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utulsa.edu

Channeling the Voice of God: Singing Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”

By Layne Farmen

I.

“It isn’t music for the casual listener. I think as a musician’s musician, Britten compliments serious musicians by challenging our thinking and our own boundaries… It is a deep, deep work that never lets up on the demands by everyone. It takes all of our efforts to achieve it…”

-Dr. Tim Sharp, Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio

Four months after moving to Oklahoma and with no classical training to speak of, I’m going on a giant stage to perform one of the grandest and most difficult pieces of music ever composed.

A view from the stage

On November 11th The Tulsa Symphony is presenting Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for the very first time, in honor of the World War I centennial. My wife Annelise, who possesses significant musical ability, talked me into auditioning for the chorus, and much to my surprise, I made it in. It wasn’t until the splitting migraine after the first rehearsal that I realized just how much I was in over my head.

Annelise is an accomplished music teacher, with experience in both primary and secondary education, though we had never attempted a voice lesson together. The day of the audition she helped me dig through her endless bag of music to find a piece that would fit my entirely unimpressive range. We eventually landed on “Homeward Bound,” something always good for inspiring sentimental misty eyes, when performed competently. As I sang and she salvaged I realized I hadn’t really heard my voice in years; not like this.

At the audition Annelise went first, and I snuck up with my ear to the door to listen while she knocked it out of the park: singing something impressive, and in a different language. Of course, she was a no-brainer. After I delivered my piece and presented what was certainly a more difficult decision for Dr. Tim Sharp, he told us we were in.

The imposing front cover

II.

Britten’s War Requiem is a vocally demanding choir piece and is not for the faint of heart. The combination of mathematical composing mixed with opera-like drama originally had me discouraged…but the more it comes together the more excited I am”—Asura Oulds, Bass and TU alumni

Nothing could have prepared me for the first rehearsal. The only experience I can compare it to was the first time I opened Finnegans Wake, but this time it was group confusion. Suddenly I was looking at eccentric bits of musical notation I had never seen before: double sharps? How does one get used to 7/4? And how does one comfortably sing a section where the words carry on without any sense of rhythm, to create a sort of chanting chaos?

There is a sense of community in choral music that builds a camaraderie and unity that directly finds its way into the sound of the performance: my wife has noticed this phenomena in her choirs over the years: when the students like each other, they simply sing better. But no matter how friendly, welcoming, cheery and warm the environment of the Tulsa Oratorio is, when we first looked at the text I’m not sure “strength in numbers” could apply just yet.

In one particularly difficult section, near the end of the “Libera me” I simply couldn’t bear being confused any longer. I was irritated that I wasn’t getting it, irritated that my section wasn’t getting it, and even more irritated that no one was throwing up an SOS signal of any kind. So I raised my hand and didn’t wait to get called on.

I learned later this wasn’t proper procedure: when you have a difficulty, you’re meant to speak to your section leader, who will then document the difficulty and present it to Dr. Sharp at the break, so you don’t slow the momentum of the rehearsal. Rightly so, my interjection was met with side glances from the rest of the ensemble, and at least one glare from the soprano section.

What came out was “could we hear the tenor part on square 114?” What I really was saying was “Just where in the hell ARE we?”

III.

“My personal conviction is that musical compositions are a kind of “world-making” that asks us to inhabit realities which may be different than our own…To me, War Requiem creates a musical world where hope is no longer an assurance but an uncertainty.  There are still moments of incredible beauty and positive affirmations, but they may always be unexpectedly shattered. The piece gives us a sustained opportunity to inhabit an existential struggle that many people find daily within themselves. The beauty of the work lies in its ability to lead us beyond sympathy and into empathy…I sincerely believe that War Requiem, when thoughtfully engaged, is a work of art with the capacity to reacquaint and re-sensitize us.”—Zachary Malavolti, Assistant Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio.

