Britten’s "War Requiem" with Pappano and the BSO
Saturday, April 2, and Monday, April 11, 2022
Antonio Pappano conducts the BSO in Britten’s mighty "War Requiem," with a cast of singers, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir.
Sir Antonio Pappano, conductor
Amanda Majeski, soprano
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Matthias Goerne, baritone
Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Choir
James Burton, conductor
Benjamin BRITTEN War Requiem
This concert is no longer available on demand.
Hear a preview of the War Requiem with Antonio Pappano with the audio player above.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Antonio Pappano, and Mr. Pappano, it is so good to have you here. It's been a little while since you've been to the Boston Symphony, though more recently with your orchestra, Santa Cecilia, just about five years ago here at the hall. It's good to have you back.
Antonio Pappano Thank you very much. I'm thrilled to be back.
Brian McCreath Well, this piece, the War Requiem by Britten, you know, I'm curious about the circumstances and the thoughts behind it as you originally programmed it, because, of course, now it has a relevance and a direct relationship to what we hear about every day, and what our experience of the world is right now that is unfortunately incredibly direct. What were the original thoughts about programing War Requiem at this particular time?
Antonio Pappano It certainly had nothing to do with Russia and Ukraine. It was just a desire to do the piece again, the Boston Symphony and what would be appropriate for me to do, and also, you know, with my vocal connections, and, you know, so that I could work with the choir, and that's it. But you're absolutely right, the times, I mean, you couldn't plan for such a thing. I mean, it does have a directness and an incredible pathos of the moment, but I don't think we need to force that. I think the piece stands on its own.
It's an unusually built piece. It's the structure, I mean, it's the traditional Requiem mass, as you would hear it in the Verdi Requiem, in the Berlioz Requiem, the Mozart Requiem. But it's interspersed with poems of Wilfred Owen, a young soldier who was killed right at the end of the First World War. And these poems are very moving, if quite dense. But they are, they really speak to the heart and the imagination and the the loneliness of the open field after a battle or the night after a battle, that kind of atmosphere, that turgid, mystical, beaten down, and yet hopeful atmosphere that young men who go off to war would be experiencing, you know, and it captures that flavor.
And so, you have the two male soloists, singing in English, and they are two soldiers, both dead, speaking from the beyond and saying these wonderful things, or these terrible things. You have the soprano soloist who is with the chorus, and she sings in Latin, and her first utterance is about the Book of Judgment. And you've got to remember that the Christian, the Catholic Requiem mass is something terrifying, the fear of God, the fear of judgment, how you will be seen by the powers above. And it is naturally theatrical because all things, well, Mediterranean, or, you know what I'm saying, tend to be so. I mean, Verdi was accused, of course, of writing another opera in his Requiem. And of course, Britten, there are very many operatic elements in this, certainly the energy of it, the pulse of it.
But he found a way to make it new. And also, he included the prayer that is not included in most Requiems, Fauré Requiem apart, the In Paradisum. And so, he ties all the conflict that is in the piece searching for reconciliation. He has a movement of reconciliation, let us sleep now. And let us, in a way, remember and forget at the same time, if you like, I'm paraphrasing. But it's a very, very beautiful way to terminate this piece, which is very, very powerful and disturbing and moving.
Brian McCreath And along the way, another one of those components is this children's chorus, which is, I guess, meant to be something that takes us into a sort of remove from that sort of visceral emotion, it's more distant. It's a little bit separated and ethereal.
Antonio Pappano The children's chorus, well, first of all, they're supposed to be invisible. And in this performance, they are. They're hidden behind, just behind the walls of the auditorium. And you hear those voices, sometimes from afar because we're using different acoustical setups, and sometimes quite present. And they have a character of distance, of innocence, and yet of menace at the same time, interestingly enough. When the story of Abraham and Isaac is told, and Britten's take on it is that Abraham, instead of sparing his son at the behest of the Archangel, he kills his son. He sacrifices his son. And with him, the seed of Europe, one by one. And you have the children's chorus with a very unusual, dissonant chord, which is sort of a distortion in a way, singing, "and eternal rest." But it is extremely menacing in the circumstance.
Then there are other moments where the exuberance of the young voices - "Domine Jesu, Lord God" - and, you know, offering praise. And this is, it's also a signal of the future, you know, these are young people, and will they be sent? Of course, you have to ask yourself, are these people young people going to be sent to war? You know, I mean, it's a reaching out for that innocence, you know, trying to cling back that innocence.
Brian McCreath That's fascinating to consider, especially the male vocalists alongside these children, these male vocalists who, as you say, symbolically have gone through, they are on the other end of this. They're now, you know, in the heavens, we might say. And then these, as you say, innocents who may be on their way there, if that's how we choose to take that in.
Antonio Pappano I mean, they are many things. They are angels themselves, or they are the future, or they're, you know, ominous voices of, you know.. It's slightly creepy to even talk about it, I have to be honest with you. But it's multifaceted in its meaning, and again, it's a stroke of genius.
Brian McCreath You mentioned before somewhat of a connection to the Verdi Requiem, maybe structurally and dramatically. But in terms of Britten's own work, what is there in War Requiem that we would say, ah, yes, of course, this is Britten. If I've heard this piece, of course, now I hear it here in War Requiem. And what is there in War Requiem that Britten surprises us with that he hadn't done before, that we wouldn't have seen coming had we been at that premiere?
Antonio Pappano The connection to the Verdi Requiem is very, very strong. I mean, the two Lachrymosas, they're in the same key, B-flat minor. So that, you know, that's very close. But we know Britten as a composer of operas with small chamber orchestras. And this piece has a chamber orchestra alongside the big orchestra. And so those colors we will have heard if we know his operas.
