Archives par mot-clé : American Civil War Poetry

Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Britten: Three Great War Poets


The First Hundred Thousand, the Somme, the American Civil War poetry, English choral tradition, narration combined with music, mythical method, implicit narrative, War poets

Parmi les œuvres que la Grande Guerre a inspiré aux compositeurs anglais, trois ont subi l’épreuve du temps avec succès, la symphonie Morning Heroes de Sir Arthur Bliss (1930) la cantate Dona Nobis Pacem de Ralph Vaughan Williams (1936) et le War Requiem de Benjamin Britten (1962) qui met en musique des poèmes de Wilfred Owen, mort en 1918. Se présentant comme une anthologie de textes parfois disparates, ces œuvres constituent un triptyque dont le but partagé est de dire la guerre et de porter témoignage en incluant plusieurs niveaux de récit dans un cadre dramatique commun, et portent trois regards très différents sur le conflit.


Three musical works which the Great War inspired in Britain have successfully and consistently survived the test of time: Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes, a symphony of 1930 for orator, chorus and orchestra; Dona Nobis Pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams, first performed in 1936; and most famously Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem of 1962.  Others have fallen out of favour for different reasons. By dramatizing war poetry with music, these three attach themselves to the lived experience of the destructive power of modern industrial war from World War One’s early moments when enthusiasm and heroic concepts borrowed from the past could still disguise the gathering awareness of war’s horrifying waste through to its dismal end.

First among those that no longer command the interest they once did is Sir Edgar Elgar’s 1917 The Spirit of England, a cantata for soprano, chorus and orchestra setting poems from Laurence Binyon’s 1915 collection, The Winnowing Fan: Poems on the Great War. The work was inspired by the invasion of Belgium and the carnage of the early stages of the war. Intended as a Requiem for the slain, it was dedicated “to the memory of our glorious men” (quoted in McVeagh, 165). Its second and third parts, To Women and For the Fallen, were first performed in May 1916. The remaining movement, The Fourth of August was finished in 1917 and the composer conducted the whole work in Leeds in October 1917. Performed every year at the Albert Hall around Armistice Day from 1921 until after WWII, the cantata’s patriotism, nationalism and idealism, much appreciated in time of war, were gradually felt to be out of place and identified with Edwardian smugness and imperial jingoism. When the work was revived during the Cambridge Elgar Festival of 1994, it sadly suffered from the comparison with other works by Elgar. Meanwhile, Binyon’s For the Fallen, probably the most popular of all British wartime poems, survives in the limited context as it is quoted on many war memorials and on Armistice Day (see Hibberd and Onions, 31).

John Fould’s 1921 World Requiem, first performed in a festival of remembrance on November 11, 1923, a setting of liturgical texts as well as words from John Bunyan and Hindu religious poetry in a long plea for peace after the horrors of WWI, was only recently revived[1]. Similarly, the uncompleted 1923 Requiem da Camera for chorus, chamber orchestra and baritone by the British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), dealt with the futility of war. It set poems by John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Wilson Gibson and received its full première only in 1990.

Associating the three works whose reputations have best survived as a Great War triptych may seem arbitrary and contrived since Britten’s War Requiem was written thirty years after the first two pieces. It was commissioned by the Coventry Arts Festival Committee to celebrate the spirit of reconciliation and unity associated with the consecration of their new cathedral in 1962, after the Blitz destructions of November 1940. As a lifelong pacifist, Britten could only approve of the project. The three soloists chosen for the first performance represented the principle nations engaged in WWII in late 1940. Peter Pears stood for Britain, baritone Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau stood for Hitler’s Germany and soprano Galina Vishnesvskaya stood for Stalin’s USSR. In the Cold War context of 1962, so far from any World War One context, Soviet authorities found this proximity between different singers representing different sides and different struggles, so contrary to their understanding of history that they barred Galina Vishnevskaya from singing in the first performance.

In spite of the chronological and historic gaps separating the first full performance of Britten’s War Requiem from the debuts of the Bliss and Vaughan works, however, the three composers were contemporaries, very much aware of each other, and with interconnected careers.  Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) died as Britten’s career was reaching its peak. Bliss (1891-1975), a friend and student of Vaughan Williams, died only one year before Britten (1913-1976). Morning Heroes by Bliss and Vaughan Williams’s Job, a masque for dancing, were first performed on the same program at the 1930 Norwich Festival. Furthermore, The Great War was really on Britten’s mind when he composed the War Requiem. Born in 1913, Britten was a “War baby”. What he remembered as a child was reactivated by his teacher Frank Bridge (1879-1941), who had lost many pupils and friends during the war, like the dedicatee of his 1924 Piano Sonata, fellow composer Ernest Farrar, who had been killed in 1918 at the age of 33. Bridge impressed his utter horror and revulsion of war on Britten, who often argued his own pacifist case with his master (Carpenter, 41).

Britten’s anti-war feelings and pacifism translated into musical projects often. Some projects were completed: In 1936 he composed music for Peace of Britain a 3-minute documentary film by Paul Rotha for Strand Film commissioned by the Trades Union Congress and the League of Nations Union. In 1938 he wrote a Pacifist March for the Peace Pledge Union concert and the cantata Advance Democracy. There followed Ballad of Heroes, op. 14, to honour the dead of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and then his “anti-war” Sinfonia da Requiem, op. 20 in 1940. But some were left unfinished. In 1945, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings spurred him to attempt a full-scale oratorio for soloist, chorus and orchestra “almost like the 1837 Messe des Morts,” of Hector Berlioz known for its huge orchestra and ambition. Britten’s title was to have been Mea Culpa (Carpenter, 405). The shock of Mahatma Gandhi’s death in 1948, prompted Britten to compose in his memory. Neither of these attempts reached completion. The Coventry Commission was an opportunity for Britten to take up the pacifism of his pre-World War Two years, combine it with more recent impulses and make something of it. First conceived as a traditional requiem mass, the work for the Commission soon evolved into a work where the Latin text would alternate with poems by Wilfred Owen[2], whom Britten had long admired. Their prominence resulted in his calling the piece “Owen Mass”, before choosing the final title late in 1961 (Cooke, 24).

Poetry, especially that of Wilfred Owen and Walt Whitman, links all three composers. Owen’s poetry provides a link between Britten’s Requiem and Bliss’s Morning Heroes. The final movement of Bliss’s work incorporates the recitation of Owen’s Spring Offensive by the Orator and is the first known setting of Owen’s poetry. The famous words of Owen’s preface, “My subject is war and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity,” might be said of either work. Walt Whitman, very much to the fore in Morning Heroes, links Bliss’s piece with the centrepiece, Dona Nobis Pacem, Vaughan Williams’s own vibrant call for peace inspired by Whitman’s Drum Taps collection of 1865 after the American Civil War. Britten, in his War Requiem, interpolates a Dona Nobis Pacem in the tenor part, clearly out of place in the Requiem liturgy, at the conclusion of his Agnus Dei, the movement which opens and structures Vaughan Williams’s cantata making another connection among these three[3].

