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Observations placeholder

Blacking, Professor John – How musical is man? – On Britten's War Requiem



Type of Spiritual Experience


Britten: War Requiem

Benjamin Britten: Composer (and conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra
Melos Ensemble
London Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Highgate School Choir
The Bach Choir
Galina Vishnevskaya: Soprano
Sir Peter Pears: Tenor
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Bass
Simon Preston: Organ

0:01 - I. Requiem aeternam

 9:27 - II. Dies irae

35:05 - III. Offertorium

44:42 - IV. Sanctus

54:38 - V. Agnus Dei

58:19 - VI. Libera me

A description of the experience

Blacking, Professor John – How musical is man?

Consider the elements of British and European culture in the music of Britten's War Requiem - and, again, in this description I shall speak of the work as it strikes me: I have not read any commentaries on it.

The very first two bars of the work set the stage for death, with the tolling of a bell and the intoning of the opening words of the Requiem Mass.

Later, the sounds of boys' voices and an organ recall the hope and innocence of childhood, and brass instruments and bugle-call motifs recall warfare.

Musical imitations of the sounds of shrapnel accompany the words of Owen's jaunty soldiers singing, "Out there we've walked quite friendly up to Death." Now it is the shrapnel that sings aloft, but a few moments before, in the "Rex tremendae, majestatis," it was heaven. The military associations of drums are reinforced when they are used to refer to the firing of artillery.

But drums and trumpets may also take us to heaven and divine judgment in the "Dies Irae," and Britten makes a powerful contrast between "Tuba mirum spargens sonum" and "Bugles sang, saddening the evening air - the glorious trumpets of God, and then the bloody bugles of man!

To someone who has been immersed in the culture of the composer, the sounds Britten uses and the contrasts he makes between them can be heart-rending and poignant. For one whose school friends have been killed in action, it has the same kind of effect as the contrasting photographs of cricket fields, choirboys, rockets, and war which Peter Brook showed at the beginning of his film of Lord of the Flies.

In this case, my reactions to the music may be closer to the feelings Britten had when he wrote it than they were in the case of Mahler's Ninth and Tenth symphonies.

But have Britten and Mahler really used a language that is in any way akin to speech?


The source of the experience

Blacking, Professor John

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps





Listening to music