And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
This is how Wilfred Owen begins his retelling of the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac. Benjamin Britten used several of Owen’s poems for his monumental War Requiem in 1961, interspersing them with the traditional liturgical requiem texts. Britten’s setting of the text begins with a jaunty Abraham, working diligently to build a fire; the music turns darker and metallic when the father binds his son.
When lo! and angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
The angel that Britten sends is more beautiful than any musical angel I can name. The tenor and baritone soloists sing these lines together, finding perfect unison as they announce with relief the presence of the intended sacrificial animal.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
This is war poetry. The allegory is clear and horrific. Wilfred Owen (photo) was a soldier in World War I, losing his life a scant week before the Armistice. War poets have license to change stories; they know that violence is a merciless story changer. Owen also reminds us that a story that only threatens violence is perhaps no less violent than one that follows through on those threats. The story of this near sacrifice is deeply meaningful, but it is also deeply unsettling. To Owen, all is not well that ends well.
Britten follows this story with the clear voices of a boy choir – what better way to respond to a story of son-killing than with a boy choir? The boys’ prayer offers a bit of comfort:
Lord, in praise we offer to Thee
sacrifices and prayers, do Thou receive them
for the souls of those whom we remember
this day: Lord, make them pass
from death to life.
As Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.
A noted pacifist, Benjamin Britten tucks a subtle cue into this section. The organ accompaniment rocks back and forth; after a few iterations of this, we start to hear the sirens, the European ones that alternate between two discordant pitches. It’s a wartime ambulance, and it’s an ambulance for Isaac. Music rarely gets this haunting and this true. The Bible gives us a story of extraordinary faith and horrific violence, and Britten sends Isaac an ambulance.
The GPPC choir and soloists will sing this extraordinary setting on Sunday. Britten tells a story like no other composer. Continuing with the theme of youth, we’ll also hear bits of his beloved Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra for the prelude and postlude.
Doug Brown has served as GPPC’s music director since 2004.