Archive for Wilfred Owen

Britten: War Requiem

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was back at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for an immensely powerful and moving performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. This vast work is composed for two orchestras (a standard symphony orchestra and a smaller chamber orchestra), two choirs (a chorus of adult voices and a boy’s choir) and three solo vocalists. Last night the soloists were Ailish Tynan (soprano), Gavan Ring (baritone) and Robin Tritschler (tenor), who performed with the combined forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and the boy Choristers of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, all conducted by David Brophy.

You can see the members of the Philharmonia Choir in position in the above photograph, which I took about ten minutes before the performance began; the choristers were out of sight in the gallery above and behind me, near where the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was sitting.

The War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral built to replace the 14th century cathedral that was destroyed along with most of the city in a devastating air raid ion 1940. It’s a remarkable work that juxtaposes settings of traditional liturgical Latin texts against poems by Wilfred Owen. The idea of doing this may have originated with the first poem Britten uses, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which itself deploys words associated with religious services to emphasize the soulless brutality of warfare:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

These settings are sung by soloists accompanied by the smaller chamber orchestra (positioned at the front of the stage) while the more traditional liturgical elements involve the larger forces arrayed behind.

I’ve known this work for many years largely through the classic 1963 recording conducted by Britten himself, with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soprano, tenor and baritone soloists respectively. I’m so familiar with that version that it was at first a little disconcerting to hear very different voices, but that very soon gave way into an appreciation of three very fine artists in their own right. All three were excellent last night, but I have to give extra special plaudits to Ailish Tynan, who sang with extraordinary passion in the Sanctus and Libera Me. The Latin text of the latter section includes:

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.

Ailish Tynan performed this not just as an evocation of the horrors of wars past but also with a sense of anguished foreboding about wars yet to come. It was deeply moving and clearly heartfelt. I found this from her on Twitter this morning:

The first few bars of the War Requiem are enough to tell you right from the start this is music is coming from the same imagination that gave us Peter Grimes and a host of other masterpieces, and the quality of the music is sustained throughout the 85 minutes or so of its duration. There are some wonderful touches in the orchestration, such as the Dies Irae (with a definite nod in the direction of Verdi, but with tricky 7/8 rhythms). The Boys Choir was also used extremely effectively, the fact that they could not be seen (at least by me) adding to the ethereal quality of their voices. In all, it added up to an intense experience, I think for the musicians as well as the audience.

At the end of the music, David Brophy kept his arms (and baton) extended for a considerable time before gradually lowering them to signal the end of the performance. I really appreciated that several seconds of silence, which was immaculately observed by the audience. It’s good to have a time to reflect on what you’ve just heard before the applause begins. When the ovation had died down, the elderly lady sitting next to me (whom I’d never met before) turned to me and said `Wasn’t that wonderful?’. It was only then that I realised how powerfully I’d been affected. I tried to answer, but found I was a bit choked, and all I could get out was “Yes, it was”. I hope that didn’t come across as rude. It’s just that sometimes music expresses things that words can’t convey. Actually, come to think of it, that’s what it’s for.

Anyway, you don’t need to take my word for how good a concert it was, because you can watch the whole thing here:

(Please note that there are quite a few minutes of blank screen before it starts, but it is there!)

Congratulations to all the musicians involved last night for a tremendous performance, and thank you for a wonderful experience. It was a privilege to be there.


Arms and the Boy, by Wilfred Owen (who died on 4th November 1918)

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on November 4, 2018 by telescoper

Wilfred Owen, probably the greatest poet of the First World War, died precisely 100 years ago today, on 4th November 1918, aged 25, just one week before the Armistice that brought the war to an end. I am posting this poem in his memory.

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918).

Wilfred Owen, probably the greatest poet of the First World War, died precisely 100 years ago today, on 4th November 1918, just one week before the Armistice that brought the war to an end. I

Anthem for Doomed Academics

Posted in Poetry, Science Politics with tags , , on December 17, 2014 by telescoper

Well, not long now until the announcement of the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework are known publicly. I’ll post something in the way of a personal reflection tomorrow, as long as I haven’t thrown myself off Brighton Pier by then. In the meantime, I couldn’t resist sharing this brilliant parody of Wilfred Owen I found via Twitter…

Stumbling with Confidence

(This has been written as the momentous results of the Research Excellence Framework, known to all and sundry as the dreaded REF, are about to be announced, and as careers hang in the balance depending on who are the winners and losers.)

