Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Owen's poem reminds us war's a waste

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Wilfred Owen's words echo still. Photo / Supplied
Wilfred Owen's words echo still. Photo / Supplied

The performance of Benjamin Britten's gigantic 1962 War Requiem by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra last Saturday marked not only the end of the Arts Festival, but also the eve of Holy Week, the week before Easter.

An arts lover doesn't have to be religious to appreciate this timing; it highlights echoes and contrasts between stories.

As music for the dead, any requiem will resonate with the archetypal Easter story, but War Requiem is especially pertinent.

A pacifist and World War II conscientious objector, Britten interspersed the expected Latin mass with striking poems by World War I poet Wilfred Owen. One of the poems - The Parable of the Young Man and the Old - recounts Abraham's binding of Isaac, which foreshadows the Passion of Christ; both stories involve a father (Abraham, God) willing to sacrifice his son (Isaac, Jesus).

In the Sunday School version, God promises Abraham his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, but later commands him, in a worrying about-face, to kill his only son, Isaac. Abraham reluctantly goes to obey, but at the last moment God tells him to sacrifice a ram instead.

This story has shaped Judeo-Christian attitudes towards authority, rebellion and generational conflict for millennia. Abraham is commended for obediently passing this "test" of his faith in God, and the message is: do as you're told and order will not be upset.

In contrast, in the great Greek infanticidal-patricidal story, Laius tries to thwart fate by leaving his baby son Oedipus to die but, as prophesied, Oedipus grows up to kill Laius unwittingly. The message here is: the old guard will be toppled by the young, whether anyone likes it or not.

In the War Requiem poem, Owen shocks by changing the biblical story. An angel tells the old man to sacrifice "the Ram of Pride" instead of Isaac, and the poem ends: "But the old man would not so, but slew his son/ And half the seed of Europe, one by one." Unexpectedly disobedient in order to kill his son, Abraham becomes Laius; he becomes the World War I leaders who needlessly threw away their youths, like lambs to the slaughter.

War Requiem makes Owen's sting even sharper. The children's choir, in Latin, asks for the souls of the soldiers to be given life "as you promised Abraham and his seed", a promise which has just been rejected in the poem. Britten's bitter message of "the criminal futility of war" is clear.

Our habit of pouring new meanings into old-story wineskins like this is one reason why religion - a wealthy hoard of sometimes jealously guarded old tales - is art's most productive engine as well as its most vicious suppressant.

At the start of the rebellious 60s, perhaps the first War Requiem listeners also heard the piece as a call against conformity with the old guard? Last week in the Auckland Town Hall's secular space, the piece could be heard as a rejection of religious hypocrisy. From an Old Testament parable to a World War I poem to a 1962 requiem to a 2013 performance ... meaning shifts again.

- NZ Herald

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