St. Olaf's Music Department present a fully realized interpretation of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem

St. Olaf College performs Britten's War Requiem


November 14, 2013
St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Orchestra
St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Orchestra performing Benjamin Britten's War Requiem
St. Olaf Photo / courtesy Thomas Dunning

St. Olaf's entire music department have blended their voices and talents together beautifully to perform Benjamin Britten's dedication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England that had been destroyed by bombings in World War II. Learn about -- and most importantly -- hear an encore presentation of this incredible performance Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 8 p.m.

Program Notes by Robert Scholz

On the terrible night of November 14, 1940, fire came down from the skies over Coventry, England, in the form of incendiary bombs from German planes. The center of the city was destroyed, including much of the old cathedral. Out of the charred ruins the next morning, a cross was erected from two burned beams under which was inscribed "Father, forgive." This was the spirit that grew from that dreadful night-a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, which was also important in the planning of the new cathedral. Gifts and craftsmen came from all over the world to build the edifice. The glass wall at the back of the cathedral overlooks the ruins that stand as a warning and reminder.

When Benjamin Britten was asked to write a piece to dedicate the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, he also juxtaposed the old and the new by using the traditional text of the Mass for the Dead in Latin and the anti-war poetry of the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen who was killed in World War I. The images of Christ as all-holy Judge on the one hand and all-merciful Savior on the other in the Latin Mass elicit despair and then hope. In the poetry of Owen, images of war express the despair and hope which emerge from the experience of the soldier. Sometimes the words of Owen underscore and blend with those of the Latin Mass as at the "Lacrimosa." At other times they provide an ironic contrast, most significantly after the exuberant "Sanctus."

You can view an audio and video archive of this concert, along with many other presentations from St. Olaf College music ensembles at

Britten heightens the emotional impact of these images with his music. The chorus and soprano soloist with orchestra often represent humankind in its fear, false pride, and groping for help. The children with organ usually sing texts of hope and innocence, and the tenor and baritone with chamber orchestra sing the poetry of Owen and often represent the combatants.

The War Requiem has several important musical devices that likely are symbolic. The warning tritone -- known as the "interval of the devil" in the Middle Ages -- pervades almost every page of the Requiem. Sometimes it is obvious as in the chimes and chorus parts of the first movement, and sometimes it is buried within a melodic line or chordal structure. The groping quintuplets of the opening orchestral passages return to provide asymmetrical rhythms in other solos and in the "Libera me." At the beginning of the second movement the orchestra presents three important motifs: the bugle or trumpet triadic call to battle or judgment; the horn figures announcing the hunt or the seeking out of the enemy; and the trombones' descending scale (to hell or destruction) which sometimes ascends (to greater battle or Judgment Day). The choir then sings an asymmetrical tune for the "Dies Irae" which reappears throughout the second movement and in the orchestra as it overwhelms the choir in the last movement's terrible vision of a final cataclysm.

In the "Offertorium," the choir sings a jaunty, prideful tune in a quasi-fugal texture appropriate to the usual practice. After the soloists sing of Abraham's (and our) dreadful sacrifice of Isaac (and half the seed of Europe), the whole quasi-fugue returns upside-down in dynamics and melodies-symbolic of the result of disobeying God's command to sacrifice the ram of pride instead of the beloved son.

The tritone of F#-C is resolved four times in the Requiem. Three times it moves to a quiet F major (at the end of movements I, II, and VI) and once to a hopeful F# major at the end of V. Also, after the great climax of the last movement, which drowns the cries of the choir for deliverance from eternal death in the judgment themes of the second movement, the tritone disappears in the "Let us sleep now" and the final reconciliation of all the performing forces. However, the children who represent the future of humankind sing the tritone again. Is this a warning that the children are destined to make the same mistakes as their parents, "knowing that better men may come, and greater wars?" We are left with the discomfort of this dual ending as the children sing the tritone and the choir resolves it once more to F major.

Shannon Cordes
Shannon Cordes, St. Olaf class of 2014, essay author.
Courtesy Shannon Cordes

On Visiting Coventry Cathedral

An essay by Shannon Cordes, a junior at St. Olaf College (class of 2014) studying Economics and English; currently studying abroad at The University of Oxford. When on campus, Shannon is a member of the St. Olaf Chapel Choir

On the night of the full moon in November of 1940, German fighter jets conducted Operation Moonlight Sonata, dropping a siege of bombs upon the un-expecting town of Coventry, England. In the wake of the bombs' destruction, rubble, chaos and sorrow remained. St. Michael's Cathedral, built in the 14th century, lay in ruins.

