The following is an excerpt from The War Requiem (Essay Press, April 2020). The War Requiem is a book-length essay that blends historical fiction with memoir in order to explore Benjamin Britten’s dynamic piece of choral and orchestral music, the War Requiem, Op. 66. Written to commemorate the new Coventry Cathedral’s consecration (following World War II bombing), the War Requiem blends the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems by Wilfred Owen.
Wind pummeled thick raindrops against the windows, but soon our hundred voices drowned out the world beyond the windows. It was March 2013, and I tilted my head from side to side while humming scales and massaging the back of my neck. Dr. A held up his score and we opened our own to the Libera Me. I felt nervous about this last movement; it was over twenty pages and featured a fugue made of sixteenth notes that spanned two octaves. Before learning the War Requiem, I hadn’t known what a fugue was, but had since learned it was a counterpoint composition where a melody is introduced by one part and then taken up by the others to form music that sounds interwoven. Now, I would be learning a complex fugue and performing it within a month.
When I paged through the sixth movement, the notes I saw looked frantic. Double barred sixteenth notes sprawled thirds and fourths on the staff. Time signatures switched from two-four to two-two to four-five and back to two-four on a single page. Worst of all, if the choral part looked this difficult, that meant that the orchestra would be playing something so challenging and strange as to be insane; we would not be able to depend on the instrumentalists to help us along in our singing. We would be on our own. Sometimes I felt ready to look at Dr. A and shake my head, ask him: How do you believe we can do this? We were not professional musicians. We were college kids. Most of us were English or biology majors.
After we warmed up, Dr. A directed each vocal part to a separate rehearsal room. We would learn the fugue on our own as sopranos and become solid in the part as a section before trying it with the full chorus. Candice and I followed our section leader, a music major named Katherine, to a small rehearsal room above our Chapel Choir space. The room had many white shutters blocking out skinny windows on the far side. We walked toward the grand piano in the corner and clustered together in our approximate order. Katherine gave us our note. “This is really high, so let’s sing an octave below on ta.”
She counted us off slowly and we took a deep breath. “Ta-a, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta.” As we sang, we slipped away from each other melodically.
Katherine held up a hand to stop us and played a fresh note. “Let’s start again. Let’s go slower.”
The requests for commissions keep arriving by mail and by telegraph and Britten says no to all of them. This—the War Requiem—will be one of the most important compositions of his life. With the scale and the subject, it could be no other way. Britten starts with the libretto. He sits with his piano in sight, his large notebooks from his Lowestoft days spread before him, his copy of Owen’s poetry collection perched across one palm, a pencil in the other. He underlines and circles and stars lines of Owen’s poetry, poetry that reaches out from the page across time and clutches the reader by the throat. Poetry that demands a reckoning. Poetry that denounces war and honors those who gave their lives to it in the same breath. He wants to join Owen’s words with the Latin Mass for the Dead to create a complex, layered piece that defies categorization.
Throughout the planning process, Britten takes long walks, he writes in his diary, he sits before windows, he stands on the beach, and, always, he thinks about the words whirling through his mind. Ideas come to him in bright flashes, and he waits to see which ones stick. A tenor soloist and a baritone soloist. A soprano soloist, a choir, the Latin Mass. A boys’ choir. Organ. A chamber orchestra. He knows that there are many ideas right now. He sits down at the circular table in his studio and writes down the ideas and looks at them, waiting for the moment when he will cross some out and make the project simpler, more direct. He stares at the notebook.
He flips to a new page and draws a line down the middle. On the left side, he will write the words for the Latin Mass for the Dead and on the right side he will write the Owen poems he decides to use. When he begins transcribing the poems, he can hear the music carry the words as he reads each line. “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” He hears the rise of the tenor voice, the abrupt fall, and then the whistling of the woodwinds catching him. “Only the stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle can patter out their hasty orisons.” He hears the snare drumming in a sharp rhythm below the voice. He strikes his pencil against the bottom of the page in short bursts: an eighth note here, a quarter rest there, another eighth note. Perhaps he will change his mind later when he goes to draft the work, but he has a suspicion that he will not.
The lyrics begin arranging themselves in his mind. Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” will begin it all with the Requiem Aeternam. The poem “Strange Meeting” will come at the end and be interwoven with the Libera Me. Britten writes in who will sing which parts as he hears them: soprano soloist, tenor, baritone, boys’ choir, chorus. Not all of the notes are clear in his mind; he cannot distinguish them just yet. The sections exist more as key and time signatures and emotions that wash over different sections. Gradually, they will harden into notes and melodies.
