Rhodes MasterSingers Chorale to Take on Britten’s Masterful “War Requiem” at Cannon Center

Dr. William Skoog, chair of Rhodes College’s music department, says staging and conducting Benjamin Britten’s must-hear “War Requiem” at the Cannon Center on Sunday, Nov. 3, is one of the biggest highlights of his career.  More than 1,700 events are scheduled for the centenary celebration of the composer who was born Nov. 22, 1913. The 3:30 p.m. concert—presented by the Rhodes MasterSingers Chorale and Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO)—will give Memphis an opportunity to celebrate with the rest of the world and experience what has been called “a great masterpiece of deepest emotional and moral depth.”

Joining the MastersSingers and MSO will be the Memphis BoyChoir, Memphis GirlChoir, Germantown Chorus and Bartlett High Chorale. Featured soloists on the program are Sonya Baker, soprano; Randal Rushing, tenor; and Steven Taylor, baritone. Skoog is the conductor.

“The musical forces for the War Requiem are complex, diverse, and somewhat symbolic,” explains Skoog. “There is a chamber orchestra that accompanies tenor and baritone soloists who represent English and German soldiers, respectively. The full orchestra, chorus, and soprano soloist sing the music of the core of the Requiem Mass in Latin, in a quasi- traditional musical setting of a Requiem. Finally, the children’s choir represent innocence and lives that are lost or even lives that never could occur as a result of war. The children, who will be accompanied by an organ, actually will be placed in the Mezzanine away from the other forces as per Britten’s instructions. The staging of these forces combined with the diversity of languages and forces creates a dramatic symbiosis for the work as a pacifistic statement about the evils of war.”

Tickets are available through Ticketmaster (800-745-3000) at $23 general admission; $18 seniors; and $5 students with I.D. (fees apply).

Britten, who died in 1976, was one of the leading composers of the 20th century as well as a conductor and pianist. His birth also coincides with Nov. 22, the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians and church music. “War Requiem” combines the non-liturgical setting of the Requiem Mass and traditional Latin texts with Wilfred Owen’s poems about the personal horrors and destruction of war. Owen was an English solider and famous war poet, who died one week before Armistice Day in World War I.

The story behind the “War Requiem” began on Nov. 14, 1940 when the German air force bombed the English city of Coventry, almost destroying the 14th-century St Michael’s Cathedral. More than 20 years later, architect Sir Basil Spence designed a new cathedral next to the ruins of the original. Britten was commissioned to compose the music for the occasion, and the “War Requiem” premiered May 30, 1962 after the cathedral’s consecration on May 25.

On the title page of the score, Britten wrote Owen’s words “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity… All a poet can do today is warn.” Britten incorporated several of Owen’s poems in “War Requiem,” interpolated within sections of the Requiem, which is set in Latin. Says Skoog, “The two texts by their very nature comment upon and color one another; this work becomes a major anti-war statement, and a penetrating one at that. It has been described as the work that, more than any other, will define Britten’s life and career; a distinction he embraced and accepted.” 

The Nov. 3 concert is sponsored by the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes and the Templeton Endowment for Choral Performance. The Cannon Center is located at 255 North Main Street in Downtown Memphis. For more information, contact the Rhodes College Department of Music at (901) 843-3775.