On Sunday June 12th, I had the opportunity to sit through the War Requiem by the emblematic English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and who premiered this epic work for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, bombed almost to destruction during the night of November 14th 1940.
The work was conceived for three soloists (soprano, tenor and baritone), orchestra, chamber orchestra, choir, youth choir, piano, organ and interspersed with the main sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead and nine of Wilfred Owen’s First World War poems. The interpolation of Owen’s poems was a constant reminder that war only leaves in its wake, sadness, desolation and death.
The War Requiem’s premiere in Coventry was to be interpreted by the Russian soprano Galina Vishnévskaya, the English tenor Peter Pears and German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The composer intentionally sought them out in order to reconstruct a universal musical language with three virtuosos from the countries embroiled in Europe’s bloodshed. The Soviet regime, however, forbade their soprano to travel to the United Kingdom, frustrating Britten’s aspirations.
The historic context in which the War Requiem is set is essential for audiences to grasp Britten’s mourning motive and the suffering endured by so many in a post-war Britain. On Sunday, however Colombians wanted to hear history and lined up outside the city’s main cathedral, Catedral Primada de Bogotá, to listen to the National Symphony Orchestra and Bogotá Philharmonic take on Britten in the Gran Conciertos de la paz series, or “Grand concerts for peace.”
Under the musical direction of the French conductor Olivier Grangean, for 90-minutes the Cathedral welled to the choruses of Britten’s “Agnus Dei”, “Benedictus” and “Lacrimosa”. The invited soloists were Colombians Valeriano Lanchas (baritone), Betty Garcés (soprano) and César Gutiérrez (tenor). Lanchas sang through Owen’s poems, such as Anthem for Doomed Youth in English, while suspended over the altar, a screen beamed the translation in Spanish of each line of this Great War poet’s verse.
As a free event sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Britten’s War Requiem was chosen due to its message of peace and reconciliation, and particularly timely as Colombians prepare for their own historic moment as the government finalizes a four-year-long peace process with the oldest guerrilla insurgency in the world, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). And a process at the negotiation table which has dragged on almost as long as the war that was meant to “end all wars” and World War II.
By Rafael Toledo Plata