The fact that the three pieces belong to the great English choral tradition and that each presents an anthology of texts, unites the work in other ways as well. Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony of 1910, setting Whitman’s poems to music in its four movements, thus emulating Frederick Delius’ Sea Drift of 1904[4], provided a home-grown model. The device was used later by Bliss in his Pastoral: “Lie strewn the white flocks” of 1929, and by Britten in Our Hunting Fathers of 1936, his 1943 Serenade and his 1949 Spring Symphony[5].

Morning Heroes unfolds like a traditional four-movement symphony (for a global view of the layout of Morning Heroes, Dona Nobis Pacem and War Requiem, see the Appendix ). It opens with a recitation of ‘Hector’s Farewell to Andromache’ from Book VI of the Iliad. The second movement sets for the chorus ‘First O Songs for a Prelude’, the opening poem from Whitman’s Drum Taps. Bliss called this, ‘The City Arming’. The third movement combines ‘Vigil’, a translation of the Chinese poet Li-Tai-Po[6] and ‘The Bivouac’s Flame’, another Drum Taps setting paraphrasing Whitman’s “By the bivouac’s fitful flame”. The scherzo sets the Iliad’s Book XIX translated by Chapman, ‘Achilles Goes Forth to Battle’, and is followed by ‘The Heroes’, a roll call of the warriors involved in the Trojan Wars, as its coda. The final movement is also in two parts. The Orator first recites Owen’s Spring Offensive and the final chorus is a setting of Dawn on the Somme, a poem written in the summer of 1918 by Bliss’s friend, fellow-poet and soldier, Robert Nichols (Bliss, 45-6)[7].

The Dona Nobis Pacem cantata opens with the Agnus Dei borrowed from the Catholic Mass, prompted by Vaughan Williams’s love for Bach’s monumental B minor Mass which he often conducted (Ursula Vaughan Williams, 253). It acts as the motto and structural refrain for the whole piece. The second, third and fourth movements are three Whitman Drum Taps settings Beat! Beat! Drums! Reconciliation and Dirge for Two Veterans. The fifth movement is a double number, with a setting of John Bright’s 1855 famous “Angel of Death” speech against the Crimean War in the House of Commons, the only topical allusion to the dangers of 1936, followed by a long quote from Jeremiah. The final movement, “O Man greatly beloved”, sets a collage of texts culled from the Bible, like those in Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas, his oratorio of 1926. Britten’s War Requiem, clearly modelled after Verdi’s Requiem, incorporates nine of Owen’s war poems in a very close and ironic textual and musical counterpoint with his setting of the Mass for the dead.

The three works offer three personal representations of the Great War within the large context of war and resistance to it in the first half of the 20th Century. Bliss indicated in his autobiography (Bliss, 96-7) that he wrote his piece in memory of his comrade soldiers and his brother Kennard, who died in the Somme offensive in 1916 at age 24, while Bliss was home after receiving a wound in the same battle. In the late 1920’s, Bliss, who had served with gallantry, was still troubled by nightmares caused by his being gassed at Cambrai in 1918 and by survivor’s guilt, which he had tried to assuage by converting to Catholicism before going back to France in June 1918. Writing the symphony acted as therapy. Vaughan Williams, at 41 when World War One started, was too old for combat service. He volunteered as a private, so as not to benefit from his professional status, and first served as an ambulance driver like his teacher and friend Maurice Ravel. Vaughan Williams witnessed the carnage on the Somme in 1916. He was very affected by the death of a young promising musician, George Butterworth, and made notes towards his Pastoral Symphony of 1922 while on the Somme battlefield. His musical biographer, Michael Kennedy wrote, “if on his demobilisation, early in 1919, his heart was heavy, he knew that life had to be lived in the future, not in the past” (Kennedy, 144). Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem was composed in 1936 for the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. It tried to ward off contemporary threats of war: the Spanish Civil War, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and his march into Rhineland, and Mussolini’s aggression in Abyssinia. Meanwhile, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia led Britten to write Our Hunting Fathers, an orchestral song cycle comparing the cruelty men inflict on animals with the cruelty they inflict on one another, the same year. As a conscientious objector or “conchie”, Britten had little experience with any battle front but had a direct experience of the evils of war he had denounced in 1936. He saw the Nazi concentration camps in July 1945 when he gave concerts to the survivors with violinist Yehudi Menuhin as a way to carry on with his pacifist war effort. His War Requiem looks back on both World Wars, as it is dedicated to four friends of his who died in World War Two, but its main protagonists are two World War One soldiers, personas of Wilfred Owen. Poetry and representations personal contact with war reveal anti-war sentiment in all three works here.

Three War narratives  

The three works aim at a physical representation of war through drama—Bliss’s symphony clearly hints at the theatre—following a nineteenth Century trend. Since Beethoven’s Eroica, dedicated with Promethean overtones to the memory of a great man, and since his Ninth Symphony, whose final chorus, Schiller’s Ode to Joy, put drama on the concert platform, and since Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette—described as a “dramatic symphony for chorus, soli and a choral recitative as prologue”—the symphony had become invested with dramatic functions akin to those of the cantata or of the oratorio. In the symphonic poems of the late Romantic era, music took charge of drama, leading to the split between supporters of “pure music” championed by Johannes Brahms and “programme music” championed by Franz Liszt. Bliss certainly followed Liszt. As he recounted in his autobiography, he “always found it easier to write ‘dramatic’ music than ‘pure’ music. I like the stimulus of words, or a theatrical setting, a colourful occasion or the collaboration of a great player” (Bliss, 71). His orchestra played a dynamic role in the symphonic drama of Morning Heroes with the extended preludes for the first, third and fifth movement. The Orator’s interventions for two very dramatic incidents, “the Homeric scene” (Bliss 97), of Hector’s Farewell and the Great War scene of Owen’s Spring Offensive, frame the work with the symmetry of a palindrome and provide the symphony with a dramatic frame (see Burns, 666). The use of the Orator and chorus combination derived from Greek tragedy which Bliss, raised on the Classics by his father, adapted for his own use. The part of the Speaker in Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio of 1927 may be another example of the same musical historical development. Stravinsky, who Bliss admired, may have had a direct influence.

As Bliss pointed out, the melodrama technique, which musicalizes the text thanks to orchestral textures without resorting to song, was adopted as an alternative to an operatic duet which would have softened the impact of the farewell. The Homeric scene is introduced by an elegiac orchestra prelude in compound time, where the English horn, the oboe, the clarinet and strings feature prominently in a short four-bar arching phrase. The orchestra then provides a varied, attentive commentary underpinning the Orator’s recitation, making up for the absence of a singer. The Owen poem, coming after the violent choral Achilles scherzo, is recited over F minor timpani chords, providing stark dramatic contrast: an aural image of the battlefield as well as mystery and solemnity, in tune with Owen’s poem. To The Musical Times in October 1930, the technique recalled Arthur Honegger’s experiments in his 1921 Le Roi David, described as “a dramatic psalm for soli, chorus and orchestra” (The Musical Times, Vol. 71, n°1052, October 1930, 881-886 and Bliss, 56 and 89)[8], rather than Edith Sitwell’s and William Walton’s 1923-1926 Façade, another experiment with narration combined with music. Bliss was not the only composer adding the drama of text to his orchestral work.

