A Timeless Message of Peace: Reflections on Benjamin Britten's War Requiem

This blog post is by Emily Schweich, a sophomore Broadcast Journalism major.

UMD Concert Choir and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Photo by Bill Hulseman

As a member of the UMD Concert Choir, I had the wonderful opportunity to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centennial with a performance of his War Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Peabody Children’s Chorus. Two and a half months of long rehearsals culminated in two performances at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and one at the Music Center at Strathmore. I knew that this would be the apex of my musical career so far, but I had no idea how valuable this experience would be.

Performing the War Requiem the week of Veterans Day made me realize the work’s universality; Britten’s message of peace is especially resonant today.

The Requiem premiered in 1962 at the consecration of England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been rebuilt after its destruction in a World War II bombing raid. Britten, a pacifist, interspersed the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead with antiwar poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English poet who was killed in action just one week before armistice.

The choir is just one of many components of the Requiem. Along with a soprano soloist, the mixed choir sings the text of the Latin Mass with a full orchestra. A tenor soloist and baritone soloist sing Owen’s poetic text, accompanied by a chamber orchestra. Far up in the rafters, a children’s choir and organ represent the voice of innocence.

When I first heard the War Requiem, there were a few movements that jumped out to me – the furious Dies Irae (“day of wrath,”) the tender Lacrimosa, the smooth, reconciliatory In Paradisum – but I have to admit that I was lukewarm to the rest of the piece, with its frequent use of dissonant tritones. Our conductors Dr. Maclary, Cindy Bauchspies and Allan Laino familiarized us with the history of the Requiem and with Owen’s poetry, slowly and surely instilling in me an appreciation of the piece as a whole. I began to find meaning in some of the other movements, such as the ironic Quam olim Abrahae, a twisted interpretation of the famous Bible story in which Abraham slays not only his son Isaac, but “half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

These special moments intensified when we began to work with the BSO and the soloists. BSO conductor Marin Alsop was clear, direct and dynamic, and her vitality and focus onstage commanded our very best. The intensity she elicited, especially in my favorite movement, the Libera Me, produced what was likely the most epic music I’ve ever had a hand in making. As the first woman to head a major American orchestra, Maestra Alsop has broken the glass ceiling for women in classical music and continues to disprove stereotypes about female conductors. Her tenacity is an inspiration to all women, and I considered it an honor for us to work with her.

It was such a special experience to see the transformation of the Requiem from the first rehearsal to our final performance for a full house at Strathmore. Performing the War Requiem the week of Veterans Day made me realize the work’s universality; Britten’s message of peace is especially resonant today. Through this experience, I grew as a musician, got to work with professionals in the field and grew closer to my fellow choristers. I am so thankful to have these opportunities through the UMD choral program.