Anthem for Doomed Academics

(with apologies to Wilfred Owen)

What lasting hell for these who try as authors?
Only the monstrous anger of the dons.
Only the stuttering academic’s crippled cursor
Can patter out career horizons.
No metrics now for them; no citations nor reviews;
Nor any voice of warning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing peers;
And lost opportunities calling them from sad HEIs.
What meetings may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hand of managers but in their eyes
Shall shine the unholy glimmers of goodbyes.
The cost of student fees shall be their pall;
Their inheritance the frustrations…

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The Statistics of the “Great War”

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2014 by telescoper

Since today, 4th August 2014, is the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First War I thought I’d repost an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago which says very clear what I feel about the War that some people insist on calling “Great”…


Ten summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror.

When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too; some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial.

On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into concentrated fire from heavy machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack. The bombardment had been almost entirely ineffective, and it finished well before the British advance started, so the Germans had plenty of time to return to their positions and wait for the advancing British.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops over the top to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million. The territory gained at such a heavy price was negligible.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue when peace returned in 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. Just a year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote a great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq or Afghanistan or Ukraine or Gaza as Flanders (1917).

Last night I listened to a broadcast of the Mozart Requiem on BBC Radio 3. Mozart  left this piece unfinished at his death. The performance was preceded by an interesting discussion about the subsequent completion by his student, Süssmayr, and the various alternatives including the one by Robert Levin we heard last night. Of course nobody will know exactly how Mozart intended this work to be completed because Mozart died before he was able to finish it. We’ll never know what the millions that died before their time during World War 1 would have achieved either. Among the lists of the dead and maimed  were great poets, artists, musicians, scientists and engineers but we’ll never know what they might have created because death had the last word.

I thought I’d end with a poem by, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.




Posted in Poetry with tags , on November 11, 2012 by telescoper

Move him into the sun–
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds–
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,–still warm,–too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
–O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)


Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on November 11, 2011 by telescoper

It’s the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month which means it’s Remembrance Day. I’ve posted about my thoughts about this time of year before (see, for example, here and here). Rather than say it all again, therefore, I decided to post a poem by the greatest poet of the First World War, Wilfred Owen. I might even go as far as to say that this is Wilfred Owen’s greatest poem. It’s certainly one of his most complex and ambivalent works, as it juxtaposes the necessary insensitivity of men who have to survive in conditions so appalling
that they might otherwise go mad, with the unawakened or even wilful insensibility of people who have never been confronted with the horror of what war is really like. Lest we forget.


Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling
Losses who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.


And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on Armies’ decimation.


Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.


Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.


We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.


But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

O World of Many Worlds

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 12, 2010 by telescoper

You probably don’t associate the poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) with cosmology or astrophysics, as his poems were almost exclusively about the horror of war. This one, however,  which was begun in 1913, before the First World War broke out – Owen himself enlisted in 1915 –  will surely strike several chords with those interested in the use of the phrase Many Worlds in other contexts, and it also contains a number of astronomical references.

O World of many worlds, O life of lives,
What centre hast thou? Where am I?
O whither is it thy fierce onrush drives?
Fight I, or drift; or stand; or fly?

The loud machinery spins, points work in touch;
Wheels whirl in systems, zone in zone.
Myself having sometime moved with such,
Would strike a centre of mine own.

Lend hand, O Fate, for I am down, am lost!
Fainting by violence of the Dance…
Ah thanks, I stand – the floor is crossed,
And I am where but few advance.

I see men far below me where they swarm…
(Haply above me – be it so!
Does space to compass-points conform,
And can we say a star stands high or low?)

Not more complex the millions of the stars
Than are the hearts of mortal brothers;
As far remote as Neptune from small Mars
Is one man’s nature from another’s.

But all hold course unalterably fixed;
They follow destinies foreplanned:
I envy not these lives in their faith unmixed,
I would not step with such a band.

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone,
Lawless; in passage through all spheres,
Warning the earth of wider ways unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears…

This is the track reserved for my endeavour;
Spanless the erring way I wend.
Blackness of darkness is my meed for ever?
And barren plunging without end?

O glorious fear! Those other wandering souls
High burning through that outer bourne
Are lights unto themselves. Fair aureoles
Self-radiated these are worn.

And when in after times those stars return
And strike once more earth’s horizon,
They gather many satellites astern,
For they are greater than this system’s Sun.