My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity…
All a poet can do today is warn.
Two 20th century choral masterpieces share more than Biblical texts. Benjamin Britten’s well known War Requiem, Op. 66
and Rudolf Mauersberger’s
lesser known Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst
were both written in response to the destruction of medieval architecture and major churches in WWII bombings.
Since 1956, the cities of Coventry and Dresden have been twinned
to promote peace and understanding.Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Op. 66
and this post
give excellent background information on the bombing of Coventry Cathedral (November 14, 1940).
Recordings with Atlanta Symphony (soloists: Lorna Haywood, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Benjamin Luxon)
I. Requiem aeternam
II. Dies irae
Recordings with original performers (Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau):
V. Agnus dei
VI. Libera me, part 1
VI. Libera me, part 2
VI. Libera me, part 3
Complete text of the War Requiem
The instrumentation and physical placement
of the performing forces makes the work difficult but imposing to stage. Each group plays a specific role: the male soloists play the soldiers of Britain and Germany; the soprano soloist stands apart from the large chorus, but shares the words of the Mass in a questioning fashion; the boychoir is placed furthest from the audience and sings calm settings of the Latin liturgy. The massive symphony (to say nothing of the extra chamber orchestra) includes triple woodwinds and brass, four percussionists and both a large concert organ and small portable organ for the boychoir.
is often onomatopoeic: heavy use of the F#-C tritone suggesting death knells, orchestral accompaniment suggesting heavy shelling and gunfire during the tenor solo Anthem for Doomed Youth
in the opening movement. Asymmetrical meter adds to the sense of fear and uncertainty; the “crippled march” feeling deemphasizes the usual meter of the Latin texts’ repetition.
The 1963 recording
sold an astonishing 200,000 copies in the first five months, with three soloists chosen in a spirit of unity: Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya
(NYT), English tenor Peter Pears
(NYT) (Britten's companion and muse
) and German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
(NYT). The soprano Heather Harper
had stepped in at the last minute during the work’s Coventry premiere because the Soviet government prevented Vishnevskaya’s travel.
In 1989, Derek Jarman’s avant-garde film of the work
(with the 1963 recording as the only sound) lured Sir Laurence Olivier
out of retirement for what became his final appearance. Olivier plays the Old Soldier whose reminiscences structure the film; he recites Strange Meeting
(later passed between the tenor and baritone soloists in the final movement) in the prologue. The film also stars Tilda Swinton, Sean Bean and Nathaniel Parker (as Wilfred Owen).
Excerpt from the Offertorium: Parable of the Old Man and the Young
(1:13:51) on the background of the War Requiem by David Lockington, director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra.
Rudolf Mauersberger's “Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst” (RMWV 4/1)
For over 40 years, Mauersberger was Kapellmeister at Dresden’s Lutheran Kreuzkirche
, the largest church in the eastern German state of Saxony
. He directed the Dresdner Kreuzchor
, a boychoir (and school) in existence since roughly the year 1300. Among the 8,000
dead (estimates varied widely due to inconsistent reports of refugee numbers), the Kreuzchor lost eleven young members
weaves lines together from various parts of the biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah
(Martin Luther’s translation), about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by Nebuchadnezzar’s army
. The Lamentations are historically read as part of the Tenebrae
services beginning on Maundy Thursday; Mauersberger composed the piece on Good Friday and Holy Saturday of 1945, premiering it in the ruins
of the Kreuzkirche on August 4, 1945. Parallel open fifths reflects the feel of desolation, while the repetition of “Warum?” (“Why?”) and “Ach, Herr, siehe an mein Elend” (“Lord, see my affliction”) reinforces the lament.
The Kreuzkirche was rebuilt in 1955, but the Frauenkirche, a symbol of Dresden, took much longer. Because of the Communist rule of East Germany, the ruins of the Frauenkirche
were left in place to remind citizens of WWII. As sacred space was not a priority for reconstruction, rebuilding
only began after German reunification. Tens of thousands of original blocks
(now blackened by fire) were mapped into a computer system and replaced in positions as close as possible to their original locations. The Frauenkirche was rebuilt and reconsecrated
in 2005, 60 years after the bombing. Previously.
Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst
is frequently performed in Germany, as is Mauersberger’s later Dresdner Requiem
. The latter is virtually unknown in the United States. Mauersberger premiered it in February, 1949, four years after the firebombing.