I last week conducted the Britten Violin Concerto in Rome with my orchestra there. And that's quite an early work, Opus 15. And that was written in 1938-39, in New York, actually, and premiered in 1940. And this is from 22 years later, this is 1961-62 was premiered, the War Requiem. And there are very, very strong echoes. I hear them all over the place. But the use of light and dark is like any great operatic composer that you hear everywhere, the chiaroscuro, we call in Italian, that's everywhere. The innocence of the youthful voices, the young voices, that's something that he will use over and over again, the Ceremony of Carols, and et cetera. Operas like Peter Grimes using the big orchestras, Billy Budd, those kinds of pieces are all over this music. You know, the big also, the big forms and then the very small forms. He was able to be the master of both, somehow. And his harmonic language that is very wide in scope, in that it can be sometimes gratingly modern. And sometimes you see and hear the links to the historical past of English music, above all, the chant, the Gregorian elements of plain chant, and folk music. And the two soldiers have almost a drinking song where they talk about going up to Death and meeting him straight on, you know, kind of a very, very careless utterance, and full of bravado, very folksy in that. So, you look, you've got so many, many different things that Britten used to structure his music and if you know some of that, you'll hear it.
Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, sure. I've always had the impression, not being, you know, having spent too much time in Europe, in England, but I've always had the impression that this piece does carry more weight because of historical circumstance in Europe and in Britain. You yourself have been a resident of London for a long time. I'm not sure how long...
Antonio Pappano Yeah, well, I was born in England also.
Brian McCreath Yes. Yes, exactly. And so, I wonder what you would say about the power of this piece in Britain now, especially, compared to, I don't know, 20 years ago. I mean, you've conducted this piece for a long time. Do you sense that it still retains the kind of power that it has had historically since the 1960s?
Antonio Pappano Well, it was commissioned to re-consecrate Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the Second World War. And this whole idea inspired Britten very, very much. When I performed the piece last, I can't remember what the conflict was, but there was a conflict, a very important conflict in the world. It's somehow, you know, when you plan it, I mean, this sounds very, very morbid, what I'm saying, is you plan to do the piece and all of a sudden something erupts in the world. But there's always something going on in the world. And so that's a cheap shot.
Brian McCreath But it's also the reality. I mean, unfortunately, the world is filled with war from time to time. And so, here, we find ourselves again. But I'm sorry. Continue with the last time you conducted the piece.
Antonio Pappano I think the Brits have a pride in that this piece is so universal. I think it's, you know, you just have to look all over the world, and it is performed all over the world. It has a link to composers of the past, even to Mozart, and I think it's in a tradition of Requiem masses, in its own way finding the power to express this very compelling text, and humanizing it somehow. The humanizing aspect that Britten found through the poetry of Wilfred Owen is what sets it apart. And I think it gives it a stamp of Britishness, frankly. I mean, this is a young soldier who died in the war. Britten and his partner, his life partner, Peter Pears, were both conscientious objectors. They were pacifists and believed strongly in that. And so, the piece is a statement, not only a great choral work, it's a statement.
Brian McCreath You describe the most recent time that you conducted it. When was the first time that you really encountered, maybe not even conducted, but just learned this piece? Was it something that you came to very early as a conductor to learn?
Antonio Pappano I was in Brussels as music director at the Theatre La Monnaie. I was there for 10 years, and I did the War Requiem first there, and I'd never heard the piece performed live. And of course, everybody had Britten's recording of it, and I did, too. But it was something so completely new for me. I'd conducted Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw. And so, the idiom fascinated me, but this was something completely different, and I was drawn to it by the use of the chorus because I love chorus pieces. And of course, Peter Grimes as an opera has a huge role for the chorus. But that's what drew me to the piece.
I still find the poetry of Wilfred Owen sometimes quite difficult to comprehend. And that takes time to work through exactly what the meaning of it is. But Britten somehow created the atmosphere that we don't have to know exactly what it means. Somehow, we just take it in as a state of mind and of being in a place, a place of war, and being alone and lonely.
Brian McCreath And Wilfred Owen's poems in this setting, in the ones that Britten chose, don't necessarily take you to the specific place where Wilfred Owen was writing. So, by that, I mean that, now, as we do sit here in 2022 with this piece, these poems may arrive to our ears and eyes, maybe, a little differently than they might have when you first conducted it in Brussels. Just a little bit of a different angle on them, a different shading on them, depending on our experience and our context of the moment.
Antonio Pappano Well, look, I mean, we're all getting older, and we'll have more experience of life and perhaps even death in family. And you have your successes in life, and you have your failures. I think the important thing is to know who you are, and use your energies as best you can, I as a musician to express what I think is in the music.
I think poetry is something that, to some degree, needs to stay a mystery. I think that's its beauty. And that's its fascination. And of course, over time, you will learn, or you will pick up the hints of what's underneath. But one shouldn't be afraid. You know, when I conduct this piece, I always have a sense of inferiority, because some of the poetry, I don't quite completely understand. And yet I've learned to put that feeling away and just to be, just to admire that somebody could dream of being in a situation of horror in a war, and that somebody as sensitive as Benjamin Britten could somehow embrace that text and put musical clothing on it, and share it with us, whether we really know what it means or not.
Brian McCreath That's beautiful. That's wonderful. Antonio Pappano, it's really great to have you here. Welcome to Boston. Welcome back to Boston, I should say. And we'll look forward to the concert. Thank you very much.
Antonio Pappano Thank you.