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Composed: 1940
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = alto flute and piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet; 3rd = bass clarinet), alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine, whip, xylophone, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 18, 1971, with Lawrence Foster conducting

This striking, stunningly powerful work dates from 1940, when Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the government of Japan to create a score celebrating the 2600th anniversary of the ruling dynasty of the Japanese emperor, Hirohito. Britten was an odd choice to say the least. A dedicated pacifist, he had recently settled in the United States, forsaking his native Britain because of its involvement in the war in Europe. He could hardly have been sympathetic either to Japan’s already three-year-old war with China or Japan’s alliance with Germany. Yet Britten accepted the commission. (As, parenthetically, did Richard Strauss, who wrote a conventional, rather awful Festmusik, for the occasion.)

The Japanese were not only disappointed by what they received, but deeply offended, complaining through their embassy in London: “We are afraid that the composer must have greatly misunderstood our desire… [the music] has a melancholy tone both in its melodic pattern and rhythm, making it unsuitable for performance on such an occasion as our national ceremony.” Britten replied, disingenuously it would seem, that he did not “have time to prepare a celebratory work”.

At the time the commission came, Britten was in fact preparing to write for his own purposes – perhaps he’d even begun – the composition he did submit, the Sinfonia da requiem, dedicated to the memory of his parents and probably related as well to the already-begun catastrophe in Europe. Interestingly, the Japanese did not demand a return of their commissioning fee and Britten used it to buy his first car – a vintage Ford, as it turned out.

It was announced in Japan that Britten’s score had arrived too late for inclusion in the festivities. Japan evidently was still pursuing the path of diplomacy – in its relations with Great Britain, at any rate.

By the end of 1940 the composer had arranged for the first performance of the Sinfonia, by John (not as yet knighted) Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall the following March. Britten expressed himself satisfied, noting, “John B. was very serious & took great pains over it – & the orchestra liked playing it a lot – so the show was a good one.” Shortly thereafter, Serge Koussevitzky conducted it with the Boston Symphony, not only an important event in itself but one which led to the commissioning by Koussevitzky of what would become, and arguably remain, Britten’s most important opera, Peter Grimes.

The composer’s own analysis of his Sinfonia da requiem follows:

“I. Lacrymosa. A slow marching lament in a persistent 6/8 rhythm with a strong tonal center on D. There are three main motives: 1) a syncopated, sequential theme announced by the cellos and answered by a solo bassoon; 2) a broad theme, based on the interval of a major seventh; 3) alternating chords on flute and trombones, outlined by piano, harps and trombones. The first section of the movement is quietly pulsating; the second is a long crescendo leading to a climax based on the first cello theme. There is no pause before:

“II. Die irae. A form of Dance of Death, with occasional moments of quiet marching rhythm. The dominating motif of this movement is announced at the start by the flutes and includes an important tremolando figure. Other motives are a triplet repeated-note figure in the trumpets, a slow, smooth tune on the saxophone, and a livelier syncopated one in the brass. The scheme of the movement is a series of climaxes of which the last is the most powerful, causing the music to disintegrate and to lead directly to:

“III. Requiem aeternam. Very quietly, over a background of solo strings and harps, the flutes announce the quiet D-major tune, the principal motive of the movement. There is a middle section in which the strings play a flowing melody. This grows to a short climax, but the opening tune is soon resumed, and the work ends quietly in a long sustained clarinet note.”

The composer states the facts of the music as dispassionately and clearly as possible, which is as it should be. In effect, however, the music – magnificently orchestrated – achieves levels of intensity that are nothing less than shattering. The opening Lacrymosa is indeed full of a palpable fear and lamentation, the Dies irae a frightening depiction, without recourse to words, of the Last Judgment, and the final Requiem aeternam the most uneasy “eternal rest” possible.

— Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.