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Rare Suffolk find shows flash of inspiration behind Benjamin Britten masterpiece War Requiem

10:27 15 December 2014

Dr Nick Clark holds a note by Peter Pears to Benjamin Britten that was recently discovered in the Benjamin Britten archive.

Dr Nick Clark holds a note by Peter Pears to Benjamin Britten that was recently discovered in the Benjamin Britten archive.

A chance discovery among celebrated Suffolk composer Benjamin Britten’s papers may record the flash of inspiration that gives his pacifist masterpiece War Requiem so much of its power.

Dr Nick Clark holds a note by Peter Pears to Benjamin Britten that was recently discovered in the Benjamin Britten archive.Dr Nick Clark holds a note by Peter Pears to Benjamin Britten that was recently discovered in the Benjamin Britten archive.

Experts say the find sheds light on his initial ideas for composing the work – and is a vital part of the jigsaw that shows how the piece changed from conception to completion.

The early outline was found on a sheet of letterhead found among unrelated papers in Britten’s huge archive in Aldeburgh and show that his initial idea was to use the war poetry of Wilfred Owen to provide an ironic commentary on the Requiem Mass.

Kevin Gosling, director of communications for the Britten–Pears Foundation, said: “The new find seems to be an early outline jotted down before Britten had fully considered the subtle interplay he wanted between religious and poetic texts.”

Composing War Requiem occupied Britten on and off throughout 1961.

He later claimed: “Its conception and formal plan came almost at once; discovering the notes was the real problem.”

It has long been known that in planning the work Britten marked up his 1955 Blunden edition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and wrote out selected passages in an old school exercise book along with the Latin words of the Mass, with arrows to show how the texts would be woven together.

From the new find, it seems that before either of those two stages Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, wrote the words “?Irony. Owen anti Latin Requiem” on a sheet of headed notepaper from the Aldeburgh home they shared.

Under the Latin section headings of the Mass he then noted page references to eleven Owen poems. Britten added “Voices (Bugles)” to the list.

Mr Gosling said: “Interestingly, the final selection Britten set is quite different. Several of the initial suggestions were dropped or moved and three additional poems chosen.”

A comprehensive new website on the War Requiem has been created – www.warrequiem.org – as a guide to the work.

In one of the videos on the website, tenor Mark Padmore says: “I always think that Britten is amazingly subversive in this piece. People often think that it’s a great choral work that has now become part of the standard repertoire, but actually I think he’s doing quite dangerous things in it. He’s taking the Latin Requiem Mass and putting in texts that really challenge it in many ways.”

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