A Requiem is a choral singer’s bread and butter. We sing these works all the time, whether by Mozart or Verdi, Faure or Brahms. They are wonderful pieces. The Latin words are as familiar to me now as nursery rhymes once were. And yet, their very familiarity means that often I forget what I am really singing about. And this is one of those weeks where events have made me think I should remember.
Like undoubtedly so many choirs, we are currently rehearsing Britten’s War Requiem. We have been fortunate enough to perform it many times in the last few years, including a wonderful anniversary performance in Coventry Cathedral. This means that when we come back to it again, as we did last night, it’s much more about the fine detail than note-bashing. Although occasionally it is about note-bashing.
When you’re working at that level of detail, you don’t get the sense of the piece. The emotional impact is lost. In the discussion about which vowel sound is more closed in benedictus (yes that was one of the discussions), you forget the meaning of the words (‘blessed’ for those of you who didn’t spend a significant part of their schooling conjugating Latin). You debate whether something is a crotchet or a quaver, and work on getting that chord just a little bit more blended. When it comes together, all this fine detail can create fantastic music, but it is the emotional impact of singing with a group of other people that has always had the most effect on me. You never know which performance it is going to be, but when a mood takes a room the experience is overwhelming.
The interesting thing about Britten’s setting is the juxtaposition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the more traditional text. The words of the war poet add an extra poignancy to the prayers. The heart of the Britten (for me) is not one of the magnificent choral sections. It is the moment during the Libera Me when the baritone sings into the silence, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark.” For really, with all our differences, we are the same. It comes to all of us.
So in my reflections on events I think that, whether you be an eight year old cheering on marathon runners, a controversial former prime minister, an American fertiliser plant worker, or simply one of the millions who have drifted away this week, everyone deserves a requiescant in pace from someone.
The CBSO’s next performance of Britten’s War Requiem, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on May 28th, is dedicated to alto Lesley Nickell. And I can think of nothing more fitting than the act of a group of people joining together in glorious harmony (and sometimes discord, it is Britten) to remember a life, particularly one so dedicated to singing.
Future performances of Britten’s War Requiem by the CBSO Chorus are in Dresden, Hannover, Paris and London.