Two Cathedrals
May 27, 2013 9:32 PM   Subscribe

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

This post 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
III. Offertorium
IV. Sanctus

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.

Britten’s writing 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

Lecture (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 to 200,000 dead (estimates varied widely due to inconsistent reports of refugee numbers), the Kreuzchor lost eleven young members.

Mauersberger’s text 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.
posted by Madamina (9 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This post will occupy much of my day tomorrow... nicely done...thank you...

(note, your last link "Dresdner Requiem", links back to the metafilter post, you might want to ask the mods to correct this.)
posted by HuronBob at 9:47 PM on May 27, 2013

Mod note: Links fixed, carry on.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:19 PM on May 27, 2013

So does the "Parable of the Old Man and the Young" link.

Great post, super interesting!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:48 AM on May 28, 2013

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'd been wanting to make a post like this since I saw War Requiem performed in Oxford a few months ago, but simply didn't have the knowledge/foresight to tie it in to something bigger. And I did not even know of Mauersberger's work, so more things to explore!

War Requiem is an incredibly difficult piece to listen to -- Britten was a pacifist, and both he and Pears registered as CO's during WWII, to the extent that they even refused to do nonviolent service (like ambulance-driving), and instead toured the country, giving performances throughout the war. (I've found reference to a performance at Bletchley Park, for example, although rather weirdly only Pears is mentioned as performing.) As I said, it's textually harsh and sad, and the music is full of those tritones that mean halfway through you realise your whole body is tense. Even the boy's choir, with their traditional Mass setting, sounds afraid and off-kilter. There's a tiny bit of comfort at the beginning of the Libera Me (Britten returned again and again to the theme of sleep as healing, and this shows up here as well), but then you're basically whacked in the face with what feels like a physical wall of music, the final reminder of the total destructiveness of war.

Before I stop yammering, my favourite story about War Requiem's initial performance: At the end, during the applause, Fischer-Dieskau was so overwhelmed with emotion that he couldn't rise from his chair, and Peter Pears had to help him up, to receive his applause.
posted by kalimac at 2:32 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I performed in the chorus in a production of this piece three weeks ago. It's the hardest music I have ever sung; very non- melodic, all half steps and whole steps. Often you are singing against another part that is only a half step higher or lower than you. But.

It was a transcendent experience. The first performance I remember thinking when we reached Agnus Dei, "wow, we are almost finished." The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra conductor is famous for very fast tempos, so I thought maybe 50 minutes had passed. When we finished the piece, and I asked a friend what time it was, an hour and 35 minutes had passed, as though in a dream ...
posted by wittgenstein at 3:04 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Two Cathedrals?

And here I though this post was about Liverpool:

In me Liverpool home, in me Liverpool home
We speak with an accent exceedingly rare
Meet under a statue exceedingly bare
And if you want a Cathedral we've got one to spare
In me Liverpool home
posted by Herodios at 6:03 AM on May 28, 2013

posted by SounderCoo at 6:32 AM on May 28, 2013

Thanks for all of your patience while the mods helped me sort out the links. They should all be live now. Glad you're enjoying the post :)
posted by Madamina at 7:18 AM on May 28, 2013

Wonderful post. Thanks, Madamina.
posted by homunculus at 1:54 AM on May 29, 2013

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