Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: A monumental commemoration of the WWI Armistice, November 11, 1918

David Richards, Toronto Concert Reviews

Amid the ominous chimes cutting through the languid sounds of lower strings and percussion, came the words of the Latin mass for the dead, “Requiem aeterna”. The unmistakable musical reference to  death and destruction was palpable. As the intensity of the orchestra and voices increased to a climactic cry of pain, an angelic choir of children sang out a prayerful warning “Te decet hymnus…”

Such was the beginning of the powerful War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Children’s Chorus, over 300 performers in all, came together for a monumental production of Britten’s 1962 masterpiece of remembrance of the horrors of war. Conducted by Bramwell Tovey, it featured soloists well-prepared for their roles, each having performed it with major orchestras and choirs recently. Indeed, the vision of Britten in having Russian, German and English soloists share the same stage was brought to fruition in this performance, something Britten himself couldn’t quite accomplish for the work’s première when soprano Galina Vishnevskaya couldn’t get an exit permit from the U.S.S.R. In last night’s performance it was the Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, British tenor Toby Spence, and Canadian/German baritone Russell Braun.

Britten composed his War Requiem for the celebration of the erection of a new Coventry Cathedral following its destruction by German bombs in WWII. He used the occasion to write what has been called one of the most important works of the twentieth century – a testament to his deeply held pacifist beliefs. Britten left England prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 in response to European tensions and returned across a dangerous mid-war Atlantic in 1942 knowing he would be subject to the draft. He applied and received conscientious objector status. Nevertheless, he was not immune to the atrocities of war. He toured prisoner of war camps in Germany with Yehudi Menuhin following the war and witnessed unimaginable suffering and carnage. The world of 1962 when he was writing the work also saw threats of more war; the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin wall, and Vietnam were all hotspots foretelling more death.

The music of Britten owes a great deal to the tradition of great Requiems of the past: Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and Fauré, not to mention the percussive energy of Bartok’s music and that of his mentor Frank Bridge. The huge dramatic moments combine with the reflective and jarring poetry of Wilfred Owens to make this work one in which the audience must actively participate in the process, reflecting on the words and allowing the music to reach the listener’s soul with all its power.


The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for its part had some exemplary moments of great drama as well as reflective singing. The a cappella singing of “Pie Jesu Domine” was riveting.  “Libera me” with tenor drum and rumbles from the slow march of the bass drum began as a sorrowful lament that built to a frightening vision of judgment by fire.

Read the full review on the Toronto Concert Reviews blog.