Lately, I have been listening to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a full-orchestra and multi-chorus work written to commemorate the reopening of the Coventry Cathedral which was built in the late 14th and early 15th century and obliterated during German air-raid bombing during World War II. Britten, a pacifist, put everything he had into the work, and Britten’s 1963 version of it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir stands out as one of the masterpieces of Western music in the 20th century. You should listen to it. Britten’s genius was to weave together nine of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poems with the liturgical mass texts found in the traditional Requiem Masses of Mozart, Verdi, Bruckner, etc. The juxtaposition is striking: one lone voice vs. the choir rising and falling in waves. Owen, whose poems describing the horrors of trench warfare and the widespread use of chlorine and mustard gas, died on the battlefield in 1918. Most of his poems were discovered only after his death.
Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world…
Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is one of the last poems Britten used in his War Requiem. It appears toward the end of the mass, imagines a reconciling between foes. It’s a strange meeting and also a strange poem, understated yet powerfully stated in its simple message and argument. Perhaps it’s this lack of poetic — and humanistic — imagination that many of our current political leaders suffer from. The pity of war.