As regular readers of Living on the Diagonal may know, I’ve been working rather furiously on a deeply personal book project for almost eighteen months. It is about David Rae Smith, my dad’s first cousin. Rae spent his entire career as a professional singing actor, and my goal is to tell the story of his life and the world surrounding him. One ‘side effect’ of my research is that I’ve come up with lots of fascinating material which simply could not find a place in the manuscript. But it is impossible for me to ignore it, so I thought I’d share some of those amazing extras through this blog. Maybe you’ll find them as engrossing as I do. This week’s entry seems an appropriate way to prepare for Memorial Day when we commemorate those who died while serving in the United States military.
Though most of Rae’s career was spent on the opera stage, he also had numerous appearances in regional and touring musical productions as well as concerts. Among the latter was a performance of British composer Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.
Don’t let the title fool you into thinking Britten composed this piece as some kind of glorification of war. It was quite the opposite. Britten’s anti-war sentiments were strong. As stated by the California Institute of Technology, the piece was “a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of other men.” Britten made that point rather powerfully by writing War Requiem to be sung by three specific soloists: one German, one British, and one Russian. Cal Tech says, “The piece was also meant to be a warning to future generations of the senselessness of taking up arms against fellow men. (Source: http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~tan/Britten/britwar.html)
Britten composed the nearly-90-minute piece 61 as a commission for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. The original, built in the fourteenth century, had been destroyed in a World War II bombing blitz. At around 8:00 on the night of November 14, 1940, the cathedral was bombed the first time. Fire fighters managed to put the resulting fire out, but more direct hits created new fires which, in turn, created a firestorm. Meanwhile, the attack had set fire to more than two hundred other buildings in the city. Firefighters were overwhelmed not only by the fires but by damaged water mains as well as a crippled phone network which prevented them from knowing which fires needed to be attacked first. Citizens—those who survived—huddled wherever they could during the surprise attack as 500 tons of high explosive bombs, 30,000 incendiaries, and 50 landmines were dropped on their city. Eleven hours following the initial attack, they finally heard what they’d been waiting for, a siren signaling the all clear. They climbed into a dreary, smoky daylight to discover the medieval cathedral; the library and market hall; the 16th-century Palace Yards; hundreds of shops, factories, and public buildings; and 43,000 of their homes—more than half—destroyed. Imagine the shock and overwhelming helplessness they felt walking out into that scene.
Though the ruins of the original cathedral were left to serve as a reminder of the bombing, a new cathedral was built alongside it the following decade. Along with the cathedral’s 1962 consecration, the Coventry Cathedral Festival was held as a national celebration to symbolize an international act of reconciliation, and Britten was commissioned to write a new piece for the occasion. He readily accepted the challenge and composed War Requiem as “an act of reparation,” according to the English National Opera website. (https://eno.org/discover-opera/an-act-of-reparation-the-story-behind-brittens-war-requiem/)
Britten’s approach was to juxtapose traditional Latin texts with nine poems about war written by Wilfred Owen. Owen’s poems on his World War I reality of trenches and gas warfare stood in stark contrast to the era’s public perception of war and to the haughty, chauvinistic works of poets from earlier wars. Owen, who had already witnessed many war horrors, suffered a concussion after falling into a shell hole in March 1917 and was caught in the blast of a mortar shell. Following several unconscious days lying on an embankment amidst the remains of fellow officers, he was hospitalized and treated for ‘shell shock.’ He returned to duty a year later.
Twenty-five-year-old Owen was killed in action in France on November 4, 1918. Those who know their history realize the date preceded the signing of the November 11 Armistice by precisely one week—and almost to the hour. All but unknown in life (only five of his poems were published before his death), Owen has since become recognized as one of the great war poets.
In the March/April 2020 issue of St. Austin Review, Dana Dioia wrote, “The First World War changed European literature forever. . . . For poets, the unprecedented scale of violence annihilated the classic traditions of war literature—individual heroism, military glory, and virtuous leadership. Writers struggled for a new idiom commensurate with their apocalyptic personal experience. . . . Their work, which combined stark realism and bitter irony with a sense of tragic futility, altered the history of English literature.”
Britten’s War Requiem was an immediate success, praised by both critics and the public. The Library of Congress has preserved the work in its National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” According to the English National Opera website, War Requiem’s reception was “more than its creator originally bargained for: it soon took on the mantle of a public statement of outrage against war, conflict and violence, sentiments that were only intensified in 1964 with the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and the growing international discomfort with the atrocities unfolding in Vietnam.” I suspect Britten was not disappointed by that.
Britten dedicated his masterpiece to five men: two who died in World War II, two who remained missing, and one who survived the Normandy landings, though he died by suicide in 1959 two months before his wedding. The composer said his goal in writing the work was to make people think. He quoted Wilfred Owen on the score’s title page: “My subject is War, and the pity of War / The Poetry is in the pity . . . / All a poet can do today is warn.”
A full-length screen adaptation of War Requiem was made in 1988 using the original soundtrack and featuring Laurence Olivier in the role of an aging veteran.. The experimental film can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOVIjKvOcE4/.
In 2010 the musical Bullets and Daffodils, set to Owen’s poetry, told the story of the poet’s short life. It can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRAzY310wYQ.
Anthem of Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
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 now for them; no prayers nor 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 all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
(retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47393/anthem-for-doomed-youth)