War Requiem - Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)


Image, 1918: An English soldier is killed in action one week before Armistice Day.  He is Wilfred Owen, a promising poet, 25 years old.

Image, 1940: German bombs destroy the 13th century Cathedral of St Michael in Coventry, a calculated effort to break the British spirit.

Image, 1942: While World War II rages, Benjamin Britten leaves the safety of the United States, where he has spent three years, and sails home to England.  He is a conscientious objector but feels a need to be in his homeland in its time of trial.

When the War ended, scars remained.  A decision was made to leave the shell of the old cathedral as a memorial and build a new, modern structure beside it.  Leading English artists provided works of art for it.  Benjamin Britten received a commission to write a major work for chorus and orchestra for the dedication ceremony.  He welcomed the commission, which gave him three years to work on the score and a free hand to use any text, sacred or secular.

Britten chose the basic structure of the Requiem Mass, a service of Latin prayers offered for a departed soul.  Although the liturgy can be said or chanted by voices alone, Britten followed a tradition of large-scale Requiem settings for chorus and orchestra by Mozart, Cherubini, Berlioz and Fauré.  Britten especially looked toward Verdi's Requiem, a powerfully dramatic work that is more at home in concert halls than in churches.

Most of the Latin texts in War Requiem are sung by a large chorus– more than 200 voices in this performance, as Britten desired– representing the whole Church, mourning, in this case, for its fallen soldiers.  A soprano soloist leads them at times, adding a personal tone to the grief of the Christian community.  The soprano and the chorus are supported by a large orchestra.

Children's voices, accompanied only by a small organ, add another level of expression, singing prayers of heavenly praise, untouched by earthly griefs, guilt or fear.  (Britten loved children and wrote many works for them, including his Ceremony of Carols.)

By writing only a conventional Latin Requiem, Britten would have appropriately memorialized the War and honored the new cathedral.  In War Requiem he went far beyond that; he boldly decided to intermingle Latin texts with poems by Wilfred Owen, letting the sacred and the secular co-exist in an unresolved tension.  Two male soloists, accompanied by a chamber orchestra of 12 players, sing the English poems, portraying common soldiers who face death every day.  Their words imply serious challenges to the ancient consolations of the Church.

With performing forces working on three different levels– the large chorus and orchestra, the children and organ (preferably located at a distance), and the male soloists with their small orchestra– War Requiem could have been a confusing jumble.  This was not the case, owing to Britten's rich inspiration, his sense of dramatic timing, and his organizational genius. 

To the listener, one can say: Be alert.  If you notice a new musical idea, it will probably re-appear later, either quoted directly or in another form.  For instance, the orchestra's first two quiet notes are expanded into a heavy, “dragging” march theme, which is later altered into a quick “battle” theme (underlying the first tenor solo), and both themes re-appear in later movements.  Meanwhile, as the orchestra develops its first theme, the bells and large chorus obsessively repeat the pitches F# and C, sounding the interval of a tritone– and nothing else for the first three minutes.  Tritones are famously ambivalent; any given tritone can be interpreted in a number of different scales and chords, including the whole tone scale.  This dissonant instability produces both harmonic and emotional tension.  By means of insistent repetition, Britten signals us to listen for tritones in melodies, themes and chords in all of the music that lies ahead.

Britten's passionate statement about the futility of war found immediate resonance with the British public.  War Requiem was instantly hailed as the towering choral masterpiece of the 20th century.  Conductors vied to perform it around the world; the first recording, conducted by Britten, sold 200,000 copies in five months.  Forty years later, War Requiem is a classic of the choral repertoire.  To our sorrow, its message is as timely now as ever.

Note: In the following text, John Paton's Notes are colored red.

I. Requiem aeternam


Bells toll, the sorrowing Church chants, praying for the repose of departed souls.  Children sing a heavenly song of praise.  Sounds of strife interrupt, and a tenor reminds us (the poem is “Anthem for Doomed Youth”), that those who die in battle will not hear bells and chanting.  The chorus softly sings “Lord, have mercy!” 

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Lord, grant them eternal rest;
and let the perpetual light shine apon them.

Te decet hymnus, Deus in Sion:
et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem;
exaudi orationem meam,
ad te omnis caro veniet.

Thou shalt have praise in Zion, of God:
and homage shall be paid to thee in Jerusalem;
hear my prayer,
all flesh shall come before Thee.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Lord, grant them eternal rest;
and let the perpetual light shine apon them.

