For Memorial Day: A Pacifist’s Offering
This is the most terrifying art that I know about. For that reason, and because of the subject matter, I think it is also a fitting remembrance.
A short set-up, and then I’ll let the music speak for itself. In 1962 British composer Benjamin Britten premiered his War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by bomb blasts in World War II. The Requiem was written to honor — to consecrate, really — the new cathedral, which was built directly adjacent to the ruins of the original church.
Britten, a pacifist, crafted his requiem in a unique way: into the traditional text of the ancient Latin mass for the dead he wove several poems by his compatriot Wilfred Owen, who wrote and died while fighting in World War I. Owen’s remarkable poetry, which deals exclusively with war, is used throughout the Requiem as commentary on the events of the mass.
In the chilling “Offertory,” Britten pairs the Latin text, which speaks of sacrifice and praise to God, with Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” a retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac.
I won’t comment on the music except to point out a particularly moving — and sickening — compositional technique. The jaunty theme you hear at the beginning is an echo of the fugue melody Britten uses for the text, “quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini eius” (“as you once promised to Abraham and his seed.”) Composers traditionally use fugues for this line, suggesting the countless generations spawned by the biblical progenitor. But when Owen’s poem is finished, the “generational” fugue subject is presented again — upside-down.
I recommend following along with the Owen text on first hearing. Afterwards, do check out this fantastic film of Derek Jarman’s, a marvelous companion to the War Requiem. Yeah, that’s Tilda Swinton as the nurse.
Listen from 43:05 to 49:15.
“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” by Wilfred Owen:
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 trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an 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.
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