There are certainly similarities between Britten’s War Requiem and Arthur Bliss’ Morning Heroes, written thirty-two years earlier in 1930. Both were composed partly in response to a specific event and both universalise the themes of war, suffering and loss to become laments for all of mankind.
Neither is restricted to Biblical texts, but if anything Morning Heroes takes things several steps further. Britten placed the poems of Wilfred Owen within the traditional Requiem Mass, while Bliss used no Christian sources but rather a range of texts varying from the Iliad to eighth century Chinese poems. While Britten set all of the poems to music still, the first and last of Bliss’ five movements involve the spoken word ‘accompanied’ by music. Finally, Bliss’ work is perhaps even more personal for it is not only a lament for the widespread loss of life, but a tribute to his brother Kennard who had died during the Great War.
Throughout the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Morning Heroes, under the baton of Andrew Davis, I was struck by how much it seemed to be the creation of a man torn between wanting to pay sufficient tribute to those who had fallen in battle and yet not wishing to glorify war itself. This would explain the clear, though thoughtful, shifts in perspective from the personal to the public over it. For example, the first movement utilises ‘Hector’s Farewell to Andromache’ from the Iliad, which to Bliss represented every ‘husband and wife separated by war’. The second movement, in contrast, uses ‘The City Arming’ from Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps to capture the mass activity of summer 1914 when ‘The First Hundred Thousand’ volunteered, although it introduces one personal moment as the mother says goodbye to her son.
The first movement was read by Samuel West who brought just the right level of philosophical pathos to the words, while the second was sung by an excellent BBC Symphony Chorus. There was a sense in which the narrator represented the individual, and hence sorrow and loss, and the chorus the crowd that was more inclined to glorify war and sacrifice. There were, however, exceptions including the third movement when in Vigil by Li Po the women of the chorus became the wives waiting at home while their husbands were away at war.
It was interesting to see how great lurches in mood could be managed effectively so as to create such a coherent piece overall. The most obvious stylistic break was at the end of the fourth movement when the chorus’s triumphant cry of ‘Hector, brave Hector!’ came to an abrupt end to leave a sense of overwhelming silence before West read Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive.
For all of the work’s sorrow, however, there was still a sense in which the piece was grounded in its time. Britten’s War Requiem was written in a world of the Welfare State and National Health Service. In 1930, despite the onset of depression, the ultimate aim was to return to ‘normality’, which was the state of affairs that had existed before the First World War. Glory and Empire were still the watchwords of the day, and amidst all the piece’s anguish traces of that mindset could still be felt. Especially when it was played so well by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it felt a privilege to experience this rarely performed work, and I just wonder if the other great British ‘war requiem’, John Foulds’ World Requiem (1919-21) is planned for any time soon.
In the first half of the concert the orchestra and chorus performed the ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ music from Berlioz’s Les Troyens in a performance that felt well balanced while remaining suitably rousing. Sarah Connolly then sang the composer’s La mort de Cléopatra utilising her sumptuous mezzo-soprano to bring out the starkest of emotions.