One is famous, indeed a global evergreen. One is obscure, virtually unknown in the West. Both were recently offered up to audiences in our nation’s capital, just before and shortly after the centennial of Armistice Day on November 11. Professional ensembles (the National Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and assorted top-flight choirs) performed both—Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962) at the Kennedy Center and Alexander Kastalsky’s Commemoration for Fallen Brothers (1917) at Washington National Cathedral—to near-full houses with great success. I am no music critic; I write rather to raise the question of what such music is for and how audiences today are prepared, or not prepared, to hear it.
Britten wrote War Requiem in 1961 at the height of the Cold War as a lamentation and protest at all war’s folly.
Britten’s War Requiem was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral after the destruction of the medieval edifice in the blitz of World War II. Britten, by then world famous, wrote War Requiem in 1961 at the height of the Cold War as a lamentation and protest at all war’s folly. One does not have to be a pacifist, like Britten, to be knocked back into one’s seat half a century later by the intensity of that message. Britten delivered it with rare musical artistry, ingeniously interweaving choral and orchestral writing in ancient and modern forms: Latin prayers from the traditional Requiem Mass and verses by the English poet Wilfred Owen, who died in France a week before the Armistice in 1918. At its premiere in 1962, Britten’s Requiem was hailed instantly as a modern masterpiece, a judgment that has not wavered with audiences and critics down the years. They got it then. We still get it today. War is tragic. War is wicked. War is the worst.
Half a century earlier in 1915 and –16, when the Russian composer Alexander Kastalsky began writing Commemoration for Fallen Brothers, his musical tribute to the Allied soldiers killed in the then-still-roaring Great War, the world generally and Europe in particular were quite familiar with war. True, the last big one had ended back in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon, but no one imagined that war had been banished or become so wicked that it would never be repeated. Indeed, when it did roll around again, as it did in the summer and fall of 1914, many looked on the prospect with dread, but some on both sides welcomed the return to the battlefield.
Like Britten later, Kastalsky conceived a musical collage. He produced a large orchestral and choral piece resembling an oratorio, consisting of contrasting musical episodes that united in a lament for the dead. It evoked, in Kastalsky’s words,
funeral chants of different nations, at times Russian, at times Catholic, now Serbian, now English; one language supplants another; from the direction of the Asian armies one hears strains of Japanese and Hindu melodies. As “Memory Eternal” is intoned, the military bands join in, one hears artillery salutes, and the music takes on the bright colors glorifying the fallen heroes.
Kastalsky, a student of Tchaikovsky and a large figure in early-twentieth-century Russian music—though little known elsewhere—began his commemoration not yet midway through World War I, while Britten didn’t start writing his Requiem until twenty years after World War II ended. Kastalsky looked at his present, though using older musical language. When Commemoration had its premiere in Petrograd in January 1917, there was still work to do. The war wasn’t over yet. Kastalsky wanted his side—the Allies, of which Russia was for ten more months still a huge part—to win. The sacrifice of the Allied heroes would be redeemed, he hoped, in the triumph of the still-living ones. Britten, on the other hand, looked back, using modern musical language, on what to him was a half-century of unrelieved civilizational catastrophe. He hoped his requiem “would make people think a bit.” In Britten’s book, nobody really ever won. In Kastalsky’s, somebody had to. If Britten was every inch the pacifist, Kastalsky was every inch the patriot.
Britten’s great masterpiece today has become therapeutic, confirming in many modern listeners an emotive aversion to war.
Therein lies the difference to listeners today. Britten’s work was an instant hit and was considered high art. Kastalsky’s dropped from sight when the Bolsheviks banned sacred music in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. The composer died in 1926 and never heard his Commemoration again. Not until the 1970s was the piece rediscovered by an American musicologist on a Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow, who photographed it secretly and smuggled it out of the country in a diplomatic pouch. Reviewers of the full orchestral version, first performed at Washington National Cathedral last month, were polite and respectful, as the Armistice occasion seemed to demand. But they found in it nothing innovative and sensed a touch of Romantic sensibility. They were both right and wrong. As a composer, Britten is top tier. Kastalsky isn’t. Moreover—and this is the harder point—Kastalsky’s work commemorates “fallen brothers,” but it does not condemn war, a distinction difficult to credit in our secular age. “Now enter into the Holy City,” Kastalsky writes, in Russian, near the end of Commemoration: “Give rest O Lord to the souls of your deceased servants, leaders and soldiers, on the battlefield of Faith and the Fatherland. Remember them for eternity.” He finishes, in English: “Let light perpetual shine upon them.” This is not the world of Wilfred Owen but of Rupert Brooke and John McCrae: “Some corner of a foreign field/ that is forever England,” where “poppies blow/ between the crosses, row on row” (from Brooke’s “The Soldier” and McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”). Each piece at least was heard in the right venue: Kastalsky belongs in a church, Britten in a concert hall.
Leonard Slatkin, the conductor for Kastalsky’s Commemoration, told the audience before beginning that they were about to hear nothing that was new, rather “a voice that was reaching into the past to say something to today.” What? For musical profundity, Kastalsky and Britten may be in different leagues, but innovation isn’t everything. Britten’s great masterpiece today has become therapeutic, confirming in many modern listeners an emotive aversion to war gotten in their mother’s milk and deemed wholly virtuous ever after. Kastalsky’s lesser musical work perhaps is more truthful. While war may be horrific, death is death; and war, which concentrates death in time and sometimes in space, certainly does not increase the amount of it: death’s success rate is always 100 percent. Kastalsky, the Orthodox believer writing before the Russian Revolution, and Britten, the unorthodox Christian writing at the dawn of the 1960s, come to us from different worlds, and that is still the way we hear them.