Monday, May 14, 2007

Let us sleep now...

This past week I have been pretty tied up. I did some guest-preaching on Wednesday night and twice on Sunday morning. Plus, every evening except Tuesday I was involved in rehearsals or performances with the Symphony Chorus. Together with the Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Children's Choir, and some knockout soloists, we brought another SLSO season to a spectacular end with a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.

The War Requiem is a masterpiece of 20th-century music. It has passages of moving beauty, terrifying power, and ghastly eerieness. Combining the text of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead with poems by World War I English "war poet" Wilfred Owens, it is a sobering commentary on the futility of war. I'm afraid it's rather "unbelieving" music, with Owens' English texts contributing a cynical commentary to the medieval Latin liturgical texts. Nevertheless Owens does a good job of bringing out the ironies of warfare - not least of the ironies being his personal history as a pacifist who bravely led his men into battle; got injured and sent home; went back to the front and died in the line of duty one week before the Armistice. Owens is famous for his poems indicting the tryanny of the old against the young, and the waste of youthful promise in the trenches and graveyards of battle. He should be just as famous for his tremendous patriotism, fighting courageously even though he hated war so deeply, and expressing both his love of country and his hatred of war even when it cast him in a guilty light.

My favorite bits of the War Requiem include the Benedictus (middle section of the Sanctus), which seems to bridge the modern and medieval worlds; the Agnus Dei with its 5/4 rhythms, with the choir singing the Latin text while, at the same time, the Tenor pours out a heartbreaking song about how the men in battle fight against death, not against men, and for love of their country, not hatred.

The piece is really filled with so many moments of splendor that my list could go on and on, but I will stop with one more: a piece of irony which, whether Britten intended it or not, made me smile every night of our performance. Near the very end of the work there is a long section for baritone soloist and chamber orchestra which eventually dies down to a very soft, mostly unaccompanied voice; a point where the text is so somber and reflective that it's as if Britten, or perhaps Owens, steps forward into the spotlight to share his personal musings with the audience. As this part fades away, the whole orchestra, chorus, and audience are almost hypnotized - if not sent to sleep - and then the tenor soloist stands up and joins the baritone to intone, "Let us sleep now..." At which point everybody wakes up; the lights come back into people's eyes; the drooping scores are lifted up in the singers' hands; and within a few moments the full forces are in play, spinning toward the final, celestial climax of "In Paradisum."

It was moving to be part of it. And believe it or not, I had tears in my eyes during Sunday's matinee when the male soloists paused in the midst of declaring that Abraham slew his son and half the seed of Europe one by one, and you hear the choir of innocent children's voices floating down from above, bringing to one's mind the full horror of what war spills and spoils.

It was wonderful. The ovations were huge. The parties were very good too. On Saturday night I enjoyed the Orchestra's end-of-season party at which some musicians who were retiring delivered beautiful and highly entertaining speeches; and on Sunday evening I stayed out late dishing on church history with an ELCA layman and a Methodist college religion teacher. I wouldn't trade the memories of this past, terrifically challenging Symphony Chorus season for anything. I am rearin' to audition for the next season. BUT...

I am so pooped! And so, with no irony whatsoever, I will once again take up the refrain: "Let us sleep now..."

IMAGES from top: our exceptional soloists in this weekend's performances: Paul Groves (tenor), Dwayne Croft (baritone), and Christine Brewer (soprano); plus the composer Benjamin Britten, and the poet Wilfred Owen. (It's nice to be able to see the singers from the front for a change. I don't think I would have ever recognized Dwayne Croft except from behind. "What? Don't remember me? Just wait - I'll turn around and stand ten yards away, then it'll come to you!")

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