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'For these who die'

February 27, 2012


U of M Orchestra.

Britten's great symphony explores the tragedy of war

By Bill Magdalene

What passing-bells for these who die..?
     in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.


The University of Minnesota School of Music presents Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, March 1, 2012, at Ted Mann Concert Hall.

Benjamin Britten completed War Requiem in January 1962, well in time for its commissioned performance that May at the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, England. The original structure had been destroyed by bombing in World War II. A pacifist, Britten modeled his symphony after the Latin Mass for the dead. The war poetry of Wilfred Owen, who fell in World War I, weaves hauntingly through the work's choral sections.

Britten Peace Project

The enduring power of War Requiem inspired Mark Russell Smith, artistic director of orchestral studies at the U of M, to mark the symphony's 50th anniversary in a big way. His idea became the Britten Peace Project, to include performances in four cities across the globe.

"The piece has broad shoulders and comes at the tragedy of war and the human price of war from so many different perspectives that I thought it was the perfect piece for the students to study on many levels other than performance," Smith said.

The project joins the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and University Singers with the Macalester Concert Choir; the Minnesota Boychoir; Kantorei; Augustana College Choir of Rock Island, Illinois; Quad Choral Arts and Quad City Symphony Orchestra; and the Detmold Hochschüle für Musik Orchestra.

As part of the international collaboration, U of M music students and faculty traveled in February to Detmold, Germany, to perform War Requiem.

"The first night we received five curtain calls and the second we received six," said percussionist Joel Alexander. "As a musician who has lived with this piece for the past six months, I have really come to appreciate the gravity and impact."

Erik Rohde, singer and orchestral conductor, was struck by the act of performing in Germany. "There was a certain weight to experiencing the piece in a country on whose soil the world wars were fought. The importance of reconciliation and the toll of war were profound and moving, and I'm thankful for the experience of having performed the piece there," he said.

“There I was sitting next to people I had never met before, but our ancestors fought on opposing sides of two World Wars," recalled singer Anna DeGraff. "I looked around at the faces of those surrounding me, and felt comforted that we could share the stage for such a profound work."

War Requiem
will also be performed in Davenport, Iowa, on March 3, and in Rock Island, Illinois, on March 4.

Beyond performance

Beginning last fall, Smith and other School of Music faculty held seminars and taught classes focusing on the piece. They drew on the work of invited poets, historians, and Britten scholars.

"To prepare, to live with a piece and to put it away and bring it back out, to rehearse and then to bring it to life—there is nothing like that experience," Smith said. "This masterwork and its message will become a part of these students for as long as they live."

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

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