Archive for August 15th, 2011
I was at the Proms yesterday evening and enjoyed the performance of Britten’s engrossing Sinfonia da Requiem. The piece had a complicated genesis, being commissioned, but rejected, by the Japanese government, partly because, instead of providing the celebratory piece the commission called for, he decided to compose a piece in memory of his parents (which is reflected in the title). On top of all that, with the piece being written in 1940 when Britten was in America, conscientiously objecting to WWII, Britten decided to make Sinfonia da Requiem an anti-war statement.
And here is the interesting part. This textless symphony – or symphonic poem – was to express Britten’s pacifist sentiments, indeed, as he put it in a letter, ‘I’m trying to make it as anti-war as possible’. So how did he do that? How does a piece of absolute music set out a position as complex as being anti-war or indeed anti-anything?
Because the subject matter is so serious and Britten’s feelings so sincere we somehow overlook the problematic nature of his statement. He may as well have written a piece that was anti-smoking, or pro-vegetarian. How is it possible to note after note of instrumental music in a way which expresses anti-war sentiment? Is it that the ‘conflict’ evident in the climax of the second movement is overwhelmed by the ‘peace’ of the third movement? In that case, any piece in which conflict is resolved into peace could be construed as anti-war. And examining this reading more closely, the triumph of peace comes after a successful conflict, so it could be seen as being in praise of necessary conflict. Wouldn’t a truly ‘anti-war’ piece avoid conflict (ie dissonance, rhythmic violence etc) altogether? Wouldn’t this piece be more like Howard Skempton’s Lento, for example?
Of course, it isn’t clear from his writing if Britten intended the listener to hear the piece as anti-war. It may be sufficient that he composed away with ‘war is bad’ in his head, thus bringing into the world a genuinely moving piece of music, and it is irrelevant whether or not the listeners hear it in those terms. It is surely right that once he has written the piece, the composer has limited recourse to explaining what it is about, or what it ‘means’. But is all Britten’s effort wasted if we do not hear in his piece what he earnestly strove to include?
It is not to disparage the piece to say that, if I was listening without knowing what the piece was or who wrote it, I would struggle to detect pacifism as its ‘meaning’. It may as well be about eating an ice-cream – Sinfonia da 99. And so we return, as always, to Stravinsky and his remark about music being ‘essentially powerless to express anything at all’, certainly to express specific aesthetic or political positions through absolute music.
But Stravinsky had another problem with the Sinfonia da Requiem. He wanted to use the title for the piece he eventually called Requiem Canticles, and he was put out that Britten had got there first.