Requiem Text

War Requiem

The War Requiem, Op. 66 is a large-scale, non-liturgical setting of the Requiem Mass composed by Benjamin Britten in 1962. Interspersed with the traditional Latin texts are pasted, collage-like, settings of Wilfred Owen poems. The work is scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys' choir, organ, and two orchestras (a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra). It has a duration of approximately 85 minutes.


The War Requiem was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1962 after the original fourteenth century structure was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid on the night of November 14, 1940. As a pacifist, Britten was inspired by the commission, which gave him complete freedom in choosing the type of music he would like to compose. He conceived of setting the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead interwoven with nine poems about war by the English poet Wilfred Owen. Owen, who was born in 1893, was serving as the commander of a rifle company when he was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal in France, just one week before the Armistice. Although he was virtually unknown at the time of his death, he has subsequently come to be revered as one of the great war poets.

Philip Reed has discussed the progression of Britten's composition of the War Requiem in the Cambridge Music Handbook publication on the work. Britten himself acknowledged the stylistic influence of the Requiems of other composers such as Giuseppe Verdi on his own composition.


The musical forces are divided into three groups that alternate and interact with each other throughout the piece, finally fully combining at the end of the last movement. The soprano soloist and choir are accompanied by the full orchestra, the baritone and tenor soloists are accompanied by the chamber orchestra, and the boys' choir is accompanied by a small portative organ (this last group ideally being situated at some distance from the full orchestra). This group produces a very strange, distant sound. The soprano and choir, as well as the boys` choir sing the traditional Latin Requiem text while the tenor and baritone sing poems by Wilfred Owen, interspersed throughout.

The full orchestra consists of three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, cor anglais, three clarinets (third doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), two bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets in C, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (four players: two crotales, glockenspiel, tamtam, tubular bells, vibraphone, cymbals, triangle, castanets, temple block, whip (instrument), bass drum, two snare drums, tambourine, and tenor drum), piano, portable organ or harmonium (a grand organ is called for only in the Libera Me, the last movement), and strings.

The chamber orchestra consists of flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion (one player: timpani, tam-tam, cymbals, bass drum, and snare drum), harp, and string quintet (standard string quartet and double-bass).

Movements and structure

The work consists of six movements:

  • Requiem aeternam (10 minutes)
    • Requiem aeternam (chorus and boys' choir)
    • "What passing bells" (tenor solo)
  • Dies irae (27 minutes)
    • Dies irae (chorus)
    • "Bugles sang" (baritone solo)
    • Liber scriptus (soprano solo and semi-chorus)
    • "Out there, we walked quite friendly up to death" (tenor and baritone soli)
    • Recordare (women's chorus)
    • Confutatis (men's chorus)
    • "Be slowly lifted up" (baritone solo)
    • Reprise of Dies irae (chorus)
    • Lacrimosa (soprano and chorus) interspersed with "Move him, move him" (tenor solo)
  • Offertorium (10 minutes)
    • Domine Jesu Christe (boys' choir)
    • ''Quam olim Abrahae' (chorus)
    • Isaac and Abram ("So Abram rose") (tenor and baritone soli)
    • Hostias et preces tibi (boys' choir)
    • Reprise of Quam olim Abrahae (chorus)
  • Sanctus (10 minutes)
    • Sanctus and Benedictus (soprano solo and chorus)
    • "After the blast of lightning" (baritone solo)
  • Agnus Dei (4 minutes)
    • Agnus Dei (chorus) interspersed with "One ever hangs" (chorus; tenor solo)
  • Libera me (23 minutes)
    • Libera me (soprano solo and chorus)
    • Strange Meeting ("It seems that out of battle I escaped") (tenor and baritone soli)
    • In paradisum (All)
    • Conclusion -Requiem Aeternam and Requiescat in Pace (Organ, Boys` choir and Mixed Chorus)

One striking juxtaposition is found in the Offertorium, a fugue in the repeating three-part time scheme 6/8, 9/8, 6/8 where the choir sings of God's promise to Abraham ("Quam olim Abrahae promisisti, et semini eius" — "which once Thou didst promise to Abraham and to his seed"). This frames Owen's retelling of the offering of Isaac, in which the angel tells Abraham to:

'...offer the ram of pride instead of him.'
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
and half the seed of Europe, one by one.

As the male soloists sing the last line repeatedly, the boys sing "Hostias et preces tibi, Domine" ("Sacrifice and prayers we offer thee, Lord"), paralleling the sacrifice of the Mass with the sacrifice of "half the seed of Europe" (a reference to World War I).

