Posted on Thu, Oct. 24, 2002

'War Requiem' a call for peace
Sounds of battlefield suffuse Britten's work


THE REQUIEM MASS for the souls of the departed has been adapted from church to concert hall by many renowned composers, including Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi, and it has inspired a choral work by Brahms to comfort the living.

But no composer was quite so bold as Benjamin Britten, who followed the opening lines about eternal rest, sung by an otherworldly chorus of children and adults, with a poet's grim and angry report from a battlefield:

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

"Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

"Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

"Can patter out their hasty orisons."

The British composer's epic, dramatic "War Requiem" often sounds as if it might be taking place on a battlefield, yet its final moment is a quiet confrontation between two soldiers. In this strange meeting, one declares to the other, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend."

This massive choral work was commissioned for a specific event -- the 1962 festival celebrating the rebuilding of England's Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in a German air raid early in World War II.

But from the beginning, Britten was determined to make it more than a memorial to a bombed-out 14th century cathedral. He wrote it specifically for soloists from England, Germany and Russia, which he felt were the nations that suffered most during World War II. He said he wanted it to be "a call for peace in memory of those of all nations who died."

Britten immediately focused on interspersing the Latin text of the Mass with English poetry by Wilfred Owen, the British soldier who died on the battlefield in France a week before the end of World War I. After the premiere and a best-selling recording featuring Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Galina Vishnevskaya, the "War Requiem" was taken up by the burgeoning British peace movement.

The "War Requiem" was completed the year the Berlin Wall was built, premiered the year the United States and the Soviet Union faced potential war during the Cuban missile crisis and was first performed in San Francisco in 1969 as protests against the Vietnam War filled the city with demonstrators.

Britten's work seems to generate renewed attention when war is on the collective mind -- such as today. None of this surprises German-born conductor Kurt Masur, who leads four performances of the "War Requiem" with the San Francisco Symphony beginning tonight at Davies Hall. The massive undertaking involves more than 350 musicians, chorus members and soloists.

"I heard it first in performance in Leipzig in the 1970s, and it was very expressive and deeply touching," Masur said during an interview as he began rehearsals early this week. He has conducted the "War Requiem" many times in many places, from London to Israel to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (for an audience of thousands) in New York's Harlem.

"The piece always impresses," Masur says, as it conveys the pity of war and the price of destruction -- maybe now more than ever. "Nowhere in the world," he says, "is there the kind of place where you feel safe."

Masur, 75, grew up in Germany during the Nazi era and was a 17-year-old soldier at the end of World War II. He says Britten's work continues to convey a message "that no war until now has made sense, and at least it is a loss for everybody." Now, he believes, no one could predict "how widespread it can be."

In September of last year, Masur was preparing for the opening of his 11th and final season as music director of the New York Philharmonic when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. "The American people for the first time understand that war for them is not as far away as the second World War," he says. "Of course they lost a lot of young people. But if war were in their own country, it would be more horrifying."

Masur became a consoling force in New York last September, conducting a televised benefit performance of Brahms' "German Requiem." It was a concert heralded for its emotional message of comfort and hope for the survivors in the days following the terrorist attacks.

"It came immediately to my mind -- I would not have done anything else," Masur says, "because mourning is not a way to survive." He notes that Brahms wrote the "German Requiem" as a personal testament after his mother's death, "trying to overcome his fear to die."

"I wouldn't have chosen the 'War Requiem' at that time, because the 'War Requiem' doesn't heal," Masur says. "The Brahms 'German Requiem' does heal."

Then what effect does the "War Requiem" have?

"If you listen to that piece, you are afraid of war," he says. "There is a very deep, profound understanding of the drums of war."

Masur, who has been sitting for the interview at a table in his dressing room at Davies Symphony Hall, moves to unzip a traveling case he has brought with him. "I don't want to use the wrong words for your readers," he says.

He pulls out the score of the "War Requiem" and moves his finger to Wilfred Owen's lines, written in the midst of World War I and printed just below the title: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn."

Masur says music and the other arts can affect the world; certainly they reflect it, he suggests. He believes the strongest movement in the arts in the 20th century was for liberation -- a "revolutionary spirit" that began in the 18th and 19th centuries with such works as Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony incorporating Schiller's "Ode to Joy."

Masur himself played a major role in the demonstrations that led to German reunification in the 1990s. He notes that "the so-called peaceful revolts in Eastern Europe" took place 200 years after the violence of the French Revolution.

Just how his performances of the "War Requiem" might change the world remains an open question. Masur recalls that he conducted it in Israel in 1995, hoping he "might help them understand fighting doesn't help." About a month after the performance, Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Does it make sense to keep delivering this message? Yes, Masur says. The problem is that he needs to perform more, for more people, because "not everybody hears it."

Masur tells a story. "I am a Christian, although I don't go very often to church. When I do, there are only a few old people there. What is the priest thinking? Does he give up? He doesn't give up."

Robert Taylor covers fine arts for the Times. He can be reached at 925-977-8428 or

© 2001 bayarea and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.