Vaughan Williams’s cantata also added dramatic functions without the trappings of the theatre. The use of extensive Bible quotations derived from Handel’s Messiah and a long tradition of English oratorio in tune with Vaughan Williams’s own love for the cadences of the King James Bible. One of the inspirations for the cantata was Verdi’s Requiem, the most theatrical of all requiems, which Vaughan Williams first found sentimental and sensational but finally impressed him durably (Ralph Vaughan Williams, 183). He incorporated the semitone drop on the word “Dona” from Verdi’s final Requiem sequence, in his Agnus Dei, while an echo of Verdi’s Dies Irae can be heard in the Beat! Beat Drums! setting, with its brass, its bass drum and full percussion battery.

Britten’s War Requiem echoes Berlioz’s and Verdi’s Requiems, but with Britten the dramatic purpose is more direct. He was aware of the analogies between liturgy on the one hand, and drama and tragedy on the other. The Dies Irae and Libera Me sequences of the Requiem Mass introduced the essentials of Aristotelian tragedy, catharsis, terror and pity. The Sybil provides the dramatic spring of prophecy in the Dies Irae, while the Inter oves introduces the scapegoats, linked to the word tragedy itself[9]. Two of Owen’s poems, strategically placed at significant moments of the Requiem Mass, The Parable of the Old man and the Young in the Offertorium and At a Calvary near the Ancre for the Agnus Dei, clearly identify satanic Pride both as hamartia (tragic error) and Original Sin, the primary cause of the evils of war.

Britten explored the implicit drama of the Requiem Mass. Like his 1960 opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which provides the fairies, the rustics and the courtiers of Theseus’ court each with their own musical idiom, the Requiem opposes three separate musical groups. The composer was very explicit about the staging of his work (Cooke, 24). The organ and the boys’ choir are removed from human contingencies, the two soldiers and the chamber orchestra take us to the battlefield and voice their private grief, while the soprano, chorus and orchestra provide an image of the home front and convey the conventional pieties of public grief, affected by the echoes of Verdi’s music. The laying out in space of the different groups dramatized a major theme in Britten’s work, the opposition between the individual and the crowd and the tragic trope of public drama and private predicament. It also dramatized the title’s oxymoron, realised musically with the recurrent use of the disquieting tritone, the “diabolus in musica” that divides the octave in two equal parts and generates great tension, hence its prohibition by the Church. Such staginess caused Galina Vishnevskaya to throw a fit during the first recording session when she could not understand why she was separated from the other soloists.

Very little action can actually be shown in a symphony or a cantata but here enough was suggested to create a plot through narrative. These three pieces resort to dramatic monologues, or derived forms, and the use of “I” and “We” create the illusion of protagonists acting out their parts. The fact that all three composers wrote operas is no coincidence. Morning Heroes provides a number of scenes that indicate a dramatic progression. They are linked together by dramatic, musical and textual cross-references while the Orator-chorus interaction provides movement. The historical and geographical references they convey, moving from the far away past of Homer’s Greece and Li-Tai-Po’s China or from the American Civil War of Walt Whitman, and then transporting the listener from Walt Whitman’s wartime to Bliss’s own war, propel the symphony forward in one single movement. Space and time are fused. Homer’s epic provides a narrative link and recalls James Joyce’s use of Homer in Ulysses.  T. S. Eliot called this “mythical method” and used it in his epic poem The Waste Land, another important influence on Bliss. As in The Waste Land’s narrative patterns the symphony mingles fragments of history and personal recollections. Over the Trojan wars, which his American born father was fond of retelling his sons and illustrating with ink sketches (Bliss, 17), Bliss superimposed the bloodiest episode of America’s history seen through the eyes of Walt Whitman. Bliss’s personal American allegiance through his father (Bliss, 17) as well as his English allegiance and personal war experience—he had enlisted early at the outbreak of World War I—found expression in his choice of poetry for his great work.

Bliss’s musical epic unfolds in four parts. Part I and II make up a first act whose title could be “Departures”. Hector’s parting from his wife and son is recalled in “The City Arming”, which provides a background for such a parting and its sharp-cut phrases and rhythm paint the general enthusiasm, if not the collective hysteria that overwhelms the city preparing for battle, witnessed and transcribed by the Poet as a singer of songs, here Bliss’s persona: “How elate I stood and watch’d you, where starting off you march’d off!” In the last third of the movement a four-beat march links the poignant farewells of the mothers, the climax of the war-drunk recruits and the poet’s pensive goodbyes.  Part III, “Vigil”, suggests “The Wait” as a title for a second act. It first shows the thoughts and emotions of the young wife left at home, voiced by the women’s chorus. She foresees the death of her husband who, meanwhile, dreams of home by the bivouac’s fire on the eve of battle. To his meditation, set for men’s voices, the women join when he remembers home and those far away. Part IV, “The Fight”, takes us back to Homer’s epic. It springs from Part I, with Achilles setting off to fight Hector, and its bustle echoes “The City Arming”. The roll call of Trojan chiefs and paean to Hector provides a conclusion to that third act.

Part V opens with an epigraph “Now, Trumpeter for thy close”, from the concluding section of Whitman’s Mystic Trumpeter, which clearly sets it apart and rings a new tone (Bliss, 65-6).

Now trumpeter for thy close,
Vouchsafe a higher strain than any yet,
Sing to my soul—renew it languishing faith and hope;
Rouse up my slow belief —give me some vision of the future,
Give me for once, its prophecy and joy[10].

Besides being a call for battle, Whitman’s poem also suggests strong associations with the many Trumpeters, nine in total, that appear at different times in Revelations and contribute to its narration. This is Bliss’s own Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum and Second Coming rolled into one. This part moves from the general to the personal as it is explicitly devoted to the dedicatees of the symphony, Bliss’s brother and comrades. Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Spring Offensive”, revised in September 1918 while Owen and Bliss both were back in the trenches, takes us to the battlefield, with a group of soldiers bracing themselves before going over a hill into no man’s land to meet their fate. Its Keatsian vision of summer, sun and buttercups, that of July 1916 on the Somme, and its wealth in nature imagery recalls what Bliss described as the acute awareness of natural beauties soldiers developed with the proximity of war and death (Burn, 667). The poem then describes the blast and fury of battle, the dead whom “God caught […] even before they fell” and the amazed survivors unable to speak of their comrades (see introductory comments to “Spring Offensive” in Stalworthy, 79). Woodwind music from the first movement underlines the poem’s final question and leads to the choral Dawn on the Somme which concludes the symphony in an apotheosis, heralded by Whitman’s own version of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, “War, sorrow, suffering gone—The rank earth purged—nothing but joy left !”. Owen’s friendly sun, now personified as Apollo, draws to Olympus the dead soldiers as so many companies of “morning heroes”. A brief coda which associates the symphony’s essential themes provides a subdued conclusion.

