Guest Blog | Thomas Cooley

I have been familiar with the work of Benjamin Britten since college. There I sang a few of his songs, and more specifically worked on a special project, in which I performed Britten’s incredible Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Learning these songs introduced me to the sound world of Britten, and I have been smitten ever since. Britten's life partner, the great tenor Peter Pears, had a unique, colorful and very expressive voice. Britten composed the most wonderful music for Pears, including many song cycles, oratorios, and opera roles; like the title role in Peter Grimes, Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw, and Aschenbach in A Death in Venice to name a few. Britten is, indeed, a treasure trove for tenors!

Britten's War Requiem was long a dream of mine to perform. My first encounter with the work was in the summer of 1995 at the Oregon Bach Festival. I was singing in the chorus  where I was given the opportunity to perform under the direction of  German conductor Helmuth Rilling. We performed the War Requiem together with the Kyoto Bach Choir and the Rostock Motet Choir, an English soprano, an American tenor, and the wonderful German baritone, Thomas Quasthoff. This was one of the first times in my life that I really realized the power that music has to bring people together.

Our East German and Japanese colleagues spoke very little English and I was astonished at what our combined forces were able to achieve in this incredible work. I was also fascinated and moved by the colors that Britten was able to achieve in this work, which requires both a monumental full chorus and a children's chorus, a full orchestra to accompany them, a rather dramatic soprano soloist, and a chamber orchestra, which accompanies the tenor and baritone's solos. War Requiem includes juxtapositions of the full Latin Requiem text alternating with stunningly dark and moving poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a poet who was called to be a British soldier in World War I and was tragically killed in battle very close to the end of the war. He wrote much about his wartime experiences. As a preface to his poems he wrote: “My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I was 31 years old and living in Munich, over the 25th anniversary of Britten's death. It was then I was given my first chance to sing the War Requiem. Singing as an American with a German choir in a post-war concert hall in the bombed out and then rebuilt royal palace in Munich, brought so much of this text alive for me. Since then I have had many opportunities to perform this work, most recently, with the Oregon Symphony in Portland, Oregon, commemorating Britten's 100th birthday.

The tenor part of the War Requiem is a challenge for any tenor. It is difficult to sing such shatteringly beautiful and moving lyrics without becoming caught up in them. At the same time, it is wonderful because of Britten's singularly eloquent and haunting way of setting this poetry. Britten was a pacifist, even leaving Britain during the war as a conscientious objector, though later returning to his beloved country during it's time of need,  and in this music, one can truly sense the sickness and disdain which Britten feels for the slaughter and violence of war.  In the first tenor solo, “What passing bells,” the tenor indignantly describes how only the sounds of stuttering rifles and the wailing of shells will accompany the souls of the dead as they depart from this earth. Also in the duets with the baritone, this  indignation resurfaces – first laughing in the face of death, calling him “old chum,” and then there is a retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac, but surprisingly in this telling, Abraham slays his son, as well as “half the seed of Europe, one by one,”  In much of the tenor part, there is also an uneasy peace or tranquility mixed with profound sadness. This is evident in “Move him into the sun,” a poem in which the poet, Wilfred Owen's, fallen friend is lying dead, and Owen delusively thinks that perhaps moving him into the sun will awaken him from his sleep, as it did when they were together in France.

In the Agnus Dei, the tenor describes a war damaged crucifix hanging by the side of the road, having also lost a limb in the war. He proclaims that his disciples have hidden and fled, leaving him only the soldiers as his followers. This movement ends with the tenor singing an imploring: “dona nobis pacem,” or “grant us Peace,” a poignant departure from the Requiem text's “grant them rest eternal.”

Finally, immediately on the heels of what is most certainly a musical depiction of an atomic explosion, using the full chorus and orchestral forces, Britten diminishes down and down, leading to a bleak final meeting in the afterlife of two enemy soldiers who have just killed one another. The single vague chord which accompanies the tenor's atonal description of the “long, dull tunnel” down which they escape the riot of the battlefield is punctuated by dissonant jabs of the strings and sets an unbelievably eerie scene. This leads into the baritone's lament about his lost life…the joys he might have felt and the tears he might have shed. He finishes with the shattering lines, “I am the enemy you killed my friend. I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.” Then, they sing together, along with the chorus, full orchestra, and the soprano soloist, “Let us sleep now,” in contrast to Britten's ending of the piece; a dissonant prayer to “Let them have peace” and the final Amen gives no sense that this story has ended, and gives no true consolation for the dead in these wars.

I always know that it is a gift and a privilege to sing this piece; many people, myself included, hold this to be the most important classical work of the 20th Century. I very much look forward to singing it once again this season with Eric Stark and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir.

Minnesota-born tenor Thomas Cooley is quickly establishing a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic — and beyond — as a singer of great versatility, expressiveness, and virtuosity. Please visit his personal website.