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
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them at all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison
Kyrie eleison

Lord, have mercy apon them
Christ, have mercy apon them
Lord, have mercy apon them

II. Dies irae



Brass instruments announce the Day of Judgment, the subject of this 12th century Latin poem (seldom used for funerals since Vatican II).  Instead of writing separate movements for various parts of the long poem, Britten links the parts together with Owens' poetry and gives each a distinctive rhythm.  The opening chorus uses an unsettling, irregular meter against terrifying, bomblike outbursts from the orchestra.  The battle dies down, and the baritone tells about soldiers resting at night, dreaming despite their fears about tomorrow. 

Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum
Coget omnes ante thronum.
Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Judicanti responsura.

This day, this day of wrath
Shall consume the world in ashes,
As foretold by David and Sibyl.
What trembling there shall be
When the judge shall come
To weigh everything strictly.
The trumpet, scattering its awful sound
Across the graves of all lands
Summons all before the throne.
Death and nature shall be stunned
When mankind arises
To render account before the judge.

Bugles sang, saddening the evening air;
And bugles answered, sorrowful to hear.
Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.
The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.
Voices of old despondency resigned,
Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.


The soprano announces the inescapable prophecy of final judgment, and the chorus responds with an abject plea for mercy.  The soldiers, however, sing (“The Next War”) about their bravado in facing Death and their hope that someday a better war will fight for Life, not for national flags. 

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur.
Judex ergo cum sedebit
Quidquid latet, apparebut:
Nil inultum remanebit.

The written book shall be brought
In which all is contained
Whereby the world shall be judged.
When the judge takes his seat
All that is hidden shall appear:
Nothing will remain unavenged.

Two choruses follow: one for women's voices and one for men's voices, pleading in different ways for God's mercy in a time of judgment.  The baritone interrupts suddenly (“Sonnet: On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought into Action”) with a fearsome image of a cannon larger than any ever seen in previous wars.


Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronem rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit securus?

What shall I, a wretch, say then?
To which protector shall I appeal
When even the just man is barely safe?

Soprano and Chorus
Rex tremendae majestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Soprano and Chorus
King of awful majesty,
Who freely savest those worthy of salvation,
Save me, fount of pity.

Tenor and Baritone
Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death:
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death - for Life; not men - for flags.


Recordare Jesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.
Quarens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus:
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce Deus.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.
Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.
Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis,
Voca me cum benedictis.
Oro supplex et acclinis
Cor contritum quasi cinis
Gere curam mei finis.

Remember, gentle Jesus,
That I am the reason for Thy time on earth,
Do not cast me out on that day.
Seeking me, Thou didst sink down wearily,
Thou hast saved me by enduring the cross,
Such travail must not be in vain.
I groan, like the sinner that I am,
Guilt reddens my face,
Oh God spare the supplicant.
Thou, who pardoned Mary
And heeded the thief,
Hast given me hope as well.
Give me a place among the sheep
And separate me from the goats,
Let me stand at Thy right hand.
When the damned are cast away
And consigned to the searing flames,
Call me to be with the blessed.
Bowed down in supplication I beg Thee,
My heart as though ground to ashes:
Help me in my last hour.

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!


Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

This day, this day of wrath
Shall consume the world in ashes,
As foretold by David and Sibyl.
What trembling there shall be
When the judge shall come
To weigh everything strictly.


After Britten brings back the “Dies irae” even more powerfully than before, the chorus and soprano join in a tearful plea for mercy for a poor sinner.  This is interspersed with lines of the tenor's narrative (“Futility”) about the body of his fallen friend, the moment of deepest personal grief in War Requiem.  The tenor's last two notes (“...at all?”)  summon back the F#-C bells, and the chorus sings quiet music borrowed from the end of the first movement.

Soprano and Chorus
Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla,
Judicandus homo reus:
Huic ergo parce Deus.

Soprano and Chorus
Oh this day full of tears
When from the ashes arises
Guilty man, to be judges:
Oh Lord, have mercy upon him.

Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.


Soprano and Chorus
Lacrimosa dies illa...

Soprano and Chorus
Oh this day full of tears...

Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-acheived, are sides,
Full-nerved - still warm - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?




Soprano and Chorus
...Qua resurget ex favilla...

Soprano and Chorus
...When from the ashes arises...

Was it for this the clay grew tall?


Soprano and Chorus
...Judicandus homo reus.

Soprano and Chorus
...Guilty man, to be judged.

- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?


Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.

Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest.

