIII, it fell into decay. St. Michael’s, a second parish church in Coventry, was built in stages in the 1370s, but not until 1918 was it named the diocesan cathedral. It lasted just 21 years before a Luftwaffe bombing raid, on Nov. 14, 1940, turned it into a heap of smoldering rubble. The next day, the decision was made to rebuild. A new structure, an audacious melding of Gothic and contemporary materials and architectural principles, was erected at right angles to the roofless ruined walls. This juxtaposition of ruin and rebirth strikes a visitor with great force, and Britten’s music has a corresponding power.
The scaffolding for the Requiem is the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead in Latin, sung first in medieval plainchant and now extant in dozens of musical settings, some by great composers. Britten, who has also composed operas like The Turn of the Screw and Peter Grimes, manages his War Requiem so as to establish a tension between traditional piety and fierce outrage. As intellectual and emotional drama, this Requiem has more in common with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex than with Augustine’s City of God.
Britten’s brilliant device is to interlace among the Latin texts selections of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English-man killed in the trenches, at the age of 24, seven days before the 1918 Armistice ended Word War I. Owen’s poems distill the personal experience of young soldiers. Owen is not a utopianhe does not imagine the world can be rid of war, but sees war from the perspective of a grunt in the trenches. He portrays both comrades and enemies as young men caught up in a horror that’s not of their making. It’s not a matter of “kill or be killed,” but rather one of “kill and be killed.” When the Requiem ends, nothing really has changed, but ritual lamentation has brought catharsis, and the singers hope for peaceful sleep.
The chorusesadults and children, sometimes togetherdeliver the millennial Latin texts, representing the collective voice of a community. The solo voices represent individuals within the community. Abetting the choruses, the soprano soloist highlights certain portions of the Latin texts. Singly or together, the tenor and baritone soloists deliver the Owen texts, recalling and reflecting on episodes of war. According to Britten, the tenor may be imagined as a British soldier, the baritone as a German.
The Latin mass divides into six sections or movements. Four of them are petitions for divine mercy, but the second is a ferocious imagining of the day of wrath when the world will dissolve into ashes. The fourth is a song of praise to the Lord God of Hosts. The final movement begins as a terrified prayer for God to “deliver me from death eternal on that dreadful day” and ends as a quietly confident prayer repeating words the mass opened with: “Grant them, Lord, eternal rest.” The music’s pervasive seismic dissonance finally resolves into what critic Nick Jones has called “the comfort and solace of a major chord.”
The two cathedrals side by sidethe ruined hulk, the new constructionare evoked by Britten’s juxtaposing of Latin and English texts. The human record shows that war never really has ceased and shows no sign of ceasing. Human anguish seems everlasting, but this music modulates baffled outrage into lucid reconciliation. Amid the last movement, as the chorus sings “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest everlasting,” the tenor sings a stanza from Owen: “The scribes on all the people shove / And bawl allegiance to the state / But they who love the greater love / Lay down their life: They do not hate.”
Despite the horrors of war, compassion abides, and life’s enduring joys do not vanish from the earth. The War Requiem is one of those enduring joys: Britten the alchemist introduces 20th century matter into his alembic to transfigure an ancient legacy in a dead tongue into something as transcendent and universal as King Lear.
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