‘What passing bells for these who die as cattle’

     Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" was performed Monday night at Carnegie Hall by the Oratorio Society of New York. (WNV/Nathan Schneider)
    Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” was performed Monday night at Carnegie Hall by the Oratorio Society of New York. (WNV/Nathan Schneider)

    Where you are, and in what company, affects how you hear. I don’t think I really understood the reason people love opera until I heard it sung by half-drunk Juilliard students in a late-night bar. How one responds to a loud clack nearby depends on what neighborhood one is in, at what hour, and whether one is alone.

    Thus it is significant that Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem to be performed for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, the historic British church that was destroyed by Germans bombs during WWII. The composer, a pacifist and conscientious objector during that war, intermixed the traditional Latin verses of the requiem liturgy — dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla teste David cum Sibylla — with those of Wilfred Owen, a poet who seemed to be writing his own eulogy up until the Great War actually killed him in its final week.

    Near the end of the libretto:

    I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
    I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
    Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

    And the question at the start:

    What passing bells for these who die as cattle?

    Britten’s score does indeed provide bells, and much more. The complexity of the piece — requiring a full orchestra, a chamber orchestra, a large chorus, soloists and a children’s choir high aloft — means that performances of War Requiem, such as the one at Carnegie Hall Monday night, are rare. Any chance to hear this magnificent groan over the 20th century’s wars is surely a pilgrimage on the way to peace. Yet the setting of Carnegie Hall also presented a few contradictions — the robber-baron name, for instance; the obligatory splendor; the American flag standing alone on the far corner, stage right, despite Owen’s complaint:

    The scribes on all the people shove
    and bawl allegiance to the state

    At the end, in the crowded lobby by the main doors, I heard one man say to another, “Why don’t they do a normal work, like the Mozart Coronation Mass?” A coronation in Carnegie Hall probably would be much more — to use words Owen elsewhere ridiculeddulce et decorum. “Sweet and fitting.”

    Where you are, and in what company.

    By arrangement of the Oratorio Society of New York, members of Veterans for Peace attended the performance, wearing hats and shirts with the group’s logo. Some of them received compliments from others in the audience: “Nice shirt.” Afterward they gathered at a deli across the street for soup and sandwiches. They talked about what they’d heard, but lots of other things too.

    They talked, for instance, about the trial that some of them are now facing for their arrest while trying to conduct an all-night vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New York City’s Financial District last October 7, the 10-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. The court date is set for May 14, and they’re determined to defend their right to assemble freely and peacefully at their own memorial. If they’re slapped with fines they won’t pay them; if they’re assigned to “community service,” they won’t do it. For these Veterans for Peace, the denial of their basic right of assembly adds insult to the injuries many of them suffered and inflicted during their service in the U.S. military.

    One of the 25 arrestees, Paul Appel, wrote in a statement, “When the court-appointed attorney asked me how I wanted to plead, I said that I wanted to plead guilty to being a Viet Nam veteran and plead guilty to honoring my fellow soldiers who had died in war.”

    Many people came to Carnegie Hall last night to hear a piece of music, but for these veterans, the subject of War Requiem was as real as the ruins of the Coventry Cathedral. On the title page of Britten’s original score, he quoted yet more words of Owen’s:

    All a poet can do today is warn.

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