III. Offertorium



The children's choir chants a prayer to ask that departed souls be delivered from the pains of Hell.  (At this time in a church service, the bread and wine are brought to the altar to be consecrated for communion.)  The chorus confidently calls on God to keep the promise of life that was made to Abraham's descendants; their great number is symbolized by a vigorous fugue.  The male soloists recall that once God told Abraham to sacrifice his favorite son on an altar.  When Abraham had proved his willingness to obey, God withdrew the command, demonstrating that God abhors human sacrifice.  Nonetheless, says Owens' poem (“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”), old men still send their sons to be killed. (The music comes from an earlier work of Britten's about Abraham and Isaac, combined with themes from earlier in War Requiem.)  The children resume their prayer, remote from the human tragedy of war.

Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae,
libera animas omnium fidelium
defunctorum de poenis inferni,
et de profundo lacu:
libera eas de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas
tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum.

Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,
deliver the souls of the faithful
departed from the pains of hell,
and the bottomless pit:
deliver them from the jaw of the lion, lest hell
engulf them, lest they be plunged into darkness.

Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam:
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti,
et semini ejus.

But let the holy standard-bearer Michael
lead them into the holy light
as Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.

Tenor and Baritone
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And streched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! and angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


Hostias et preced tibi Domine
laudis offerimus; tu suscipe pro
animabus illis, quarum hodie
memoriam facimus: fac eas, Domine,
de morte transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
en semini ejus.

Lord, in praise we offer to Thee
sacrifices and prayers, do Thou receive them
for the souls of those whom we remember
this day: Lord, make them pass
from death to life.
As Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.

...Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini ejus.

...As Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.

IV. Sanctus



 Accompanied by the F#-C bells, the soprano extols the holiness of God.  (During a mass, bells sound at the Sanctus, which initiates the consecration of the bread and wine.)  The baritone looks to the future (“The End”), but finds no assurance of resurrection.

Soprano and Chorus
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Saboath.
Pleni sunt ceoli et terra gloria tua,
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Soprano and Chorus
Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

After the blast of lighning from the East,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will He annul, all tears assuage? -
Fill the void veins of Life again with youth,
And wash, with an immortal water, Age?
When I do ask white Age he saith not so:
"My head hangs weighed with snow."
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
"My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shalls not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried."


V. Agnus Dei


The tenor describes a roadside crucifix, damaged in the war (“At a Calvary near the Ancre”), while the chorus sings a quiet prayer.

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.


Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem.

Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
grant them rest.

Near Golgatha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.


Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem.

Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
grant them rest.

The scribes on all the people shove
and bawl allegiance to the state,


Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi...

Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world...

But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.


...Dona eis requiem.

...Grant them rest.

Dona nobis pacem.


VI. Libera me



 Slowly and quietly, the chorus and soprano begin another prayer to be free from the pains of hell; the music builds in volume and tempo to a great climax and then quickly sinks to a single quiet chord.  The male soloists recount a conversation between two soldiers who have died on the same day (“Strange Meeting”).  As they conclude “Let us sleep now,” the children's voices sing an antiphon that is used when a coffin is carried out of the church.  The chorus and soprano join, and all forces are heard together at last.  Bells interrupt the flowing music three times.  The chorus again prays for peace, singing the quiet music that ended the first two movements.  The final  “Amen” reaches a musical resolution without resolving the conflict of faith and doubt.

Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna,
in die illa tremenda:
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra:
Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.

Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death
in that awful day
when the heavens and earth shall be shaken
when Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

Soprano and Chorus
Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.

Soprano and Chorus
I am seized with fear and trembling,
until the trial shall be at hand and the wrath to come.
Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death.
When the heavens and earth shall be shaken.
That day, that day of wrath, of calamity
and misery, a great day and exceeding bitter.
Deliver me, O Lord.

It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."


"None", said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."


Boys, then Chorus, then Soprano
In paridisum deducant te Angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam
Jerusalem. Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam
habeas requiem.

Boys, then Chorus, then Soprano
Into Paradise may the Angels lead thee:
at thy coming may the Martyrs receive thee,
and bring thee into the holy city
Jerusalem. May the Choir of Angels receive thee
and with Lazarus, once poor,
may thou have eternal rest.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Lord, grant them eternal rest,
and let the perpetual light shine upon them.

In paradisum deducant etc.

Into Paradise, etc.

Chorus Angeloru, te suscipiat etc.

May the Choir of Angels, etc.

Tenor and Baritone
Let us sleep now.


Requiescant in pace. Amen.

Let them rest in peace. Amen.


 John Paton