There is much less action shown in Dona Nobis Pacem, a much shorter composition of a much different character. Its five parts are played without a break, but the four different settings of the Dona nobis pacem, with its characteristic musical motive, provide an overall frame within which Vaughan Williams tells his parable of peace. Although a political radical and an agnostic, his lifelong project was to turn John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, into an opera, which he finally achieved in 1951. But in the 1930’s he had only composed a one-act pastoral episode, The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains of 1922, based on Bunyan’s final episode where Christian eventually reaches the gates of the Celestial City. Vaughan Williams depicted this same moment in his Sancta Civitas of 1926. In the leadup to World War II, the composer despaired of ever completing his Bunyan opera. The spirit of Bunyan’s work, which moves from darkness to light, infuses the 1936 cantata which, like Bliss’s symphony, relies on the drama of soloist-chorus interactions and on implied narratives, that of the Mass and of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems in the Drum Taps section, Book XXI, of Leaves of Grass. The Agnus Dei of the Catholic mass acts as the incipit and is Vaughan Williams’s way of recalling, through Johann Sebastian Bach’s ecumenical example[11], that despite the different denominations, all pray to the same God. Vaughan Williams chose not to call the protagonist of his Pilgrim’s Progress by the name Christian, but rather “Pilgrim”,  “because I want the idea to be universal and apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life whether he is Xtian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist, or Seventh-day Adventist”, (Kennedy, 313).

If the text lacks drama, the music makes up for it with the “almost frantic choral supplication” (Kennedy, 271-272) contrasting with the soprano’s poignant lines. The first two settings from Whitman’s Drum Taps, Part II, Beat! beat! drums!, and Part III, Reconciliation, provide a musical illustration of Whitman’s epic purpose, to show, as a war singer, the contrary states of war: the inspiring drumbeats  rousing the soldiers to march and fight and the sombre bugle music of mourning. Beat! Beat! drums! emulates Bliss’s ‘City Arming’ in its depiction of the all-destroying war frenzy, which the baritone interrupts with Reconciliation. Its first part, a long caressing phrase that models itself on Whitman’s sentence-long poem, is sung by the baritone, then by the women and the tenors, and then again by the chorus a capella, making that number as long as the preceding chorus that insisted on the washing away of sins. The central part, “For my enemy is dead”, and the kiss that seals the recognition that the enemies too are divine creatures, is left to the baritone. The second Dona nobis recalls briefly the “peccata mundi” which echoes Whitman’s “soiled world” from Reconciliation. It is sung by the chorus a capella, and ushers in the next scene. It consists of Part IV, Dirge for Two Veterans, the music for the Whitman text written as early as 1911, sung by the chorus where women’s voices dominate to express tenderness and compassion. The declaration of love for the dead is underlined by the chorus a capella, in answer to the preceding phrase “soiled world”. The Dirge is musically linked to Part V, the baritone’s Angel of Death recitative, which refers to the last plague of Egypt which here spares neither fathers nor sons. The third Dona nobis introduces the last two-part scene. The chorus’s canonic imitations first paint the picture of a people in sore despair to whom the baritone brings succour before the chorus launches into its dance-like rejoicing and final Gloria. Complete with peals of bells and organ, its upbeat motive is derived from the soprano’s Dona nobis (and Stravinsky’s Firebird finale). The final a capella Dona nobis brings the work to a hushed close.

As for Britten, he shaped his Requiem text like a libretto with a complex and strong architecture. It is no wonder it has inspired a novel and a film[12]. The Requiem mass mingles two narratives, that of the Second Coming, as depicted in the Dies Irae sequence and in the final Libera Me, and that of Christ’s Passion, as recalled in the Agnus Dei. The six parts of the liturgy provide a general framework of six scenes which include the Wilfred Owen poems to which they are linked by ironical cross-references and foreshadowing, the equivalent of prophecy in tragedy, so that the impression is of a succession of scenes leading to a climax, in a way that also recalls Eliot’s “mythical method” in The Waste Land[13]. The opening Introit & Requiem sequence takes the mourners inside in a procession, duly indicated by a faltering funeral march. It is followed by the four sequences of the Dies Irae, Offertorium, Sanctus and Agnus Dei which lead to the Eucharist. The Libera Me implies a recessional, indicated by another march, the burial of the dead and their final transition to everlasting peace with the In Paradisum. To this, Britten superimposes, through some of Owen’s most controversial poems, the narrative of two soldiers on the front, gradually driven to despair before their own death, burial and reconciliation. Seven of the poems show scenes from the war front, while the Parable of the Old Man and the Young in the Offertorium and The End after the Sanctus give Scriptures a bitter twist. As in an opera, Britten makes sure the soldiers sing in equal shares, three solo arias each and three duets to emphasize their kinship: though enemies, they share the same thoughts, from which spring their reconciliation in the final duet.

The first scene, Introit and Kyrie (I), set out as a grand da capo scene, stages the impossibility for the crowd to find the rest it prays for. Its opening Requiem incorporates the disquieting tritone emphasizing the contradiction in the work’s title, while its final a capella chorus, which regularly punctuates the work the way the a capella sections punctuate Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis, tortuously progresses from tritone to a perfect major chord. The tenor rises as if from the grave for Anthem for Doomed Youth. He ironically responds to the boy’s “Te decet Hymnus” by providing a sound picture of war and by denouncing the rites performed here as a mockery of sanctity and to point out the lack of sanctifying rites at the front.

The great Dies Irae scene (II) offers four such confrontations, with the Baritone dominating. The Tuba Mirum stanzas introduce “Bugles sang,” one of Owen’s sketches for Anthem for Doomed Youth, thus establishing the kinship between tenor and baritone. Expanded to operatic proportion, it shows soldiers on the eve of battle. The Soprano then enters for the Liber Scriptus and the prophecies of the Sybil, leading to the Tenor-Baritone duet of The Next War, which echoes the prophecies. A parodic scherzo in three parts, in the style of music hall entertainment for the troops, it provides music within the music, the equivalent of the play within the play, and depicts Death as a malicious comrade, in ironic answer to the preceding Mors Stupebit. Denouncing patriotism as the worst of enemies, the soldiers’ voices unite in the central section “We chorused when he sang aloft” to show their amity. In “Be slowly lifted up”, a scene evoking the war’s great guns, the anguish-inducing tritone punctuates the Baritone’s quasi Wagnerian condemnation of Pride, the ferment of all tragedies, as the cause of all wars and is followed by the return of the violent Dies Irae, as if the prophecies were then fulfilled.

The concluding Lacrymosa scene is particularly dramatic. The voice of the soprano soaring over the faltering chorus and orchestra is interrupted by the Tenor’s Futility poem, which begins with short, almost sprechgesang lines. His initial tenderness for a dead comrade turns to blasphemy as he questions Genesis and the existence of God when he depicts Creation as a geological accident and human life as a purely biological process: “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” The repeated question denies Resurrection and Eternal Life posited with “qua resurget in favilla” and looks forward to The End in the Sanctus. A repeat of the a capella chorus rounds off the scene and the first two scenes in one single act.

