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Exorcising the Great War: Britten's War Requiem and Rudland's Christmas Truce

A new work for chorus and orchestra based on Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Christmas Truce receives its premiere this weekend.

Helen Roche | Published 02 December 2015

Wilfried Owen
Wilfried Owen

British composer Benjamin Britten presented the world with his War Requiem – a bitter, sombre setting of war poems by Wilfred Owen alongside the text of the Requiem Mass – in 1962. The piece had been commissioned to celebrate the consecration of Coventry’s new cathedral, following its predecessor’s complete destruction by the Luftwaffe on November 14th, 1940. The premiere involved three conductors, two orchestras and two choirs and was intended to combine soloists from Germany, England and Russia, symbolising a final concord between the former combatant nations. Unfortunately – and somewhat ironically – the Soviet authorities revoked Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya's permission to participate at the final moment, for political reasons.

Despite the Requiem being embedded in the aftermath of what was universally perceived as a far greater and more terrible conflict, Britten turned to the pity and horror of Owen’s Great War poetry for his first major musical engagement with the theme of war, although he had briefly entertained the notion of composing an artistic apology to the people of Hiroshima during the late 1940s. Previously, Britten’s conscientious objection, his self-imposed wartime exile in the United States and his general anti-war attitude had left him on the fringes of the British establishment. Now, however, with the Cold War hotting up and CND the campaign of the moment, was a socially and politically acceptable public vehicle for the composer’s pacifist conscience.

The piece gained instant critical acclaim, despite Stravinsky’s mordant observation that one would have to attend the performance with 'Kleenex at the ready … knowing that if one should dare to disagree with ‘practically everyone’, one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for God save the Queen’. For Britten, the War Requiem represented ‘an attempt to modify or adjust the wrongs … or the pains of the world with some dream, with some aesthetic kind of object’. It was a form of reparation, dedicated to friends who had died in the conflict, yet it was also a conscious attempt to change popular perceptions of the 1914-18 war. The composer would have been gratified to learn how many performances of the Requiem have been staged worldwide to celebrate the centenary of that war’s initial conflagration.

Today, however, with the First World War receding beyond the realm of living memory, a new form of aestheticisation and mythologisation of the conflict is afoot in British culture; a process tellingly outlined in the final chapters of David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow: The Great War and the 20th Century (2014). While Owen knew the horrors whereof he wrote, having had to stare gruesome death in the face countless times, Britten was struggling with his own tortured conscience and the knowledge that, had the Second World War not been fought, he could have expected little quarter as a homosexual in Nazi-occupied Britain. A new artistic generation, however, who have never experienced war or its privations, can regard the conflict with more equanimity. The First World War may be the preserve of their grandparents or great-grandparents, but, ultimately, it has become a symbol of national identity and cultural heritage, a historical topos with the power to move, but no longer to cause despair.

This new mode of artistic reflection in comparative tranquility is exemplified by a new work for chorus and orchestra by composer Oliver Rudland, setting Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Christmas Truce, which will receive its premiere at St John’s Smith Square, London, on December 6th, 2015. 

Duffy's poem describes the legendary impromptu ceasefire of Christmas Eve 1914, when German and British soldiers alike suspended hostilities and began to forge bonds of mutual respect and affection (or at least cordiality) through shared carol-singing and joint football matches. Momentarily, at least, a quick end to the slaughter had seemed possible. 

Presented as a fable in verse, complete with touchingly childlike illustrations by David Roberts, the poem turns this historical episode into a fairy-tale for our times. Heartrending though Duffy’s beautifully-crafted language can be, her depictions of 'barbed wire, strange tinsel’ or ‘a rat on the glove of a corpse’ are distanced, anaesthetised from the true horror that Owen and his companions knew only too well. This impression is also heightened by the fact that The Christmas Truce is published as part of a series alongside Duffy’s other seasonal poems, respectively entitled Mrs Scrooge and Another Night before Christmas, which are featured on the little volume's endpapers. Thus, ‘the yawn of History’, which Duffy invokes on the final page of her narration, is almost in danger of subsuming the war into a cloying sweetness; of kitsch, rather than decomposition.

Almost, but not quite, for the poem is rescued by a pathos that is utterly genuine rather than feigned and by Duffy’s effortless mastery of the telling turn of phrase: 

But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief
thrilled the night air,
where glittering rime on unburied sons
treasured their stiff hair …

All night, along the Western Front, they sang,
the enemies – 
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems,
in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.

 
Rudland’s musical adaptation takes advantage of Duffy’s poetic celebration of the soldiers’ singing – the catalyst which returns them to humanity – incorporating old favourites such as ’Silent Night’ and ’The First Noel’ in an entirely novel setting.  

In terms of its scale and artistic ambition, Rudland’s work could almost be termed a War Requiem in miniature: a 20-minute dramatic cantata for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra. Yet this is also a fresh interpretation of the Great War for a new century (or even millennium), not jaundiced by any personal experience of war, or the guilt that avoiding war can bring. 

Rather, it orchestrates Duffy’s fable in a way that encapsulates both horror and fragile hope, capturing the strange lunar beauty of the frostlit mudscape of the Western Front, while also celebrating the joy of the camaraderie which can arise among us, even in the most desperate of circumstances.

  • Oliver Rudland’s setting of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Christmas Truce will be premiered by the London Choral Sinfonia, directed by Michael Waldron, at St John’s Smith Square, London, at 7.30pm on Sunday 6 December 2015. The programme will also include Benjamin Britten’s cantata St Nicolas and a selection of carols and other festive music. Tickets and more information available here.

Helen Roche is Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

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