Benjamin Britten

I used to marvel when I saw Annelise perform with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. Last winter, after an immensely successful run of Carmina Burana and just preceding performances of Verde’s Requiem, she performed Handel’s Messiah with the Florida Orchestra under the direction of Michael Francis. Her favorite section was No. 46, a somber death knell, “Since by man came death” that suddenly leaps exuberantly into joy, “by man came also the resurrection from the dead!” Finding clear meaning in classical texts can often be difficult for contemporary audiences, so far removed by history, language, and space, but the musical contrast here colors the text in completely unambiguous fashion.

Grave, piano, “For as in Adam all die.”

Forte, Allegro, “Even so in Christ shall all be made alive!”

Annelise said she felt during the first performance as if they were collectively channeling the voice of God.

Over the past few years, due in part to my training in the liberal arts and my continued spiritual journey of church-going and theological study, I’ve come to a place where radical pacifism is central to my belief system. It was central to Britten’s too. He left England to live as an exile in America in 1939, and upon returning was recognized as a conscientious objector. His words, stated before a tribunal, resonate across history: “Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to not to help to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual’s actions or thoughts.”

Assistant Artistic Director Zachary Malavolti has a great deal to say about how Britten’s ideological ethos comes through in both the text of the Requiem and the technical musicality. Most students of Literature have come in contact with Wilfred Owen, especially the visceral “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” the darkly ironic poem about the horrors of trench warfare in World War I. Britten combines language from the work of Wilfred Owen (himself killed in World War I when he was only 25), with traditional Latin Mass, specifically meant for the remembrance of the dead. To translate this in musical composition, Britten renders the monstrous chaos of war, and simulates the violent shaking apart of Heaven and Earth. While the chorus sings “when heaven and earth are shaken, (trans.)” says Malavolti, “the orchestra doubles in its meter while the chorus’ rhythm remains unaltered. By keeping the large pulses the same for both ensembles, the conductor is able to control two seemingly different tempos. The aural effect is that the chorus and orchestra are getting out of sync (like heaven and earth).”

Wilfred Owen

 

IV.

Art is History’s nostalgia, it prefers a thatched

roof to a concrete factory, and the huge church

above a bleached village.

Derek Walcott, from Omeros

 

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

Wilfred Owen, from “Strange Meeting”

 

Last night we had our first rehearsal with Dr. James Bagwell and a fully combined choir, more than doubling the sound we had been working with thus far. Suddenly we were rehearsing the music at tempo, meaning that musical passages that had previously merely skipped along now furiously charged ahead.  “Have no fear!” Bagwell cheered us on after we collectively missed an entrance: “You can’t have any fear!” From the first time since we started rehearsing we got through the entire Requiem, piece by piece, absolutely hammering away at every problem area, white knuckled, blasting through some of the most challenging music ever put to page. Parts of the text that sounded measured, dignified, now sounded ravenous and violent (“Confutatis”).  Near the end of the “Libera me” we were moving so quickly I couldn’t rely on my previous strategy of counting to make my entrances; I lifted my eyes off the page and sang from memory, remarkably, not missing a single note. When going over the first movement, we were instructed to sing as if we were six feet underground, “If it’s right” Bagwell noted, “people will leave wondering what happened.”

Partly because I was struggling with the material myself, I asked Malavolti what audiences should bring with them to the performance on Sunday. How can we prepare ourselves for what we’re about to hear? His first two recommendations, about noting the three distinct ensemble “voices” and listening for the juxtaposition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the Latin mass, were very helpful. His third recommendation was central to a culminating question: why do we grapple with texts that we can’t fully understand? “There are not always clear answers” says Malavolti. “The experience comes from wrestling…with the material Britten has provided.” Maybe concepts like “War” really can’t be understood in linear, easily digestible ways. Though we can learn about all of the major events, treaties, dates and tank models from any given textbook, I think the arts alone can bring us face to face with what war feels like, with what it really means.

If it’s right, people will leave wondering what happened

If it’s right, I think we’ll leave wondering too.

Event details can be found and tickets can be purchased HERE.

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one comment
  1. You’ve written my experience. Excellent article!

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