The second act opens with the Offertorium (III) where Britten displays savage irony in his parody of the liturgy of sacrifice. His Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac of 1952, a cantata for three voices, showed the patriarch about to sacrifice his son in allegiance to the God of Israel who promised him a long line of descent, as is recalled in the Requiem’s “Quam olim Abrahae”. Owen’s own Parable of the Old Man and the Young parodies the story in a mock-archaic style in the context of the trenches. Reverting to his original Chaldean name predating his alliance with Jehovah, Abram sacrifices his son instead of the Ram of Pride. The boys’ Domine Jesu Christe melody gives way to a spectacular fugue, whose theme directly derives from Canticle II, which leads to the Parable, narrated by the baritone as Abram, and the Tenor as Isaac, before their voices unite for the part of the Angel, as in Canticle II.  This pure C major passage is soon polluted by the tritone of Pride. The transgression of the divine order, Owen’s line where after the prideful old man refuses to kill the ram but “kills his son”, “And half the seed of Europe one by one” interrupts the boys’ Hostias et Preces whose melody is now disrupted by the organ’s dissonances, as if now tainted by sin.

The Sanctus (IV) opens with the jubilation of the Soprano and her praise of the Lord of Hosts with an oriental gamelan, which also illustrates “the blast of lighting from the East” in The End, Owen’s reworking of the Second Coming. The tritone and timpani accompany the Baritone’s questioning of Resurrection and his turning Doomsday into some geological accident, thus recalling the Tenor’s Futility, while the orchestral postlude suggests the end of the world in an Eliot-like whimper. The Tenor initiates the Agnus Dei (V), imposing for once his voice and choice to the chorus in “At a Calvary near the Ancre”, another Great War iconographic motive, and pointing thus to the real sacrifice, based on love. For once Owen’s poem and the liturgy agree, and so do the symphony and the chamber orchestra which play a regularly ascending and descending scale incorporating a tritone, over which floats the Tenor’s quietly descending voice, meaning that what separates can also unite. Recalling Christ’s sacrifice before the Eucharist, this section shows the scribes and priests, standing for the war-mongering politicians and clergy, attending the Crucifixion, reminding the crowd of their direct responsibility along with the soldiers for His death. The suffering of the soldiers is put on a par with that of Christ, as in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia or in his Billy Budd where Lucretia’s and Billy’s tribulations are explicitly equated with Christ’s Passion. Owen’s gospel of love, “But they who love the greater love/Lay down their life. They do not hate,” is isolated for full emphasis, and the Tenor’s final “Dona nobis pacem” claims peace for the soldiers only.

The Libera Me (VI) recapitulates the former movements and builds up a climax with the entry of the full organ in a musical picture of the final cataclysm before it dies away in a long diminuendo, setting the scene for Strange Meeting, the longest of the Owen settings. It takes place in some tunnel dating from the world of Chthonian divinities evoked in Owen’s Futility and The End, before the appearance of the Christian God. The hushed chamber orchestra incorporates a tritone when the tenor rouses one of the sleepers, recalling the lesson of the Agnus Dei: what separates can also unite; the foe can become a friend. A pentatonic lullaby in the form of a duet, “Let us sleep now”, indicates the soldiers’ reconciliation while the boys, the soprano and chorus unite for In Paradisum, the only time they all agree. The moment is soon cut short by the passing bell’s tritone and the boy’s Requiem. The chorus then repeats its a capella motive in a stark ending suggesting the crowd is still far from obtaining the prayed-for rest and remains mired in remorse and in the bitterness of loss, like Britten’s Captain Vere in the opera Billy Budd.

Three visions of war

If the three works use the same musical and dramatic devices to bring war to the eyes through the ears of their audiences, to make them remember what they had forgotten or tried to ignore, or to make them understand through art what they had been unable to grasp, they also evince great unity of thought. They emphasize war as madness or a disease and preach for reconciliation. Bliss’s Achilles Scherzo, showing the war-drunk soldier who prefers fame and early death to obscurity and ripe old age, finds echoes in Vaughan Williams’s and Britten’s music. Bliss’s image of Apollo raising the dead to Olympus recalls the Valkyries’s raising fallen heroes to Walhalla, a musical reference which Bliss, a complete Wagnerite must have intended and used to send his musical message beyond any jingoism. Vaughan Williams’s cantata first shows reconciliation at the personal level, and then at the level of nations. Britten’s view is more pessimistic. Although the objective of his commission was reconciliation, it is only obtained, consummated and acted out at the personal level between the two soldiers in their “Let us sleep” duet. Their reconciliation with the crowd is momentary and only brought about by the innocent boys and the voice of the soprano—more that of a Mother than a Sybil at this point—but soon endangered by the return of the tritone.

At the same time the visions of the war they chose to show differ greatly and depend on the personality of the composers. Bliss wrote a synopsis of his symphony, explaining his choice of texts and what he wanted to show (Bliss, Appendix B, 256-7). It leaves no doubt that, as a soldier who enlisted, was wounded and fought the war through, his aim was to vindicate his comrades and their sacrifice. His “morning heroes” are worthy of Homeric fame and universal homage. He depicts aspects of war common to all ages and places: the pain of parting from one’s loved ones, the exaltation and the spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice of those who enlisted in 1914,  expressed as the spirit of The First Hundred Thousand (English volunteers of 1914 described in Ian Hay Beith’s book of 1915). That spirit of 1914 is important to Bliss whereas such early, even jaunty, war spirit is eclipsed in later war poetry. Common to them all is the anguish of waiting, the fury and frenzy of battle, and the need for the survivors to speak of their comrades from this “Lost generation”. In this way, and only in this way Bliss obeys the brief of Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, to make the ones they left at home understand what their life was like at the Front. Yet choosing Nichols’s Dawn on the Somme at the close of his symphony for the final apotheosis shows how greatly Bliss differs from Sassoon’s or Owen’s more desolate positions.

Nichols, literally one of the “first hundred thousand” British soldiers, shell-shocked and invalidated out in 1916, attempted to paint war on an epic scale. The poems Bliss borrowed from him for his 1929 Pastoral show Nichols’s fondness for reworking themes from Antiquity and very few of his war poems have the anguished or graphic, report-like quality of some of Owen’s or Sassoon’s. In the Preface of his 1943 Anthology of War Poetry 1914-1918 he explains that, even if his initial ardour and the will to fight had gradually given way to grief for the dead and compassion for those who endured, he “ended the war only confirmed in the faith that was mine in the beginning” (quoted by Anne and William Charlton, 54-5), a position which is borne out by the last of the 1917 war poems.

They have not gone from us, O no! they are
The inmost essence of each thing that is
Prefect for us; they flame in every star;
The trees are emerald with their presences.
They are not gone from us; they do not roam
The flaw and the turmoil of the lower deep,
But have now made the whole wide world their home
And in its loveliness themselves they steep.
They fail not ever; theirs is the diurn
Splendour of sunny hill and forest grave;
In every rainbow’s glittering drop they burn;
They dazzle in the massed clouds’s architrave;
They chant on every wind, and they return
In the long roll of any deep blue wave.

