Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem Op 20
Lacrymosa: Andante ben misurato
Dies irae: Allegro con fuoco
Requiem aeternam: Andante molto tranquillo
Britten’s largest work for symphony was born in rather curious circumstances. It was the result of a commission by the British Council for a piece to commemorate the 2600th anniversary of Japan’s Mikado dynasty. Why the Council chose the relatively unknown and inexperienced Britten is something of a mystery and indeed it was this inexperience that led to the piece’s ultimate rejection by the Japanese government.
Britten, perhaps rather naively, incorporated titles from the Christian Mass for the Dead, something that the Japanese found infinitely offensive. The work is not programmatic and there isn’t any attached text but even the allusions made by the movement titles were understandably unwelcome when the purpose of the commission is considered.
The first and second movements reference one of the verses from the Dies Irae sequence. Lacrimosa dies illa, translates roughly as “tearful that day” and Dies irae as “day of wrath”, hardly an appropriate sentiment for massive anniversary celebrations. The third movement title, Requiem aeternam, occurs several times in the Mass text, most often as Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine or “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.”
When the commission was rejected, Britten rebranded the piece as a requiem to his parents as well an expression of his feelings regarding the developing menace of the Second World War. Both he and his partner Peter Pears were firm pacifists and the composition can be seen as a plea for peace. The premiere of the Sinfonia da Requiem was given in America by the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli in March of 1941.
Britten found himself, “absolutely incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes” and chose to embrace the orchestral style of Mahler rather than his English compatriot. He didn’t write much for orchestra on its own over the course of his career and even though this is an early composition, there is much to indicate that he could have excelled in this genre had he chosen to.
The piece is scored for a standard Romantic orchestra with an extra flute, clarinet and saxophone as well as, somewhat bizarrely, a whip.