Seventy years since the inauguration of the BBC Third Programme. I’ve been tuning in all week to its metamorphosis, Radio 3. On October 1st they were reviewing “iconic” recordings over the decades and, from the 60s, they chose the 1963 Decca recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with soloists Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the composer conducting. I still have it on vinyl, in its slim black box with the white lettering. Britten had composed the work to be premiered in 1962 in the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral which had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. The soloists represented Britain, Germany, and Russia, the principal players in the First World War. Ms Vishnevskaya (Mrs Rostropovich – she was a pal) couldn’t obtain a visa to come to Coventry, but she managed the following year to travel and take part in the Decca recording.
Radio 3 played the closing passages of the Requiem. I heard it – so often it is the case – on the car radio. I was driving to a cemetery in Falkirk to lay flowers. October 1st is a day of remembrance for me. It was very comforting to listen to the Britten, and Falkirk’s Garden of Remembrance is a very beautiful and peaceful place.
Radio 3 preceded the War Requiem extract with a recording of Britten in rehearsal. Spellbinding. The rather clipped, old-fashioned Received Pronunciation, the attention to detail, the master-musicianship… I can imagine that playing for the maestro would have been simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating. At one point he told off the boys’ choir for inattention. Terrifying.
I know the War Requiem quite well, partly because I studied it at school. I wrote a dissertation on it as part of an English Literature course. Aside from the Latin Requiem Mass, Britten sets the poetry of Wilfred Owen, hence the Eng Lit connection. I recall that while I was a huge Owen fan, I was a bit lukewarm about the music. As far as English music was concerned, RVW was my great hero. My adolescent self found the Britten somewhat precious. Doubtless this view was reinforced by Dudley Moore’s spoof on Pears and Britten, Little Miss Muffet, in Beyond the Fringe, also from the early 60s. (I’ve still got that on vinyl, too.)
I can vividly recall the first time I met Owen’s poetry. The poem was The Dead Beat.
He dropped, – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
It was like nothing I’d ever read. Poetry wasn’t supposed to be like this. Poetry was removed from reality, spiritual, and high flown, like Keats:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
And yet, as I subsequently discovered, Keats and Owen were inextricably bound up in one another. Both died at 25, hand-writing uncannily the same, and, when you read early Owen, you realise he is obsessed with Keats:
I have been urged by earnest violins
And drunk their mellow sorrows to the slake…
And then something happened. Well, the War happened. It gave Owen both his subject matter and his tone of voice. Owen uses the half-rhyme:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped…
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent…
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient…
It gives the verse a half-lit, other-worldly mix of poignancy and despondency. Could Owen have been a poet without the War? Even when his subject matter is something other, it’s still the War, as in Miners:
There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.
And later, the abrupt change of tone:
And I saw white bones in the cinder-shard.
Bones without number;
There’s no escape from the War. Owen wrote a preface to a putative collection of his poems that he himself never saw:
This book is not about heroes… Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
It’s easy to forget just how shocking, how uncompromisingly horrific, and how subversive is a poem like Dulce Et Decorum Est. It’s as if Owen deliberately allows his art to be swamped and subsumed by his subject matter. He says as much in the preface. The Poetry is in the pity.
Listening to Britten on Saturday, it occurred to me that he too had deliberately rendered his artistry invisible in order that it serve a greater purpose. He wanted to communicate with people. Stravinsky was famously mocking of the War Requiem – or maybe the hype surrounding it – and told everybody to bring along their Kleenex. It’s his “Little Miss Muffet” moment. A cheap gag. And how many contemporary “classical” composers now are bothered enough to communicate with people?
Aeons ago during a former life, Philip Hobsbaum my English tutor at Glasgow, who sat at the feet of F R Leavis in Cambridge, where he formed “The Group”, was kind enough to let me study whatever I liked. He would say, “What are you going on to, Campbell?” and I would always have a reply ready.
“Excellent! I interviewed his brother Harold for the BBC.” So I read Harold’s book, Journey from Obscurity (1963) about his brother. He describes an uncanny experience he had on board HMS Astraea off the coast of the Cameroons, of seeing Wilfred, sitting in a chair, shortly after he had died at the Sambre Canal a week before the Armistice. What are we to make of such an apparent confabulation? I imagine it to be a product of extreme mental stress and physical exhaustion. But who can tell?
Later, while a medical undergraduate at Edinburgh, I played viola in the Bach St Matthew Passion in St Giles. Peter Pears was the evangelist. (I seem to recall that Kenneth Leighton played harpsichord continuo.) I was only a few feet away from Pears and I was dumbstruck by the pure power of his voice, even in the twilight of his career, and by his complete devotion and artistry. I remember rehearsing in the Reid School of Music and at the end of the rehearsal I chanced to walk out of the building with him. He said, or rather sang to me, “I thought the choir sang beau-ti-fully!” I was so overawed that all I could do was nod in agreement.