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Words of War

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When composers set out to write a work inspired by war, they are also saying something about how they think society should respond. We can see this both in the texts they choose and they ways the work is set.

Britten’s War Requiem, composed for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 following its rebuilding after being bombed in World War II, was the most public work of his career. For such an intensely private composer, it must have been an uncomfortable commission. Britten was a committed pacifist, and he chose not to write a piece of pomp or celebration, but instead to subvert the occasion with a darker meditation on the horror and futility of war. As if to make this point even more strongly, he chose not to set texts associated with World War II, but poems written by Wilfred Owen during its predecessor, the Great War – the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Britten laid down a challenge, but more forceful still is Nono’s Il canto sospeso (1955–6), a setting of letters written by World War II resistance fighters captured by the Nazis. Nono’s choice of text, so soon after the war and while Germany was still coming to terms with what had happened, proved highly controversial. A 1980 performance of the piece even fell victim to a protest bombing.

Ironically, Nono’s uncompromising music encountered less resistance. Indeed, harshly expressive sounds were standard for a while for 20th-century works of war (even the War Requiem is among Britten’s most dissonant works). Indeed Krzysztof Penderecki’s most famous piece, the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), earned its title only after its first performance, having been suggested by the music’s evocative ferocity of sound.

Penderecki’s contemporary, Górecki took a different tack in his Symphony no.3, ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976). This takes a similar documentary approach to Il canto sospeso in its choice of texts – one of which is taken from graffiti written on a cell wall in a Gestapo prison in Poland. The music’s slow tempo and rich sonorities, however, leave the listener with plenty of room to construct their own response.

Sometimes words aren’t even needed. Shostakovich’s symphonies are often assumed to contain coded messages against the Stalinist regime. His Fifth was composed in 1937 at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge, in which it is estimated that a million Soviet citizens were killed. Whether there is a coded message or not, the almost unbearable pathos of the symphony’s slow movement incited mass weeping at its premiere in Leningrad. If nothing else, it served as a space in which Russians could openly grieve without fear of official rebuke.