Few poems are as concisely heart-rending (and bitingly ironic) as Wilfred Owen's "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," which re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac against the backdrop of the World War I. All goes according to the familiar plot, with an angel interceding at the last moment to call out "Lay not thy hand upon the lad" and "Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him." And so Isaac would live to see his 180 years, but for the closing couplet: "But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one."
And, by extension, few pieces of music achieve quite the balance of anger, tragedy, righteousness and resignation as Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which twists together the text of the traditional Catholic "mass of the dead" with Owen's poetry of faith lost and death in the trenches. Completed in 1962, the piece wears its pacifism on its title page, which quotes from an Owen poem: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. / The Poetry is in the pity... / All a poet can do today is warn."
The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which first performed the War Requiem in 2006, revisits it Saturday as part of a global celebration of the centenary of Britten's birth — with, of course, plenty of other performing arts groups along for the ride (see event info). More than 400 performers will take the Palladium stage for the 85 minute piece, some professional, some not, which is just as Britten intended, according to Eric Stark, the choir's artistic director: "He spent most of his life creating music to be performed by collaborating churches and community groups, and I'd like to think that he would have been pleased with what we're doing."
The choir chose to return to the War Requiem because, as Stark says, "Frankly, in Indianapolis, if the Symphonic Choir doesn't choose to take a piece like this on, it probably doesn't get performed, and in the 2013-14 concert season, somebody should be doing the War Requiem." Twenty-five members and supporters of the choir traveled last summer to England to lay groundwork, visiting Coventry Cathedral, where the piece was premiered to consecrate a new cathedral replacing a 14th-century structure destroyed during World War II bombing, as well as Aldeburgh, where the composer spent much of his working life.
Stark notes that both Britten and Owen, a World War I soldier whose poetry was little known during his lifetime (he was killed in action in 1918), took a strong anti-war stance: "Britten actually became a registered conscientious objector, but both of them had strong pacifist leanings, and both were disturbed that the church didn't step in more actively to try to prevent nations from battling other nations. And the presence of Owen's poems within the Latin mass context gives the piece an incredible poignancy and, at times, great irony."
Britten's skill is such, says Stark, that the requiem's two texts, which belong to very different traditions, come into dialogue with each other in seemingly intentional ways. "You get, for instance, these wonderful fanfares in the brass that are incredibly vibrant and beautiful, like no other kind of trumpet writing you've ever heard before. And they connect both with the ancient Roman Catholic text as well as the very modern, graphic imagery about war that Owen has given us. Each movement has pairings like that where, through the notes on the page, old text and new text meet in the middle with the music. It's absolutely a miracle that Britten was able to see and bring that out in his work."