This epic vision tallies with the heroic and sacrificial type of poems that characterised the early stages of the war but also the view among most combatants and the general public, who needed such patriotism and heroism as the war dragged on, as can be seen from the July 1917 Times Literary Supplement’s review of Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances of 1917: “Nothing can prevent poetry like this from taking its place among those permanent possessions of the race which will remain to tell the great-grandchildren of our soldiers to what pure heights of the spirit Englishmen rose out of the great war horrors of waste and ugliness, noise and pain and death!”( quoted by Anne and William Charlton, 2), . Bliss’s vision of pain, sacrifice and heroism, probably reinforced by his conversion to Catholicism in 1918 before the war ended, chimes in with Whitman’s ambition in the Drum Taps poems:

to express in a poem […] the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in, with all their large conflicting fluctuations of despair & hope, the shifting, masses and the whirl & deafening din, (yet overall as if by invisible hand, a definite purport and ideal)—with the unprecedented anguish of wounded and suffering, the beautiful young men, in wholesale death & agony, everything sometimes as if in blood colour, & dripping blood. The book is therefore unprecedentedly sad (as these days, are they not?)—but it also has the blast of the trumpet, and the drum pounds and whirrs in it, and then an undertone of sweetest comradeship and human love, threading its steady thread inside the chaos, and heard at every lull and interstice thereof—truly, it has clear notes of faith and triumph (quoted from Whitman, Correspondence, I, 246-247 in Butler).

Bliss became Whitman’s Mystic Trumpeter and his vision of the war as immensely sad but heroic he maintained to the end of his life. His wife recalled that when advice was sought for the sleeve covering the record of Morning Heroes made by EMI in 1974, he selected a Fifth Century Greek vase showing Hector and Achilles fighting  (Bliss, 287). This epic, heroic note is struck not only with the Homeric scene of Hector’s Farewell, but also with Whitman’s “First O Songs for a Prelude” through which the poet claims Virgil’s Aeneid as his lineage, as John M. Picker the cultural historian of sound indicated (Picker, 3). Bliss’s symphony depicts a man’s world, the world of the streets, of the jousting ground and the trenches, with women watching from the distance. It certainly sounded crude, offensive and dangerously close to a glorification of war in 1930 to the generations that had read Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden, Erich Maria Remarque or Henri Barbusse, as The Musical Times indicated (The Musical Times, 886). Bliss does not mention those authors, but he must have known their work. With his brother, he shared the bitter disillusion of Sassoon, as can be seen in their letters from the front, but he was impelled to go back and fight and put on a brave face also like Sassoon and Owen. He clearly identified Owen with his brother, “poet, painter and musician”: a symbol of all the young talents killed in the war among whom was Ivor Gurney, a fellow-student at the Royal College of Music. Morning Heroes was a way for him to come to terms with the trauma of his brother’s death and of his own survival. In his autobiography he asserted that the war nightmares disappeared after writing his war symphony. By raising his own tomb to known and Unknown Warriors, he attempted to get on with his life. Like Whitman he might forget the “Four Years’ War” and turn to “the peaceful, strong, exciting, fresh occasions of To-day, and of the Future” (quoted from Whitman’s introduction to “As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free”, Whitman, 777).

Vaughan Williams’s vision was that of an older man whose disgust for war led him to work extensively during the 1920s and 1930s for the Federal Union, an organisation which promoted peace through the creation of a federated Europe. Yet he had served in war out of a sense of responsibility and duty. As an ambulance driver with a copy of Leaves of Grass in his pockets on the Somme, Vaughan Williams must have felt very close to Whitman, who had been a volunteer army nurse during the American Civil War. Williams was introduced to Walt Whitman’s work by pacifist Bertrand Russell at Cambridge in 1892 (the year of Whitman’s death). The American poet’s mysticism had inspired him since writing Towards the Unknown Region, his 1907 setting of “Darest Thou Now, O Soul” which is the opening poem and opening line followed by the line “Walk out with me towards the Unknown Region”, of Whitman’s Whispers of Heavenly Death collection of 1868. Parts of his work emulates Whitman’s immensely accumulative, vocal, bardic and prophetic style. His inclusion of the pre-war Dirge dramatizes the composer’s own sense of loss felt at the death of fellow composer George Butterworth on the Somme in 1916 and at the death of all the young men around him. These feelings were renewed in 1936 by the recent death of his close friend Gustav Holst, who had also set the poem, as well as many other Whitman poems, in their pre-war days[14].

By borrowing Whitman’s Civil War poetry to comment on the Great War and on the growing conflicts of their times, instead of the British war poets whose reputation was not yet firmly established and could not yet provide a relevant tradition of war poetry, Bliss and Vaughan Williams deliberately turned to the past. They fed on the British tradition of setting to music the poetry of Whitman who, according to Michael Kennedy, played a major role in the renascence of British music in the early twentieth century. To a pre-WWI generation of British composers, Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Wood, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams himself, the American poet, free from religious or political dogma, provided enough democratic idealism, symbolism and mysticism to present a valid alternative to biblical texts and Christian faith. Whitman’s belief in the soul’s ability to transcend time and death offered the prospect of a numinous future in the face of decadent or darkly introspective Victorian poetry.

Unsurprisingly, no such optimism is to be found in Britten’s War Requiem. For him, Whitman as a source of inspiration clearly belonged to the generation of “English folk song” and Vaughn Williams and Royal College of Music composers against whom he contemptuously rebelled as a young man. Britten’s vision of war is much darker. Britten’s experience must be compounded with WWII horrors and those that gathered strength after: the fear of the atomic bomb, the shadows of the Cold War and the threat of totalitarianism coupled with his left-wing mistrust of an English establishment that had compromised with Hitler. Britten had read Sassoon, Graves and Blunden who by then had become part of a recognized category of “British War Poets”. His were the times of Jean Renoir’s Grande Illusion (1938). Much of his work came after Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) which showed the absurdity of the war and the cruelty of senior officers. To people of his generation, like his friend Christopher Isherwood (Parker, 93; Chapter 11, 350-382 and 420), Wilfred Owen, the young talented poet killed in battle just before the Armistice, was a hero and embodied the generation either willingly sacrificed or driven to despair and blasphemy by their elders.

Britten’s use of Owen in his Requiem composition shows his understanding of World War One as centred and concentrated on that sacrifice and despair. Britten owned the 1955 edition of Owen’s poetry edited by Edmund Blunden in 1931 as well as Sassoon’s 1920 edition of Owen’s work. In 1958, during a BBC programme in his honour, Britten asked for Owen’s Strange Meeting and Kind Ghosts to be read. The same year, he was to set Kind Ghosts to music in his Nocturne[15], whose imagery and music prefigures the Requiem’s “Strange Meeting”.

