Wartime devastation in Freiburg im Breisgau. Image: Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

Echoes of conflict

Our new columnist, Ian Bostridge, has sung Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ almost 100 times. Its resonances are different—but clear—wherever it is performed
July 19, 2023

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem may not be the piece I’ve sung the most, but it’s the only one for which I’ve tallied each performance I’ve given, in faint pencil, in the front of my copy of the score. This started in 1994, before I was a professional singer: performances in both Guildford and Freiburg im Breisgau, to commemorate the catastrophic bombing raid on the German city in November 1944, which left its medieval centre in ruins. This was the War Requiem as Britten himself intended it: an act of reconciliation. My fellow singer in the settings of Wilfred Owen—which Britten placed in counterpoint to the Latin words of the requiem mass itself—was a German baritone, as had been the case with the very first performance, in the new Coventry Cathedral, in 1962. Then, the conscientious objector Peter Pears stood shoulder to shoulder with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had fought in Italy towards the end of the Second World War.

I’ve now performed the piece 95 times—something that staggers me and baffles others—and the locations prompt me to think about their differing experiences of conflict in the 20th century. My first time in Berlin was in 1995, some 50 years after the reduction of the city to rubble, and not so long after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Then on to Dresden (2000), Rotterdam (2005) and Tokyo (2016), all with their terrible and unique experiences of aerial bombardment. One of the odd features of the War Requiem is that, although it was written to commemorate the Second World War, of which the air war was such a crucial feature, the textual presence of those Owen poems means that, both poetically and in the grinding, bugling, thumping, cataclysmic sound that one hears from the stage, one thinks not of Bomber Command or Blitzkrieg but of the First World War’s trenches.

Any performance of the War Requiem is a titanic undertaking. A symphony orchestra of Mahlerian overreach, plus chamber orchestra, three soloists (the two men and a dramatic soprano), choir and children’s choir. When the Covid shutters came down, I had a foreboding that it might never return—too big, too many people squashed onto the stage, too many singerly droplets floating about. In fact, I sang in several performances in Canada and Germany during the pandemic, and the War Requiem remains one of the few post-1945 works that is regularly revived all over the world. It’s an event—just the involvement of the usually local choir ensures that the piece reaches beyond the concert hall into the families and homes of those who take part.

And it’s always depressingly relevant. My last performances in the US, in Boston, took place in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We wore Ukrainian flag pins on our concert dress and sang the country’s national anthem before starting the piece itself. My only performance in Moscow took place hours after the 2014 Russian takeover of Crimea. Dinners and drinks parties planned to celebrate Anglo-Russian friendship were swiftly cancelled.

The performances I’ve just given were all in San Francisco, a city I hadn’t visited since before the pandemic, in autumn 2019. Back then, I’d noticed the number of homeless and drug-devastated people living (and evidently dying) on the streets; and now, three and a half years later, I arrived in the city to an FT Weekend magazine headline asking: “What if San Francisco never pulls out of its doom loop?” The sheer abyss that has opened up between the rich and the poor in this legendary city reminded me, as I arrived to sing a piece about catastrophic modern war, of the economist Thomas Piketty’s stark conclusion that, in the 20th century, it was the sheer destructiveness of war that had essentially and paradoxically repaired a social fabric torn by the gross inequalities of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties.

My only performance of the ‘War Requiem’ in Moscow took place hours after the 2014 Russian takeover of Crimea

This time, I was staying in a part of the city known as Japantown. It has its own War Requiem echo—the five-tiered Peace Pagoda between Post and Geary Streets was planned in the same year that Britten wrote his piece, in 1961—but it seems strangely immune to the symptoms of urban decay further downtown.

San Francisco is legendary for many reasons. My first awareness of it was song-inspired, appropriately enough: Tony Bennett’s signature tune and one of my father’s favourites, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. Two of my top 10 movies, Huston’s Maltese Falcon (everyone remembers Bogart, but—wow!—Mary Astor as the antiheroine) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, are set in San Francisco. Nowadays, you can stay in the boutique Hotel Vertigo and go on a Vertigo tour. One of the locations on the itinerary is the Legion of Honor museum, dedicated to the memory of San Franciscans killed in the Great War. For a city that has avoided direct assaults, San Francisco is strangely tied to the memory of armed conflict. Its opera house is literally a war memorial; and it was in San Francisco that, in 1945, the United Nations promised “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”.

As I wandered around outside the Legion of Honor, I was confronted with a visual and aural reminder of the essence of San Francisco—the fog and the foghorns. This is one of the great bays of the world, and it was from San Francisco and its associated bases that the US navy shipped men and materiel to the Pacific theatre in the Second World War. We may hear the echoes of trench warfare in the War Requiem, but a look at Britten’s dedication pages is an acute reminder of the war at sea: “In loving memory of Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve; Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines; David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy; Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve.”

We are so many of us linked by invisible threads to the terrible wars of the 20th century. My grandmother’s first husband was killed on the Somme; the family legend is that her second husband—and my grandfather—a merchant seaman, was serving on a ship that was blown in two around the same time. His best friend was on the half that sank.

Britten’s War Requiem will be performed long after the visceral impact of Europe’s 20th-century conflicts has faded. Like the requiem mass itself, it speaks for the living, the dead and the as-yet-unborn.