When Benjamin Britten was asked to write a piece for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral he chose to combine the words of the Requiem with poems by Wilfred Owen. For his soloists he wanted 3 of the warring nations to be represented – Russia, England and Germany.
Space restricts me to making just 2 points from the text – the common humanity of enemy nations and a bitter comment on the slaughter.
We are all made in God’s image is something we learn from Genesis. In the Britten this comes through the choice of Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’ – a dialogue between a dead soldier and the one who killed him, featuring the words ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’.
In the Vaughan Williams movement ‘Reconciliation’ we find Whitman’s words “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead”
Where the requiem text refers to God’s promise to Abraham, Britten intersperses an Owen poem about Abraham and Isaac with a twist at the end, suggesting that nations’ pride lay behind the slaughter.
“When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Finally, I refer to the setting of the Housman poem ‘is my team ploughing?’ by George Butterworth who died at the Somme. Set as a question and answer dialogue between 2 friends, the opening pairs of verses deal with work and football, the later ones with more personal matters until it becomes clear that the responder has married the dead man’s sweetheart.
“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.