Silencing the Guns of War

August 5, 2008

Not many musical works present a moral/political position with the power and persuasiveness of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Advocating the composer's nearly lifelong commitment to pacifism, the work was given a stirring performance by the San Francisco Choral Society on Friday at Davies Symphony Hall. The large chorus shared the stage with a strong group of soloists and a well-rehearsed pick-up orchestra, as well as the Piedmont Boys and Girls Choir, all under the baton of Artistic Director Robert Geary.
The Choral Society's performance is its third offering in "A Season for Peace," works commenting on war and, transparently, opposing the continuation of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The group is clearly concerned that we be attuned to the message, which is featured prominently in the program, even on the title page. That message is nothing less than the immorality and horror of war.

In the War Requiem, composed for the consecration ceremony of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, Britten sets the text of the Latin Mass for the Dead, interspersed with scathing poems by the World War I soldier Wilfred Owen. In a poem directed at the German "Big Bertha" gun, and placed by Britten in the middle of the Dies Irae section, Owen writes, "Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm/And beat it down before its sins grow worse." The poet suggests that there may be no folly too great for humanity to take up, and that, unexpectedly, the positive result to be gained from the huge gun is that its terror may cool our ardor for more violence.

The Owens poems do more work in this piece than simply excoriate war, the generals and politicians, and false patriotism. They also offer Britten the opportunity to make a personal commentary on the canonical texts themselves. Even the choral amens in the piece are unsettled, questing upward through the tritone interval that structures the entire work, as if asking a question. And the final Requiescant in Pace (May they rest in peace) is intertwined with the tenor and baritone soloists, as soldiers who have killed each other in battle, singing "Let us sleep now," a provisional peace based in irony: Sharing death, the soldiers recognize their common humanity.

Throughout this piece, Britten pushes deeply into the meaning of the Latin Mass texts with tensely lyrical, often dissonant music. The War Requiem offers little by way of consolation, but it is fiercely original and unbelievably moving, especially in a strong performance.
Music on a Mission
Perhaps a sense of mission lent this performance its sense of urgency. Geary took a straight line through the piece, with more or less the standard tempos. He imparted a unanimity of purpose to his disparate forces that you could hear in the carefully calibrated dynamics and the cooperation between the various groups.

The large chorus handled the score's complexities admirably. It was not thrown by the heterophonic parts of the Sanctus movement, where eight voice parts chant the words, but slightly offset from each other, in different time spans. The gradual buildup of this section was one of the great successes for the chorus. Of course, there were also moments (as in the Recordare section) when more-distinct entrances and more-forward consonants would have been welcome, and other places where the choral sound was a bit fuzzy. On the whole, though, the chorus triumphed.

The children's choir, conducted in this performance by Clifton Massey, was nearly flawless. Intonation was perfect, as were enunciation and the blend of voices. The children were a little tentative occasionally, but otherwise immaculate performers.

Tenor Brian Thorsett and baritone Ken Goodson were a well-matched pair in the war poetry. Thorsett's voice lacks the heroic ring of Peter Pears', who debuted the work, but he has similar rock-solid control of his break, and is a tremendously expressive singer. I particularly liked the varied use of vibrato in his singing. Goodson has a similar timbre at the upper end of his range but with more vibrato. He also sings beautifully, with attention to the meaning of the words. The two singers displayed great accuracy throughout. Marcelle Dronkers gave a full-voiced account of the soprano part, setting us back in our seats with her Rex Tremendae Majestatis (King of tremendous majesty).

The orchestra played exceptionally well. Predictably, the string section was too small, but the players were terrific. The program roster listed some of the best available musicians in the Bay Area. No wonder the exposed instrumental parts came off so smoothly.

It is wonderful for the Choral Society — and other local choral groups, which have been doing the same thing — to use music to address their community and fellow citizens on important subjects. Britten would have loved this performance for just that reason, even beyond its general excellence. But we should remember that Britten's pacifism was a moral stance that did not admit exceptions. If we are to take the Requiem's message seriously, we have to ask how far our own pacifism extends.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.