To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest English composer of the 20th century, La Monnaie is presenting the work which Benjamin Britten wrote in memory of all WWII victims, as the requiem included in its programme every year. The War Requiem, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, is one of the events of this autumn. Along with the impressive chorus and La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, three splendid soloists will remind us of the disasters of war, in Latin and in English, and will call out our need for peace and reconciliation. This War Requiem concert is supported by Amnesty International.
This project is in keeping with La Monnaie’s tradition to propose a requiem around the time of All Saints’ Day. After the one by Bruneau (which you conducted last November), you are taking on a more ambitious work.
One of the reasons for this is of course the 2013 anniversary of Britten’s birth, and also the 2014 commemoration of the beginning of WWI. It is also certainly a work which will be presented brilliantly thanks to the talent at La Monnaie: I am thinking of the children’s chorus and the soloist roles, with Olga Guryakova, Mark Padmore and Dietrich Henschel.
This casting, with a Russian singer, an English tenor and a German baritone, is not just a coincidence.
No, indeed. Peter de Caluwe and I decided to recreate the trio of soloists which Britten had imagined in 1962, with singers from the three biggest countries involved in WWII. This was not quite achieved, as Galina Vichnevskaya could not leave the USSR. Instead, Heather Harper sang with Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
In this case, the concert will not take place in a cathedral.
I would have liked it, but performing in a cathedral would lead to other problems – acoustic in particular. And we will be able to recreate the necessary atmosphere for the War Requiem at Bozar. We must think about where the children’s chorus will be placed, as it must be able to create an impression of distance. I think I will do what I did for the Bach choral in November 2012 and use the public space behind the balconies. This space provides a beautiful reverberation and allows us experiment with the doors opening into the auditorium to create different effects from one movement to the next. The Offertory must come from far away, but in the In paradisum part of Libera me, the children’s chorus must be a lot closer.
In paradisum is one of the rare moments when…
…when the two orchestras play together with the chorus, three soloists, the children’s chorus, the two organs – the big organ which appears for the first time, and the little organ which is connected with the children’s chorus. In terms of volume, it is quite different.
Tell us about the distinctive feature of this requiem: how did Britten associate poems by Wilfred Owen with the liturgical text?
On the one hand, the soprano and choruses sing the Latin text, accompanied by the full orchestra; on the other hand, the tenor and the baritone share poems in English, accompanied by the chamber orchestra. The use of poems by a young English poet – Wilfred Owen, who died at the end of WWI at the age of 25 – has a big impact on the emotional level of the work. These poems are accessible and well written, thus bringing the work closer to our reality. In a certain way, the feelings expressed in the liturgical mass are ‘illustrated’ by the poems, making its content even more eternal. Conflicts and war will always be all too contemporary. I find it fascinating that Britten chose to conduct the chamber orchestra each time instead of the full orchestra. The interludes of the chamber orchestra summarise its musical vocabulary perfectly. The other passages in Latin are almost Verdian and secular. Dies irae, for example, has the same rhythmic force as Dies irae in Verdi’s Messa da requiem, expressing immense anger.
Are these passages perhaps more conventional?
Yes, the passages with full orchestra and full chorus are rather conventional. The ‘commentaries’ represented by Owen’s poems are Britten’s signature. Such force emanates from ‘Let us sleep now’, the lullaby which ends this heartrending work. In it, Britten brings together both types of text: suddenly there is a juxtaposition of all of the elements which, until then, had remained separate. The War Requiem moves me each time due to the simplicity of the writing at several points in the score. I am thinking in particular of Lacrymosa in Dies irae, which is almost Mozartian in its simplicity of expression. The alternation with Owen’s poems – almost like a meditation – is poignant.
Britten wished to prompt reflection on the disaster caused by the war and to ‘warn’ us – according to the famous phrase from his score: ‘All a poet can do today is warn’.
Britten expresses his anger in his own way: in a spirit of pacifism, with restraint and great intelligence. He adds a dimension of his own to a more ‘traditional’ expression of the liturgical text after the fashion of Verdi and Mozart, with more intimate moments which, through silence and lights, translate the fear of death. Silence is used in a very beautiful way by Britten. He creates a sort of discomfort in the use of time, with the silent moments he has added. And what better way to meditate than in silence and with a limited use of means? Britten’s Requiem has it all: instantaneous force and moments of reflection.
What are the challenges faced when presenting this work?
The first challenge lies in the score for the choruses, which is difficult and complex. And I have probably created one for myself by deciding to conduct the two orchestras, as the work is often shared with another conductor who conducts the chamber orchestra. But because the two orchestras rarely play together, it is possible to do it alone, as long as the arrangement on stage is well done. Furthermore, I could not imagine letting someone else conduct those wonderful passages for chamber orchestra! Britten made use of methods which were fascinating in terms of their simplicity, such as the use of the tritone C-F sharp. These effects are not very innovative, yet are very effective. The most difficult movement is Libera me, with the baritone’s monologue which precedes ‘Let us sleep now’ before the great denouement. The singers must be remarkable and able to sustain the tension within a very finely woven fabric. In general, this work must achieve a shared respiration and rhythmic ostinatos, which reappear throughout the work.
How would you describe the role of the children’s chorus?
This role is different in the four passages sung by the children’s chorus. But generally, the addition of this chorus reflects Britten’s desire for pacifism. Children are associated with guardian angels, which is quite obvious in In paradisum. With the two male protagonists who are two young soldiers, Britten also seems to involve future generations in an account of the horrors of war, by stating: ‘Let us not create this type of future for our children.’ This is perhaps my own interpretation, but I find the idea to be quite beautiful.
Interview by Marie Mergeay