About this work
Britten was approached to write an orchestral composition for an unidentified Great Power, to be ready in 1940. With war threatening all over the world, and reflecting on the loss of his father a few years earlier, Britten responded with a work in three linked movements, each titled with the name of a section of the Latin Mass for the Dead. Always a pacifist, Britten clearly was taking the occasion to state his protest. The first movement is full of the sounds of grief, beginning with a funeral march employing massive drum-beats, with a central section featuring a crying saxophone solo. The second movement is the only fast one, a "Dies Irae" that obviously depicts war in martial fanfares and explosions, ending in choas that threatens to tear the orchestra apart. This dies out and leads to "Requiem aeternam" in which an achingly beautiful theme on flutes brings, if not immediate consolation, a promise of peace to come. It is a strongly emotional and deeply personal work. As it turned out, the mysterious commission for the work came from the Japanese Empire, which had in mind to use it at ceremonies marking the 2,500th anniversary of the legendary date of the founding of the Imperial Dynasty. Japan rejected it with the explanation that its Christian basis made it incompatible with a Shinto celebration, so it was premiered in New York.