Q: Let's talk about that one. Let's begin with Benjamin Britten and War Requiem which you recorded. What are your - what makes the piece so compelling?
RS: Well, I registered CO [Conscientious Objector] in the last war, and I subsequently, a long way into it, I finally asked my draft board to reclassify me and put me 1-A, and I went in as Apprentice Seaman and didn't see any action by that time because they moved me into, they moved me into raising money for bonds and entertainment and such, and it didn't. I formed a disaffection for war, violent disaffection for war, when I was in my late teens, and so I felt uncomfortable with it. I didn't mind being - I'd have been happy to go as a CO in a hospital or a medical unit or something like that, I guess, but I was doing educational work at the time and so they - my draft board in New York, the Manhattan draft board – said that they wanted to keep me in education at that time and I finally went back.
My brother was a Chaplain, and he was killed as a matter of fact, overseas, an Air Force Chaplain, killed in a bombing on his church, in one of their Sunday services in a little island that they'd just gotten, Biak Island in the South Pacific. So that's the - so the thing that moves me is that juxtaposition of Wilfred Owens' poetry with the Latin text for the dead, but also Britten's capacity for identifying that possibility. I think that's just staggering. I mean there are in every piece of Britten’s - in every piece of Owen's poetry, there are a line or two which almost become, in some instances, become puns, almost, with the Latin text for the dead. The Requiem for the mortuorem, you could put it at the beginning of the Latin text, but it speaks of flesh will come, what is, shall come to thee, 'ad te omnis caro veniet' - "unto Thee shall all flesh come." And Owens' line just preceding concerns all these men who lie here as cattle, slaughtered cattle, and it's damn near as though you're eating the bodies.
It's extraordinary, and time after time in the piece, it happens that Owen will pick just the - that Britten will pick just from Owen's complete collected works just the poem that synchronizes right specifically there. So I think - but I think also then the masterful way that he takes up the idea from Berlioz and Verdi about the trumpets of hell and so on, and in his own brilliant, brilliant language pulls together a "Dies Irae" that's just shocking, and then the way he leaves it quietly, almost leaves the "Dona Nobis Pacem" at the end, almost - he must have learned a little bit from Beethoven, too. He leaves it almost as though it were a question rather than a secure answer.
I was at Tanglewood when Peter Grimes was done, the first performance, and I've done other of Britten's works, choral works through the years, and occasionally some of the orchestral things too, so that piece means a lot to me, ethically, and I suppose philosophically, as well as musically.
And I feel a little bit the other great work, I think, choral work of our century along with the Hindemith which you spoke about is the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, and I think that's a remarkable achievement. However, in some respects I feel those are as important as, even those three, of anything that's been written in our century, and they are all sort of choral symphonic masterworks. I know many, at least some of my instrumental, orchestral friends, conductors and composers too, who just simply think that the Stravinsky Psalms is the best piece written in the 1900s. And its economy and the fact that it's written for chorus bothers them some, but it doesn't mean they class it out.
And, I was interested in Hindemith's thing because it came at a time of great civic upheaval, and the war, and the menace of Hitler and what that meant for being human, and his dedication to his friends that were killed in action - Hindemith's dedication - and the fact that it was - Lincoln had been my boyhood hero of all heroes, and I knew, when I was a boy I knew most of the… I read the Sandburg Six Volumes and I read the "Lincoln" - I had a book of Lincoln's stories from childhood, from the time I could read, and I thought Lincoln was just fabulous. And so, since this was a Lincoln memorial thing, this was very touching to me.
Note from EWD: I used to write quotes from RS in the backs of my scores, and in the back of my War Requiem score from one of the times we did it with Shaw was this: “In this sense, tragedy is the only hope we have. Maybe if it’s bad enough, the killing will stop.”