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The Way We Remember War

“This is not the 1812 Overture, with its make-believe bravado. This is not about imagined valor — it’s about real people.”

Thoughts on Britten’s War Requiem, written by Doyle Armbrust:

I’ve always been enamored with the vivid detail with which people of my parents’ generation can recall the day JFK or MLK was assassinated: their exact location, the temperament of the weather, and the faces of those around them. My variation on that theme involves the Challenger disaster, Operation Desert Storm, and September 11. The indelible memories of the second event on this list include the front page of the Chicago Tribune (which I saved until college), watching battleships blast 16-inch shells into the night on live television, and collecting Desert Storm baseball cards. My first sentient — if safely removed — exposure to war involved deciding whether or not to trade a SCUD missile for a Dick Cheney.

There is often a disconnect between the grandeur of war and the personal fallout from it…say, the distance between the charming stories my great uncle would tell me about being a barber on a Navy ship in the Pacific in the 1940s, and the inaccessible look in his eyes while he spun the yarn. The bridging of these two realities is what makes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem an indisputable masterpiece.

What are the first three classical music scores about war that pop into your head? For me — setting aside the Requiem for a moment — it’s Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (WWII), Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (WWII), and George Crumb’s Black Angels (Vietnam). Well, and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, which is truly one of the most cringe-worthy pieces not only by Ludwig van, but by any composer, ever (seek it out and prepare for a belly laugh). In any case, the element that each of these three war-themed pieces share with the Britten is the reckoning with the horrors of war on a personal and even spiritual level. This is not the 1812 Overture, with its make-believe bravado. This is not about imagined valor — it’s about real people.

The War Requiem consumed Britten during the years of its writing, and looking back, it’s hard to imagine that a more perfect structure could have been chosen for such a monumental piece or the solemn occasion of its premiere. In 1962, the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was erected next to its bomb-ravaged predecessor, was a study in the stirring juxtaposition of “then and now.” Britten, one of the most erudite and deep-thinking composers of any era, parallels this reality by combining the historic Requiem mass (full orchestra and chorus) with contemporary poetry from the point of view of real soldiers by Wilfred Owen (chamber orchestra with tenor and baritone soloists). But he doesn’t stop there. With the inclusion of a children’s choir and organ, the implausible optimism that there is in fact hope for peace in the future merges its way into this landmark work.

I remember talking my way into the recently opened — and sold out for weeks — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while on a school trip to Washington, DC. What had previously existed as an abstract horror in my mind finally transformed into an experience of millions of individuals. The vast became granular. After Britten’s death, an envelope containing photographs of four soldiers — all casualties of WWII — was found amongst his things. Though merely acquaintances, these tragedies made the war immediate for the composer, rather than a conceptual event. To my ears, and despite its well-formulated structure, there is a kind of emotional whiplash between the three ensembles Britten engages on stage. Keep an ear out for the third section in the opening “Requiem aeternam,” and the way the transcendence of the mass and naivety of the children’s chorus tumbles into the fraught “What Passing Bells for These Who Die as Cattle.” It is abundantly clear that this composer is not going to allow us, the listeners, to escape into warm melancholy or ex-post-facto reveling. We are going to hear from the front lines of this worldwide atrocity.

The War Requiem can project the feeling of being constantly sucker-punched on an emotional level. The most jolting of these for me is the move from the “Requiem Aeternam: Kyrie eleison,” into the “Dies Irae” portion of the piece. In the former, lugubrious, sotto voce waves in the chorus take us to a heavenly realm before brass interruptions usher in the perturbed and breathless “Dies Irae.” Here’s an excerpt of this section by the Berlin Philharmonic:

This is a movement that, for my money, “out-Carmina-Burana-s” Carmina Burana. The contradiction of both mood and writing is nothing short of shocking, and this caroming between the earth and the heavens is the rule in this work, not the exception.

How does one end a piece that is looking to the past in equal measure to the future — one in which neither heaven nor earth provide satisfactory answers? By positing a question, of sorts.

Soon after the Gulf War erupted, I decided to find a pen pal in the US Army. I began writing to a private I did not know previously, and what I recall most clearly is that I was expecting hand-written accounts that mirrored war movie action sequences. What I received were letters honestly recounting the tedium of war. The passing of hours under a blistering sun, miles from the front lines. War was not what I thought it was.

While Britten’s text on paper reads like a closer: “Let them rest in peace, Amen,” the fact that the final words from earth are exchanged between two fallen soldiers (tenor and baritone) revolving around the “pity of war” leave one thinking that there is more to this story than the memories of World War II. Will we always be doomed to repeat this horror, or is there another way?

Perhaps the way in which we remember — or forget — such a cataclysmic event provides the answer…

Experience Britten’s War Requiem with the UMS Choral Union, Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, Saturday, February 16 in Hill Auditorium.


Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

British Classical Music Makes a Comeback

Photo: Alison Balsom, trumpet.

England has always been underrepresented in the history of Classical Music. There have been, of course, spurts when British composers or performers have made significant contributions to this tradition, but, more often than not, foreign musicians have dominated England’s musical world and drowned out the work of its native sons and daughters.

In the program of Alison Balsom’s April 20 performance, works dating from the period between English composer’s Henry Purcell’s death and English composer’s Edward Elgar’s ascent to international relevance exemplify a time when the most celebrated musical figures in England were outsiders, starting with George Frederic Handel.

Wandering interests

George Frederic Handel was only nine years old when Purcell died in 1694. Handel was still a young man when he moved to London in 1712, and although he became a naturalized British subject, his musical endeavors were always outwardly focused on styles from mainland Europe, such as Italian opera, German polyphony and a variety of chamber forms, like the concerto.

Ms. Balsom’s program includes Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op. 6, no. 7, and even pairs it with Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso no. 12 in g Minor to show that this type piece was not of English origin. The program reinforces this international influence on Handel’s music with arrangements of works by Italian composers, Tomaso Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in B-flat, Op. 7, no. 3 and Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Major, RV 230, further demonstrating Handel’s wandering interests in foreign styles and his failure to bolster the innovations of the native British musicians who had come before him.

An example for others?

This point is not trivial, because earlier English composers had created traditions of their own, and Handel’s choice to ignore these may have set a precedent for the other international composers who made their careers in England.

The works by Henry Purcell on the evening’s program, on the other hand, embody the English musical traditions that Handel, and those who followed him, left untouched. Note that there are no Purcell concertos, and even his excerpted operas King Arthur and The Prophetess are very different from Handel’s. We also have unusual-looking titles like Chacony in g minor and Fantasia on one note, works that resemble coeval forms developed on The Continent, but are unique to Purcell and England’s innate musical sensibility.

This native idiosyncrasy of Purcell’s works did not re-gain international prominence until the final third of the nineteenth century. And, if this presence hibernated after Purcell’s death, it awoke with Elgar, learned to walk with Ralph Vaughan Williams, came of age with Benjamin Britten, and is enjoying a golden age at the present.

A new golden age

Encapsulated by the ultra-successful Proms concert series, which started 201 years after Purcell’s death, British Classical Music currently enjoys a perfect position between Continental Europe’s self-imposed erudition and America’s cloying populism. Here, world premieres and beloved standards are honored together, and all before audiences of millions.

Alison Balsom, who headlined the final concert at the 2009 Proms, is a bright, shining emblem of a thriving musical world replete with skilled minds and performers who understand their culture’s origins as well as guide it into the future. It’s very fitting for her April 23rd performance to be filled with the varied sounds and styles of the baroque period, because that era marked the turning point into obscurity out of which British Classical Music has re-emerged just over the last century and a half.