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Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Benjamin Britten
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Thomas Hampson, baritone Nov. 20 - 22, 2003
© Richard Freed

The Sinfonia da Requiem, composed in 1940, was given its first performance on March 31 of the following year, by the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed this work on July 11, 1971, at the Merriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, with Jorge Mester conducting, and presented it last on October 28, 29 and 30, 1993, under James Conlon.

The score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo (with alto flute ad lib. ), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, alto saxophone ( ad lib. ), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns (2 of these ad lib. ), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, side drum, cymbals, tambourine, whip xylophone, 2 harps (second ad lib. ), piano, and strings. Duration, 20 minutes.
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Britten composed the Sinfonia da Requiem , his first major work for full orchestra without a soloist, at a tense time in world history, and in so doing he set off an uncomfortable diplomatic exchange before the music was heard. In 1940, when Japan was deep in its war with China but had not yet entered the global conflict as a member of the “Axis” powers, its government invited some noted foreign composers to write works in observance of the 2,600th anniversary of its ruling dynasty, which is traced back to the accession of the Emperor Jimmu Tenno in 660 B.C. By 1940 the Japanese had a well developed acquaintance with Western music, with numerous performing groups trained by Western musicians, and several Japanese composers took part in this observance as well, but the most distinguished participant was surely the then 76-year-old Richard Strauss, who contributed a Festmusik zur Feier des 2600-jährigen Bestehens des Kaiserreichs Japan (Op. 84). As it turned out, however, that work did neither the occasion nor Strauss himself much credit, and is almost forgotten by now, while the most lasting consequence of that series of commissions is the one that was the most controversial at the time and which has come to be regarded as the finest of all of Britten's orchestral works.

The approach from the Japanese was cautious and indirect at first. Britten was only 26 years old at the time, and far from the national icon he was to become. His own government, as go-between, sounded him out on the idea of composing a symphony for an important celebration of another country's ruling house—but without identifying the country. Only after he had stated his own terms and they had been accepted was he told his symphony was to be for the Emperor of Japan.

Like his senior compatriot Michael Tippett, Britten was a dedicated pacifist, and actually a conscientious objector during World War II. In composing this work he undertook to register his personal feelings about war by calling his symphony a requiem and giving its three movements headings taken from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead—looking ahead, in a sense, to the War Requiem he would compose several years after the end of that war. His title and movement headings were submitted to the Japanese, who gave their approval, perhaps without understanding the implications. When the score was completed, it was rejected, not in a note to the composer but in the form of an undisguisedly angry communiqué from the Japanese foreign ministry to its British counterpart, protesting the “insult” inherent in the Christian liturgical references. The poet W.H. Auden, who supplied the libretto for Britten's opera Paul Bunyan, helped the composer write a conciliatory reply, but it went unacknowledged and the symphony was eventually given its premiere not in Japan but in the United States, where Britten spent the early part of the war years. The score, bearing no reference to the Japanese anniversary, was inscribed simply, “In memory of my parents.” By the end of the year in which this musical “plea for peace” was first heard, the U.S. and Britain were allied in the war against Japan and its allies.

The Sinfonia , in D major, is in three interlinked movements. Stark drumbeats over a low orchestral growl introduce the first, L ACRYMOSA ( Andante ben misurato ), whose burden of lamentation and protest is unmistakable in its treadlike rhythm and searing wind harmonies. With cutting emphasis from the brass, the music comes to a boil, subsiding only momentarily before the onset of the D IES IRAE ( Allegro con fuoco ), the symphony's scherzo in the form of a frenzied “dance of death”—and, by no means incidentally, as stunning a feat of orchestral writing as Britten ever brought off. The scherzo does not so much come to an end as simply exhaust itself, to make way for the concluding movement, R EQUIEM AETERNAM ( Andante molto tranquillo ), which balances the outrage and grief of the opening slow movement with a gesture of consolation and peace. There is even a treadlike figure of affirmative character here, a sort of mirror image of the one in the Lacrymosa.

The influence of Stravinsky in the symphony's closing section, and of Mahler in both of the outer movements, may be plain enough, and some of the orchestral flourishes in the Dies irae may recall characteristic touches of Vaughan Williams. That such influences may have been felt by Britten in 1940 is hardly surprising; what is astonishing is the degree to which he absorbed them into his own language. We notice them only in the way of musical footnotes to a work as remarkable for its individuality as for the immediacy of its impact.