The interval of a tritone between C and F♯ is a recurring motif, the occurrence of which unifies the entire work. The interval is used both in contexts which emphasise the harmonic distance between C and F♯ and those which resolve them harmonically, mirroring the theme of conflict and reconciliation present throughout the work. The Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, and Libera me movements end in a brief choral phrase, consisting mainly of slow half notes, that resolves the tritone's discord to an F major chord, while at the end of the Agnus Dei the tenor (in his only transition from the Owen poems to the Requiem liturgy, on the key words, Dona nobis pacem - Give us peace) outlines a perfect fifth from C to G before moving down to F♯ to resolve the chorus's final chord. At the end of the Dies irae, the tenor sings (from Owen's "Futility") "O what, what made fatuous sunbeams toil, to break earth's sleep at all?" The notes of "at all" form the tritone and lead into the choir's formal resolution. In the final Owen setting, "Strange Meeting", one of the most prominent expressions of the tritone is sung without accompaniment by the Tenor, addressing an opposing soldier with the words "Strange friend". This poem is accompanied by sporadic detached chords from two violins and a viola, which include the tritone as part of a dominant 7th chord. At the end of the poem, the final string chord resolves to the tonic, bringing the work to its final, reconciliatory In paradisum. On a more practical level, Britten facilitated musical execution of the tritone in the closing bars by having the F# sung in one voice, but the C in another.

Four other motifs that usually occur together are distinct brass fanfares of the Dies Irae: a rising arpeggio, a falling arpeggio followed by a repeated note, a repeated dotted fifth ending in a minor arpeggio, and a descending scale. These motifs form a substantial part of the melodic material of the piece: the setting of "Bugles sang" is composed almost entirely of variations of them.

Although there are a few occasions in which members of one orchestra join the other, the full forces do not join together until the latter part of the last movement, when the tenor and baritone sing the final line of Owen's poem Strange Meeting ("Let us sleep now…") as "In Paradisum deducant" ("Into Paradise lead them...") is sung first by the boys' choir, then by the full choir (in 8-part canon), and finally by the soprano. The boys' choir echoes the Requiem aeternam from the beginning of the work, and the full choir ends on the resolved tritone motif mentioned above.

Premiere and performances

For the opening performance, it was intended that the soloists should be Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German), to demonstrate a spirit of unity. Close to the premiere, the USSR did not permit Vishnevskaya to travel to Coventry for the event. With only ten days notice, Heather Harper stepped in and learned the soprano role.

The premiere took place on May 30, 1962, in the rebuilt cathedral with the City of Birmingham Orchestra and Melos Ensemble conducted by Meredith Davies (full orchestra, soprano and chorus) and the composer (chamber orchestra, tenor and baritone). There was a profound silence between the final notes and the applause. It was a triumph, achieving an impact matched by few works in the twentieth century. Writing to his sister after the premiere, Britten said of his music, "I hope it'll make people think a bit." On the title page of the score he quoted Wilfred Owen:

"My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity…
All a poet can do today is warn."

Both the southern hemisphere and the North American first performances took place on the same day, 27 July 1963. The southern hemisphere premiere was in Wellington, New Zealand, with John Hopkins conducting the New Zealand National Orchestra (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) and the Royal Christchurch Musical Society, with soloists Peter Baillie, Graeme Gorton and Angela Shaw. The North American premiere was at Tanglewood, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra with soloists Phyllis Curtin, Nicholas Di Virgilio, Tom Krause and choruses from Chorus Pro Musica and the Columbus Boychoir.

The Dutch premiere took place during the Holland Festival, in 1964. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir were conducted by Bernard Haitink; the chamber orchestra (consisting of Concertgebouw Orchestra instrumentalists) by Britten himself. The soloists were Vishnevskaya, Fischer-Dieskau and Pears, in their first public performance together.

An interpretation of the work was performed by the English Chamber Choir at Your Country Needs You, an evening of "voices in opposition to war" organised by The Crass Collective in November 2002.


The first recording, featuring Vishnevskaya, Fischer-Dieskau and Pears, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Britten, was produced in 1963. Within five months of its release it sold 200,000 copies, an unheard-of number for a piece of contemporary classical music at that time. Recording producer John Culshaw reports that Vishnevskaya threw a tantrum during the recording, thinking she should be placed with the male soloists instead of the choir. The newest CD reissue of Britten's recording includes 50 minutes of surreptitiously taped rehearsal footage at the time of the recording.

Other recordings of the work include the following:

Film Adaptation

In 1988, the British film director Derek Jarman made a screen adaptation of War Requiem, with the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, produced by Don Boyd and financed by the BBC. Decca Records required that the 1963 recording be heard on its own, with no overlaid soundtrack or other sound effects. The film featured Nathaniel Parker as Wilfred Owen, and Laurence Olivier in his last acting appearance in any medium before his death in July 1989. The film is structured as the reminiscences of Olivier's character, the Old Soldier in a wheelchair, and Olivier recites "Strange Meeting" in the film's prologue.



Shooting for the film took place at Darenth Park Hospital in Kent, beginning 17 October 1988 and lasting for 18 days. It was released on the following dates in English-speaking countries:

  • United Kingdom, 6 January 1989
  • Canada, 12 September 1989
  • United States, 26 January 1990.


The film was released on VHS in 1990, but because of its limited release, copies are quite rare. The film has been released on DVD, but only in Japan. It will be released on Region 2 DVD for the first time on 10th November 2008, and feature a Making of War Requiem documentary and interviews with Swinton, Parker and Don Boyd.


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