Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem Op 20
Lacrymosa: Andante ben misurato
Dies irae: Allegro con fuoco
Requiem aeternam: Andante molto tranquillo

Photo Credit: 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.


  1. Greetings!:

    As hopefully you know, Britten must have at least slightly modified his stance on Elgar since he later recorded both _The_ _Dream_ _Of_ _Gerontius_, not an orchestral work to be sure though the orchestra plays an important role, and the _Introduction_ _And_ _Allegro_, of course a work for just strings.

    I have become more interested in Britten’s music over the past couple or so years, and must eventually get around to acquiring the Bedford recording of _Death_ _In_ _Venice_, preferably in time for my Britten cycle in late November, if I can find it at a reasonable price.

    Hoping that all has been well around here since my first visit some time ago, and with many best wishes,

    J. V.

    p.s. Do you have any interest in the Bax Symphonies? I have thought of exploring them from time to time, most recently in the regretable light of Dr. Vernon Handley’s death. I thus far only know a few of the tone poems and choral works, the rather famous _Tintagel_ and _The_ _Garden_ _Of_ _Fand_ foremost among them, and have heard at least parts of a chamber work or two.

  2. Miss Mussel

    Hello there.

    Lovely to see you back commenting on the site. I have to say I know very little about the Bax Symphonies, so am unsure if I’m interested or not!

    I think I heard a work of his for viola at a recital last year but my memory is a little fuzzy, so I’m not entirely sure.

    I just checked the archives and indeed I did hear that piece. There is a write-up here if you’re interested.

    All the best,
    Miss Mussel

  3. The rather-charming chamber work I ssampled may have been a trio, definitely involving oboe.

    If I may stry off topic, I hope to go to Pittsburgh tomorrow to attend a concert by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, one of my _ABSOLUTE_ favourite musical organizations and one I have followed since late 1960. Although we in the Washington, D. C., Area can hear the Band and its component units virtually whenever we wish, people in other parts of the Country only get that chance occasionally, and thus I thought it might be a good experience to share in such an out-of-town concert since I am told that audiences can be quite appreciative and enthusiastic. The tradition of the Band making an annual tour was initiated by, yes, John Philip SSousa, the Band’s 17th Leader (they began to be known as Directors in the 1950’s)! Any of your readerss living in the Mid-West might, if interested, wish to check as to whether or not they are coming to a location near them between now and 31 October.

    Once again hoping that this finds all of you well,

    J. V.

    p.s. I must apologize for at least two typographical errors in the above since this legally-blind user is unable to proofread until after finishing writing and to return to the place of an error and correct it if the writing field is not compatible with my reading software as per colour and/or background.

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