Britten chose to set Strange Meeting in the Requiem for several reasons. The tunnel in its first lines clearly recalls Sassoon’s tunnel in the first line of Rear Guard of 1917, the year Sassoon went AWOL, wrote his letter of denunciation to The Times and threw his war medals in the sea. Sassoon is present in the Requiem through the poems that Owen showed him, Anthem for Doomed Youth and The Next War (which begins with a two-line citation from Sassoon) and implicitly through the blasphemous poems that echo Sassoon’s bitter understanding of war. Strange Meeting also articulates Owen’s ars poetica and echoes the draft of Owen’s Preface for the collection of poems he intended to have published in 1919:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
‘My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Britten used some of these words on the first page of the Requiem score. “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity. All a poet can do today is warn”. The words defined Owen’s newly-found mission as a war poet as well as his new aesthetics (see Owen’s May 1918 Preface to his planned Disabled and Other Poems in Stallworthy, 98), a mission and aesthetics with which Britten completely identified. Owen’s words also echoed the notion of “parable art”, a concept of W. H. Auden’s expressed when he edited the anthology of 1935, The Poet’s Tongue. Parable art, “shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love” (quoted in Mitchell 25), a concept Britten applied throughout his work. By the time of writing the Requiem, Britten assumed the role of combat poet which Owen had unassumingly invented along with the stance of fighting pacifist. The hero of Britten’s 1971 pacifist opera, Owen Wingrave, would project this role into the Vietnam era.

For all the blasphemy and the bitter denunciation, which led cathedral staff to hinder the public’s entrance for the first performance (Reed & Cooke, 402, n.1), for all the cataclysms of brass and drums, what we remember from the Requiem is its sympathy with suffering, the voice of the soprano keening in the Lacrymosa and the next-to final “Let us sleep now” ensemble, which echoes the ethos of Arthur Bliss’s setting of Robert Nichols’ “Dawn on the Somme” and the

Reconciliation section of Vaughan Williams work setting Walt Whitman’s words.

What is remarkable is the overall unity and interconnectedness of these three works despite the variety of viewpoints and texts. They all look back on the past, be it Homeric times, the American Civil War or World War One, Homer or Whitman or Owen, the old forms of the symphony, the cantata or the oratorio, Berlioz or Verdi. There are times when both Bliss, the friend of Milhaud and “Les Six”, and Vaughan Williams sound like their friend Elgar, the “grand old man” of English music who died in 1934. Even Britten, in the “Let us Sleep” duet gives in to pentatonic “English” music, typical of the twentieth century tradition inaugurated by Elgar. As Michael Kennedy remarks, it is curious that none of the music written in the years immediately following WWI by English composers who had fought in the war shows the bitterness of Sassoon’s or Owen’s poetry, as if their experiences had deepened their love for Nature and spirituality (Kennedy, 150). This was the case for Bliss and Vaughan Williams whose early post-war music did not reflect their war experiences. Just after the war, Vaughan Williams wrote some of his most meditative music, for example his 1922 Pastoral Symphony, while Bliss composed a group of chamber ensembles reflecting the ebullience and experiments of Stravinsky and “Les Six”. Later, as Andrew Burn indicates,  the Interlude “Through the valley of the shadow of death”, depicted horrifying evil in Bliss’s Meditations on a Theme John Blow of 1955, a set of symphonic variations paraphrasing Psalm xxiii, “The Lord is my shepherd”, calls up images of the hell that Bliss went through (Burn, 386). Similarly, memories of war’s violence spring up in Vaughan Williams’s shrill Fourth Symphony of 1935, a curiously violent companion piece to Donas Nobis. Later still in his Sixth Symphony of 1948, written in the years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings the terrible dissonances may reflect his reaction to violence. The post-WWII bitter note of disillusionment with mankind, echoing that of the post-WWI years, was left for Britten to sound. Yet his music, like Bliss’s and Vaughan Williams’s, is an act of faith and his choice of the Owen poems, “elegies…to this generation in no sense consolatory,” hold out the possibility of consolation to another generation: “they may be to the next.”  All three share the aim not to show a heap of broken images but rather, to restore order after chaos and to exhibit the remnants of the past on which to build a future and provide a way out of war’s waste land.


Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)

Morning Heroes (1930)

A symphony for Orator, Chorus and Orchestra

  1. Hector’s Farewell to Andromache (Book VI, The Iliad)

Orator and Orchestra

  1. The City ArmingFirst O Songs for a Prelude” (Drum Taps, Whitman)

Chorus and orchestra

III. Vigil

The Warrior’s Wife (Li-Tai-Po). Women’s chorus

The Bivouac’s Flame (Drum Taps, Whitman). Men’s chorus then whole chorus

  1. Achilles goes forth to battle. (Book XIX, The Iliad, translated by George Chapman). Chorus

The Heroes. Chorus

  1. Now trumpeter for thy close

“Spring offensive” (Wilfred Owen). Orator and timpani.

“Dawn of the Somme” (Robert Nichols). Chorus and orchestra.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Dona Nobis Pacem (1936)

A cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra

  1. Dona nobis pacem (Agnus Dei, Latin Mass). Soprano and chorus

II “Beat! Beat! Drums!” (Drum Taps, Whitman) Chorus

III. Reconciliation (Drum Taps, Whitman). Baritone and chorus

Dona nobis pacem.  Soprano

  1. Dirge for Two Veterans (Drum Taps, Whitman). Chorus
  2. “The Angel of Death” (John Bright’s 1855 speech in the House of Commons against the Crimean War). Baritone

Dona nobis pacem. Soprano

“We looked for peace” (Jeremiah 8:15-22). Chorus

  1. “O man greatly beloved” (Daniel 10:19) Baritone

“Nations shall not lift up a sword against nation” (Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 and other biblical texts). Chorus

Dona nobis pacem.  Soprano

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

War Requiem (1962)

Wilfred Owen’s poems and texts in the War Requiem’s architecture

  1. Introït : Requiem aeternam:

Requiem aeternam. Chorus

Te decet hymnus. Boys’ choir

Requiem aeternam. Chorus

“Anthem for Doomed Youth” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor solo 1

Kyrie. A Capella Chorus 1

  1. Dies Irae:

Dies Irae 1, Tuba Mirum. Chorus

“Bugles Sang” from “But I was looking at the Permanent Stars” (Wilfred Owen). Baritone solo 1 

Liber scriptus, Judex ergo, Quid sum miser & Rex tremendae. Soprano and chorus

“The Next War” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor and Baritone Duet 1

Recordare, Quaerens me, etc., to Oro supplex. Chorus

“Be slowly lifted” from “Sonnet on seeing a piece of our heavy artillery brought into action” (Wilfred Owen). Baritone solo 2.

