Remembering World War I, 100 years later: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity …

All a poet can do today is warn.”

words by Wilfred Owen, used on the title page of Britten’s War Requiem

On Sunday November 11th, The War Requiem, Benjamin Britten’s dissonant, inter-textual and pacifistic masterpiece is being brought to Tulsa for the World War I Centennial.

Described on the Tulsa Symphony website as “one of the great defining masterworks of the 20th century,” the performance will involve the Tulsa Oratorio chorus, Tulsa Opera Chorus, Youth Opera, University of Tulsa Concert Chorale, and the Symphony Orchestra under the direction of James Bagwell.  In short, this means that hundreds of elite musicians are lending their skills to represent Britten’s epic and singular vision, including several TU students, faculty and alumni. Dr. Tim Sharp, Artistic Director and Composer of the Tulsa Oratorio describes this collection of ensembles as “iconic.” “I want listeners to see the incredible power art has to capture our most extreme thoughts and emotions and to do so in a way that has beauty and dignity” says Sharp. “It is quite a model of collaboration, art’s power to capture emotions and concepts, and an incredible showing of humanity.”

Zachary Malavolti, the Assistant Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio and a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma describes Benjamin Britten as “one of the leading English composers of the twentieth century” with a “wide and diverse” body of work. “His musical voice is uniquely his own, neither exceptionally modernist nor overly traditional” says Malavolti. “A common thread throughout many of his works is his poignant ability to genuinely convey his personal convictions through his musical structures and rhetoric. Britten was an ardent pacifist and War Requiem is a carefully constructed musical appeal that makes his own passion heard.”

The War Requiem was initially commissioned for the 1962 rebuilding of Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by Nazi bombing in 1940. Britten combined the war poetry of Wilfred Owen with text from traditional Latin mass to craft his project,  directly responding to the horrors of war he witnessed during his life. The difficulty of the subject matter directly matches the dissonance of the piece: often abstract, discordant, and difficult to follow. “It is a piece that asks more from its audience that just mere listening” says Malavolti. “It is a piece that wants you to wrestle with its material and message. War Requiem resonates because it asks for the same thoughtfulness that this centennial itself asks of us.”

Dr. Tim Sharp and the Tulsa Oratorio

Though the complexity of the piece and the morbidity of the subject matter could seem to paint a picture of inaccessibility and audience alienation, Britten’s piece has had resounding commercial success, and has deeply connected with audiences throughout the world. “This is a FIRST for the Tulsa Symphony, TOC, and TU.” says Dr. Tim Sharp. “It is truly an epic event. I would love for our audience to marvel at what we are able to do in our community as collaborative artists and musicians. I would love for this to be symbolic of the richness of our culture in this area.”

As part of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities theme of “Memory,” we hope that the presentation of Britten’s manifesto of pacifism is an effective way to use the memory of the past in order to forge ahead into a brighter future.

You can find further event details linked below.

Classics II – Britten’s War Requiem