These are the very ruins I visited in March — 73 years since that defining night — during my junior year abroad at the University of Oxford. In April, the St. Olaf Chapel Choir will be performing with the St. Olaf Orchestra Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Since the War Requiem was commissioned for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral and premiered there by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in May, 1962, it felt fitting to visit the site for which Britten wrote his renowned work.

When the National Express Bus first pulled into Coventry, I could see from the town's periphery the old Cathedral's spire standing sentinel-like over the town. This figure served as my reference point as I navigated my way from the bus station to the twin Cathedrals — one a constant reminder of the human destruction that permeates not only the past, but also the present, the other a symbol of peace and justice for the future. Making my way towards the entrance of the new Cathedral, I walked under an archway christened with a cross. As I stepped beyond this threshold, to my right stood a wall of windows that beckoned me towards the new Cathedral. I peered through the windows and caught a glimpse of the jarring tapestry that covers the front wall behind the altar. I looked around me, wondering where the old Cathedral could be. Puzzled, I continued walking, but stopped when I noticed steps leading up towards an entryway. What lay beyond I could not have fathomed.

Immediately, as I passed through the concealed opening, I realized I was standing in the ruins of the old Cathedral. Yet these were not the ruins I had envisioned in my mind. I had expected to see uninhabitable rubble, not an open-air structure integrated for public use. The space felt like an inviting courtyard, in which one woman read a book while eating her lunch, and two friends sat on an available bench, casually catching up. Once an enclosed place of worship, the ruins of the old Cathedral stood as an extension of nature. Since the bombs destroyed the Cathedral's roof, the ruins' ceiling was a vast expansion of sky. The surrounding walls still retained their stature, but evoked a sense of mourning in their decayed facade. I walked towards the altar of stones, passing through imaginary wooden pews that once held people in prayer. Presiding at the altar is the wooden cross, constructed from two burned beams that once supported the old Cathedral's roof. Behind the cross, engraved in stone, is a message for us all: Father, Forgive. When I read this inscription, Jesus' words from the cross immediately materialized. 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' These words do not seek revenge for the human destruction created during the Second World War, but rather an ideal beyond forgiveness — reconciliation. At the foot of the altar rests a tablet engraved with the Litany of Reconciliation, which transforms the suffering of the past embodied in the ruins into the mission of the new Cathedral.

The hatred which divides nation from nation, Race from race, class from class. Father, Forgive.

From Old to New

Upon entering the new Cathedral, one is struck by the sheer magnitude of the space — not to mention the marvelous tapestry of Christ that spans the front wall from floor to ceiling. The tapestry's vibrant hues of yellows, greens and golds composed into angular lines and geometric shapes set the tone of the new Cathedral — one of modernity. As my eyes moved away from the tapestry, I beheld a sight that prevented me from moving forward, or should I say, moving at all. Now, I will admit that in my short lifetime I have seen my fair share of stained glass windows, including those within Europe's most boastful cathedrals. But this window, or more accurately, these windows, was beyond breathtaking, beyond anything I'd ever seen before. Collectively, the hundreds of individual square windows, fragmented by blocks of stone, form what I can only describe as a honeycomb. From a distance, the windows create a concentric rainbow effect. As the eye is drawn towards the center, the varying hues gradually converge into a life-instilling yellow, creating an orb in the sun's image. I basked in the orb's light and felt something slowly ebb away from within me. It is here that I reveal the real reason for my visit to Coventry, one that even I could not have predicted. On the day that my visit was scheduled, a fellow student and friend from my college in Oxford had passed away. With his death, I was very much reminded of the brokenness of humanity. I went to Coventry for the same reason that the Cathedral was reconstructed — to heal. The purpose of rebuilding Coventry Cathedral was not to replace a destroyed edifice that bore religious significance, but rather to heal the hearts of the world that witnessed one of the greatest manifestations of human destruction: war.

Yet, material reconstruction alone cannot heal us; something spiritual must take place. Having sung in Chapel Choir under Dr. Aspaas, I have experienced first-hand the cathartic power of creating music —not only for the performers, but the audience as well. The emotive performance of Britten's War Requiem transformed not only those who heard it on May 30, 1962, but also the Cathedral itself, creating a sanctuary for those who seek healing within its walls. In response to our brokenness, the final movement instills grace and comfort within us. Lord, grant them eternal rest,

And let the perpetual light shine upon them. Let them rest in peace.

The War Requiem laid the foundation for the human spirit to heal, for an internal reconciliation that can only be achieved through music.

Upon this reflection, I turned back towards the entrance and found myself looking at another window, the very window I initially peered through in order to see inside the new Cathedral. However, this time my gaze was not inwards, but outwards. From within the new Cathedral I witnessed the ruins of the old Cathedral. An archway — the very one I had passed under — connected the twin Cathedrals, linking the suffering of the past with an eternal promise of reconciliation for the future.