Dies Irae 2. Chorus

Lacrymosa. Chorus and soprano solo

“Futility” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor solo 2:

Pie Jesu. A Capella Chorus 2

III. Offertorium :

Domine Jesu Christe. Boys’ choir

Sed Signifer and  Quam Olim Abrahae Fugue. Chorus

“Parable of the Old Man and the Young” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor and baritone duet 2

Hostias et preces. Boys’ choir

Reprise: Quam olim Abrahae Fugue. Chorus

  1. Sanctus:

Sanctus, Benedictus & Hosanna. Soprano solo and chorus

“After the blast of Lightening” from “The End” (Wilfred Owen). Baritone Solo 3

  1. Agnus Dei:

“One ever hangs were shelled roads part” from “At a Calvary near Ancre” (Wilfred Owen) interspersed with Agnus Dei. Chorus and Tenor Solo 3

Tenor Solo: Dona nobis pacem (Requiem liturgy: Dona eis requiem)

VI.Libera me:

Libera me. Soprano solo and chorus

“It seemed from out of battle I escaped” from “Strange meeting” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor Solo then Baritone Solo

Tenor and Baritone Duet 3: Let us Sleep

In Paradisum. Organ, boys’ chorus, soprano and mixed chorus

Requiem aeternam. Boys’ chorus

Requiescant in pace. Organ, boys’ chorus and mixed chorus



Ackroyd, Peter, T.S. Eliot, London: Hamish Hamilton, Cardinal Books, 1984.

Bliss, Arthur, As I Remember, London, Thames Publishing, 1989.

Burn, Andrew, “‘Now, Trumpeter for thy Close, The Symphony ‘Morning Heroes’: Bliss’s Requiem for his brother”, The Musical Times, Vol. 126, No. 1713 (Nov. 1985).

Butler, A. V., in “Walt Whitman and the English Composer”, Music and Letters, 1947, XXVII, 154-167.

Carpenter, Humphrey, Benjamin Britten, a Biography, London: Faber, 1992.

Cooke, Mervyn, Britten, War Requiem, Cambridge Music Handbooks, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Charlton, Anne and William, Putting Poetry First, A Life of Robert Nichols, 1893-1944, Norwich: Michael Russel, 2003.

Hibberd, Dominic and John Onions, eds, Poetry of the Great War, An Anthology, London: Macmillan, 1986.

Kennedy, Michael, in The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Paperbacks, 1980.

McVeagh, Diana, Elgar, The Music Maker, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Donald, Britten and Auden in the Thirties, London: Faber, 1981.

The Musical Times,“Morning Heroes”, a New Symphony by Arthur Bliss’, Vol. 71, n°1052, October 1930, 881-886.

Parker, Peter, Isherwood, London:  Picador, 2004.

Picker, John M. ‘“Red War is My Song”, Whitman, Higginson, and Civil War Music”, in Lawrence Kramer, ed., Walt Whitman and Modern Music: War, Desire and the Trials of Nationhood, New York, Garland Publishing, 2000.

Reed, Philip & Cooke, Mervyn, eds., The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Vol. 5, 1958-1965, The Boydell Press in association with the Britten-Pears Foundation, 2010.

Stalworthy, Jon, ed., The War Poems of Wilfred Owen, London, Chatto and Windus, 2000.

Vaughan Williams, Ralph, “A Musical Autobiography”, National Music and Other Essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1996.

Vaughan Williams, Ursula, Vaughan Williams: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1964.

Walt Whitman, The Complete Poems, Francis Murphy, ed., Penguin Education, Harmondsworth, 1975.


[1] John Foulds (1880-1939) wrote his piece between 1919 and 1921.The work was taken up by the British Legion and was first performed at the Albert Hall. Despite the huge success and the admiration of G.B. Shaw, it was completely overlooked by the anonymous critic of the Musical Times of October 1930 in his overview of works inspired by the Great War.  See the article ‘“Morning Heroes”, a New Symphony by Arthur Bliss’, The Musical Times, Vol. 71, No 1052, October 1930, 881. The work was revived on November 11, 2007.

[2] Originally planned to be in English, the Requiem text was changed over to Latin due to Vishnevskaya’s difficulties with English.

[3] Britten’s Agnus Dei concludes with “Grant us peace” while the Agnus Dei of a requiem mass usually concludes with “Dona eis requiem”, “Grant them peace”.

[4] Frederick Delius (1862-1934) used Whitman’s subtitle for a group of his Leaves of Grass poems as a title for his setting for baritone, chorus and orchestra.

[5] Mahler’s Klagende Lied of 1898, his Symphony n°8, a setting of the Christian hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” and the Last Scene of Goethe’s Second Faust (1907), and Das Lied von der Erde of 1908 also provided models for Britten and John Fould, present at the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth in Vienna in 1910.

[6] Li Bai or Li Po (701-762), regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty, is mostly known by Hans Bethge’s translations in his anthology Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute) in 1907, which inspired Mahler for his Das Lied von der Erde. 

[7] Bliss met Nichols (1893-1944) in 1917 when Nichols had already published two volumes of poetry, Invocation (1915), Ardours and Endurances (1917). ‘Dawn on the Somme’ is extracted from Aurelia and Other Poems of 1920. Nichols served in the Royal Artillery from 1914 to 1916 when he was invalided out.

[8]   Bliss was a friend of Darius Milhaud of the “Groupe des Six”, French composers who met and influenced each other between 1916 and 1923. Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was among them.

[9] In the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur, the scapegoat is a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which it is sent into the wilderness, hence the separation between sheep and goats in the Latin text. The most generally accepted source for the word tragedy is the Greek tragōidia, or “goat-song,” from tragos (“goat”) and aeidein (“to sing”). The word could have referred to the goat that was sacrificed in the rituals from which tragedy developed.

[10]The poem was set to music by Gustav Holst, among others, also involved in the war and a very close friend of Vaughan Williams’s. Holst’s The Mystic Trumpeter, for soprano and orchestra op. 18 was first performed in 1905. Bliss knew him and took his music to Holst but does not mention that work in his autobiography.

[11] Bach a Lutheran set the Latin text of the Catholic Mass in 1733 for the Elector of Saxony who converted to Catholicism in order to become king of Poland under the name of Augustus III.

[12] The novel is Susan Hill’s 1971 Strange Meeting. The film is director Derek Jarman’s 1989 War Requiem. Loosely based on Wilfred Owen’s life, Jarman’s film dramatizes Britten’s Requiem and gives it an openly gay activist and pacifist slant as it underlines the homoerotic elements of military camaraderie in Owen’s poetry and his aestheticized version of trench warfare. It includes footage from documentaries, films and newsreels about both World Wars and the Vietnam War.

[13] Britten personally knew Eliot and his poetry. They attempted to work together in 1948 but Brittenset two Eliot poems to music after the poet’s death in 1965.

[14] Early in his career Gustav Holst (1874-1934) composed a Whitman Overture for orchestra (1890) before The Mystic Trumpeter for soprano and orchestra, op 18 (1904), A Dirge for Two Veterans, for male chorus, brass and percussion (1914) and the Ode to Death, for chorus and orchestra, op. 38 in 1919.

[15] It is the sixth piece in the Nocturne for tenor, 7 obbligato instruments and strings op. 60, with the English horn as the solo instrument.

Gilles Couderc,  senior lecturer at Université Caen Normandie, has published numerous articles on Benjamin Britten and other English composers. He has directed several numbers of periodicals including LISA e-journal and Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique. He has also spoken about music on  France Culture radio.