Britten sits back and taps the notebook with his pen, looking at what he has written so far. How to make it all fit? How to make it flow? Britten worries, wonders if it is possible to link together two such different pieces of writing. But are they really that different from one another? They both deal with death, with judgment, with struggle. He can make the piece itself sound like a struggle—he might have to in order to make everything fit and work together. He has always been on the experimental side of modern compositions, but, he suspects, this will push the boundaries of what he has done and what has yet to be done in modern classical music history. Someone has to write something like this—this, this, whatever this will be—and why shouldn’t it be him? He will just have to be brave. All he needs is a fraction of the bravery Owen had.
The blocks of text start to organize themselves in his mind and he draws arrows and circles around some of the words. The tenor and baritone soloists. Voices of soldiers. They will sing the lines of English poetry. The soprano and the choir will sing the Latin Mass for the Dead. The work will be written in fractures, the musicians divided into parts. It will be disjointed, dysfunctional, the embodiment of war. The music will be dissonant throughout, but then everything will come together at the very end. The resolution—a major triad—a hope for peace.
Everything else in the world diminuendos and Britten lets himself fall into the great wave of music being born.
The day feels heavy to Owen. He stands in the doorway of the hut in Ripon and folds his arms about himself against the chill. He closes his eyes as a gust of wind blows small needles of rain to his face. When the wind quiets, he opens his eyes and looks to the horizon. Grayness clings to the landscape. He can see mist in the distance; it’s raining in those far-off places, places he can’t reach. He wonders if rain is falling on his childhood home in Shrewsbury.
Today must be near the anniversary of his shell shock’s onset. Has it only been a year? It seems a lifetime of heaviness has been filling all the spaces in his body. Sometimes, when he is busy running drills or walking into town beneath a glowing sun, he feels almost normal, almost the way he did before entering the war. Usually, though, he feels the burden of death settling in his veins like mud. This feeling, he knows, he will carry until his last breath. How many men has he seen dead? Too many to count. Almost too many to continue on with the business of being alive in a world where lives can be extinguished with such ease.
Another gust of wind blows into Owen, but he does not turn his back against the rain. These pinpricks of water, these little bits of pain—these cannot harm him. Owen wishes that he could go inside and sit by the fire with his dear friend, Siegfried Sassoon. He has not heard from him in a while, and he misses him. Sassoon understood and could articulate those dark and chaotic sensations that coursed through Owen’s thoughts. When Owen told him of the premonition he had always had when young—that he was going to die, and soon—Sassoon just shook his head and rested a hand on his shoulder. Those small gestures were enough to calm Owen and assuage his fears.
He wraps his arms around himself tighter. He misses his friend. He misses his life. He can put his breath into the lines of his poetry, put his hopelessness into words, but he cannot feel that hand on his shoulder, cannot hear his mother’s voice. He is separate and alone. He is lonely, so lonely.
I slowly realize that when I move away from Virginia after graduating, I will lose access to the collections of letters I use for researching the lives of Benjamin Britten and Wilfred Owen. Finding them in libraries is difficult, and besides, I want to own them. I want these books for myself. I begin researching places to buy the books online and despair falls over me. The most inexpensive copy of The Collected Letters I can find is $122.65, and the books are broken into three parts. One full copy tops out at $728.21. These prices do not cover the cost to ship the collections from England. I see a picture online of the same green book that sits at my table now. It comes from Germany and costs $145 plus $10 for shipping. I want the book so badly that I feel my heart rate tick up a notch. I begin searching the Minnesota library system and find collected letters of just about everyone, but not of Wilfred Owen. Suddenly, the fact that I have come by these books so easily seems a sort of magic. I turn the pages carefully. I feel their measured weight.
Owen fiddles with his pen and curls the edges of the paper against his fingertips. He presses the pen to the paper and watches the trail of ink he leaves on the page. His words fall into formation: line after line after line, but they take their time as they knock about and meander their way from his mind to the page. He shapes the words in his mouth as he writes. “Deeper sleep,” “winds’ scimitars,” “thin and sodden head.” He feels reckless in the moment he decides to break a line––it is as if he were leaping off a rocky cliff to blue waters below. The next line catches him. He finds his footing in the poem once again and lays down another pathway of words. “His hair being one with the grey grass.” Another line break, another leap––“And finished fields of autumns that are old…”
On the page he can take risks that do not put his life in peril. His words cannot kill, unlike those written orders that send him from battlefield to battlefield, each step closer to the front lines––a flirtation with death. When he dives headlong into a new stanza, he relishes the unknown that waits to be uncovered on the page. It is so unlike the unknowns of his daily life as a soldier. Where will he be sent next? Will this be the last letter he writes and sends? Though he writes of war in his poetry, the very act of writing is in direct opposition to the destructive forces of guns and cannons and blasts and shells. He is a creator, working word by word to right the tilted, gruesome world that seems so bent on decimating as much life as possible.
