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November 11, 2010

For Veterans Day, an excerpt from Britten's profound 'War Requiem'

On this Veterans Day, I wanted to share something from Benjamin Britten's profound "War Requiem." The composer interwove the ancient Latin Mass for the Dead with haunting poetry of Wilfred Owen to create a musical memorial to all those killed in all wars. The most affecting passage in the long, emotionally draining work comes at the end, when the tenor and baritone soloists sing a particularly powerful poem that imagines two soldiers from opposite sides of the conflict meeting after death:

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now . . . ."

Here is the finale, starting with that last line, in a moving performance conducted by

the late Mstislav Rostropovich in 2004, three years before his own death:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:25 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes


You are right Tim, it is the most moving work. It is a pity that perhaps it is too late for to come to Coventry Cathedral to hear us performing it on this Saturday 13th. If you happen to be coming to London before Wed. 17th, we are again performing it at Westminster Cathedral. I'm an alto with the Parliament Choir.

Would that I could, but I am not able. Thanks very much for writing. TIM

The first time I heard the War Requiem live was in Chicago in May 2002, with Mr. Rostropovich conducting, and Duain Wolfe as the second conductor with the chamber ensemble. I remember that it was unseasonably cold and I caught a bug, but somehow I made it through the performance without disrupting it too badly that I could tell from the balcony. It makes it the more touching because Rostropovich knew Britten personally, of course.

Admittedly, there is more than a whiff of PC about the War Requiem, and BB indulged in a little bit of fudging when he cut some lines from "Strange Meeting" that were contradictory to the "In paradisum" text, namely:

"And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell."

Still, overall, as a musicodramatic expression, as the saying goes, it works.

I'll second that. Thanks for commenting. Anytime I saw Rostropovich conduct something by Britten, something extra seemed to come through. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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