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First Listen: Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem'
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First Listen: Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem'


Between the time when English composer began thinking about writing an oratorio that addressed the hell of war and the time he completed his War Requiem, the world was consumed by violence several times over. There were the horrors of WWII in Europe, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the assassination of Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, whom the pacifist Britten admired greatly.

What Britten ultimately created is a response to the collective bloodshed and sorrow called War Requiem, which remains as vital and visceral as it was when it premiered more than 50 years ago. It was commissioned for the reconsecration of Britain's Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by a Nazi bomb raid in 1940. This exciting recording of the War Requiem, from the newly reconstituted Warner Classics (bearing the artist roster and management of the late EMI Classics), is available Nov. 19 — just before what would have been Britten's 100th birthday on Nov. 22.

Between the traditional texts used in a Mass for the dead, Britten slips in poetry by Wilfred Owen, who himself was killed in action just a week before the end of WWI. The poetry is harrowing, and there is no mistaking Britten's pacifist intentions. He quotes Owen on the title page: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. / The Poetry is in the pity... / All a poet can do today is warn."


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