Singing Britten’s War Requiem has me working harder on my music than I have on any music in years. It also has me feeling more deeply about the power of music in transforming human experience, in helping us to give voice to the unspeakable, to occurrences that can’t be explained or understood in simple language.
I was thinking about the challenges singing the War Requiem at our final Monday night rehearsal last week, not just musically, but emotionally as well. About how hard it is to sing some parts of this work. Ming was reviewing “problem sections.” We were struggling with the final section of the Offertory, where we sing the Latin text we’ve sung in so many other requiems:
… Quam olim Abraham promisisti et semini ejus—
…As thou didst promise Abraham and his seed.
“You have to really get this part down,” Ming admonished us. “This part is devastating. The most devastating part of the whole piece.” To sing this, we definitely need to be ready to Do What We Rehearsed, and we’ll need to rehearse hard to be able to transmit to the audience the power of that passage.
I’ve been struggling with this passage since our annual weekend retreat at Camp Arroyo in Livermore, a beautiful setting in green hills, as far from the destroyed European land of the World Wars as one could imagine. On the final morning, more than 70 singers gathered in the main hall for a final rehearsal with Ragnar Bohlin, director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. We reviewed the sections we’d worked on the previous day, and then read through the Offertory. The chorus comes in after the children’s chorus sings “Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae…” entreating Lord Jesus to deliver the souls of the faithful from various torments (bottomless pit, jaw of lion, etc.) lest they be plunged into darkness.
The chorus sings a strong and powerful Sed signifier sanctus Michael, repraesentet in lucem Sanctam… “Let the holy standard-bearer Michael lead them in the holy light—” and then the fugue begins: Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus… “As thou didst promise Abraham and his seed.”
We stumbled through the notes, not badly, until we reached the point where the chorus stops singing and the tenor and baritone begin singing Britten’s setting of Wilfred Owen’s poem, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.
Ragnar had us skip over the soloists’ pages, past another round of singing by the children’s chorus, to the second time the chorus sings the fugue. “What’s different here?” he asked us. Britten seemed to indicate that the tempo was similar to the first fugue, but the dynamic had changed radically: piano, pianissimo, pianississimo.
“So let’s look at what happens in between,” said Ragnar, and began to read Owen’s poem, which tells the biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son.
“‘So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,/and took the fire with him, and a knife./…/When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,/Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,…’ You know the story,” said Ragnar, “but look at this—” He read the last few lines of the poem:
“…Lay not your 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.”
There was an audible intake of breath, of sudden recognition of the power of Britten’s setting of that particular poem against that particular Latin text. And of profound understanding of what we were singing, of breaking through the work of learning notes and how they go together with other voice parts, counting out the difficult rhythms, to the long seemingly unending tale of countries sacrificing their young in brutal battles. Of young men (and now women) trained and sent to be killers, and expected to come home—if they do—and step back in to their lives and communities as if not so much has happened.
It was as if my Veteran friends and family came into that rehearsal hall with me. In our act of singing, we were bearing witness to their sacrifices, to their suffering, to their stories. I suspect mine were not the only friends and relatives to arrive in that moment, whose presence was felt in Britten’s and Owen’s artistic witness to the sacrifice of so many in the madness of two world-wide wars. Let alone the many other wars and conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Ragnar led us back to the music, to the notes that we were learning. We began again to sing through the second appearance of the fugue. About two bars in, I lost my voice. I couldn’t sing. I was holding back tears, trying to find the breath that’s required to make a musical sound, to sing. So, for a few bars I stopped struggling, took some deep breaths, and let the tears wash through (it helps to be standing in the back of the section at such times.)
… Quam olim Abraham promisisti et semini ejus.
And then I once more found my voice, I found my breath. I moved my veteran friends and family into my heart and mind. I sang on their behalf. An interesting thing happened. My voice was stronger than it had been a few minutes earlier. I wasn’t struggling for those notes (although admittedly, I might not have been singing all the right notes, but I was getting there.) And despite our learning status, the chorus seemed to be singing more fully, with more depth.
Since that morning at the retreat, I have trouble singing the second iteration of the fugue (and a few other spots as well, but that particular one is consistent). So I’ve started a practice for myself, of before each rehearsal, thinking of the people that I am singing “on behalf of,” and my list keeps growing.
I am singing Britten’s War Requiem on behalf of my uncle, a prisoner of war in Korea who returned, could not recover, and took his life. I sing for his family, who have lived with this tragic consequence of war. I sing for my friend Julie, whose Vietnamese-Cham mother and American military father bequeathed her the sorrows from their war.
I sing for the writers and artists I’ve been working with this spring on our BCCO community events, whose war experiences straddle decades from the Vietnam War to current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—Aaron, Joe, Martin, Amber, Ryan, Drew, Ted, Ehren, Emily—and for the work that they are doing with those who continue to suffer. I sing for my friend Lee, who has spent his life as a conscientious objector and anti-war activist. I sing for the families and children displaced by war, trying to reclaim some sense of sanity and home. I think of countless unnamed vets who are still serving as the “seed of Abraham,” who are sacrificed body and spirit, “one by one” to political manipulations and fear.
This is powerful stuff—tragic conflicts, huge history, deep sadness and mourning. For some, experiences of war are deeply personal, for others perhaps more distant, but it ripples out to everyone. We all have people to sing “on behalf of.” And it’s a lot to carry into the performances with us. Those realities could stop us from using our voices, stop us from singing. But they will also give our performances their power, let our audiences share in the journeys we take as individuals coming together in a chorus.
I guess this is the key, for me. When I find it difficult to sing, when the grief and sadness threaten to overwhelm my voice, I’ll look around at my fellow singers and ground myself in the power of the extraordinary BCCO community, remembering that we are not alone in this performance, in our lives, in this world. I’ll ground myself in our shared purpose, and the shared beauty, of creating an experience, together, that transforms sorrow, pain, fear, into something that communicates to others that which cannot be described in simple language. That’s how I’ll find my voice.
As a community chorus of well more than 200 people, we have differing political, religious and spiritual beliefs. That doesn’t matter when we sing together. We know that raising our voices, together can create a small space in suffering, an opening that allows connection, transformation, the possibility of peace.
We also will, as Ming will remind us (and I can see him tapping his baton on his music stand as he says this), “DWWR: Do What Was Rehearsed.”