I read a letter that Britten writes to German conductor Otto Klemperer. In it, he says, “My great aim as a composer is to find exactly the right notes to say what I have to say—down to the last [drawing of a sixteenth note]! I cannot, alas, pretend I always succeed, as all my best loved composers do, but I try and try.”
When I think of how confused I was in rehearsals for the War Requiem, I shake my head in wonder at Britten. How did he know? How did he know that all those crazy, dissonant, terrible notes were right? Not just right, but precisely right? I feel as though I could fit each note in the War Requiem on the head of a pin and it would balance, perfect and round and sure. It is we—the musicians, the singers—who make it difficult with our imperfections in technique, tone, and blend. The notes themselves are ready and waiting for whomsoever can attack them with the right amounts of ferocity, precision, and tact.
I feel similarly when I read Owen’s drafts and poems. He pored over each word, positive that these poems were the correct vessel for his thoughts. He trusted them to carry his voice beyond his death and into the future.
I know that both Britten and Owen struggled with their creations. I see it in the way Owen crossed out words with thick double-lines, wrote new ones beside them only to strike them again. I see it in the letters I read of Britten’s where he discussed illness after illness as he labored over his music. And I know that I have had difficulties while writing this book. Some sections have flown out from under my typing fingertips so quickly it is as though I weren’t writing at all, but only breathing, being. Other times I have typed and deleted and typed and deleted a single word over and over, a monotonous drone of deafening insecurity trapping me along with that one word fighting its way to the page. I have written hundreds of pages that I have printed out, pored over, and ultimately cut. I have put this manuscript away for months at a time, convinced that maybe this book was only meant to be written and read by me and not read by others. I have doubted my ability to create and I have doubted my worth as an artist even as the sentences have spilled out of me, even as I sensed small sparks lighting the way along my lines, urging me that, yes, they hold truth––yes, they hold beauty––yes, they deserve to exist.
I think of Owen’s and Britten’s precision within their groundbreaking works, and I wonder: How does an artist know what is right? How does an artist know how to translate the alchemy that occurs among the silvery wisps of the mind, the beating heat of the chest, the minute flickerings of wind against skin, scream of pond peepers in the dark, perfect flutter of bright green leaves before one’s eyes? How do we put all that we think and feel on a page or canvas or in the trill of a flute or in the snap of a shutter? How do we do all of that? How do we contain it in a form that can be revisited and pondered over?
I am neither poet nor composer, but in writing this book, I have had to become both.
Britten died after a celebrated career and Owen died without knowing how famous he would become. Neither one of them would ever have considered that their spheres of influence would reach an American woman in her twenties and that she would learn everything she could about them. That she would imagine them so fiercely that they became her friends. And that small miracle, lonely miracle––my friendship with these men I’ve never met––makes me sit at my kitchen table with my head resting in my palm, quiet memories of things I’ve never seen spiraling out before me like magic I’m not afraid to borrow any longer.
We sang the four measures that contained the fugue over and over, slowly gaining speed and accuracy, but still, it was nowhere near where it needed to be for performance. When the fugue was played up to tempo, the sopranos sang over seventy notes within forty seconds. After singing through the fugue on ta about ten times slower than it would be sung in performance, we realized that it would be easiest to sing if memorized. Though the score held all of the answers, sometimes it was impossible to follow along at the speed required to sing accurately.
After practicing with the sopranos alone for thirty minutes, we picked up our scores and joined the rest of the choir. Dr. A played our notes. “Sopranos,” he called out. Our voice part led the fugue, with the other parts entering and complicating the melody sometimes just a quarter rest behind us. He played our starting note again and we planted our feet and took a deep breath. He counted us in and we sang the first note, then the second note, and then we fell apart and ended in strangled-sounding sighs. I felt embarrassed. We messed up in front of the whole choir after thirty minutes of diligent practice.
But then Dr. A smiled at us, told us not to worry but to try again, and I felt myself fall back into the space of trust that we had been cultivating together for the past three years in Chapel Choir. He believed in us so fervently that it was difficult not to believe in ourselves.
We started again and we warred against the music, slapped the scores to our foreheads, looked at our neighbors and laughed. How could we sing this music? How could something so hard and strange even exist? Every day in choir was a constant back and forth between despair and an almost excruciating high when we managed to get something—no matter how small—right. We were fighting for that little bit of right. Dr. A held his arms open to us and we followed the movement of his wrists. We would try again. We would keep trying.