Britten War Requiem Prints

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

My interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem into a series of 8 prints, after I had the opportunity to attend a dress rehearsal with a sketchbook.  Later, when I returned to work on this piece, many of the shapes and forms from my small sketchbook would appear in the final prints.  Whilst working on the prints I visited WW1 graveyards in France, listened to the music and incorporated elements from Wilfrid Owen’s poems, used by Britten along with the requiem mass to create this secular piece of music.

I have endeavoured to capture the spirit of the music and words, as this monumental piece moves along its journey, always bearing in mind the cost to humanity.

Britten himself used Owen’s words to preface his piece:

“My subject is War, and the pity of War,
The Poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn .”

The prints measure 33cm x 50cm, and are printed in an edition of 10 on handmade paper from Moulin de Larroque, Couzes, France. Each is individual due to the nature of the paper and the printing process. This is important as the handmade paper represents human skill and individuality – as every soldier was an individual, loved by their friends and family for being themselves.

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Requiem Aeternam

Bells toll, music and voices rise in intensity, you can hear death’s heavy footsteps coming ever closer. And then the angels sing. Flashes of light, explosions, gunfire. The scarred landscape riven with trenches, searchlights bearing down upon men and machines. The countryside turning from green to red with the blood of the dead. “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”

I found the marks included here, and in most of the prints from within Britten’s music. Many are taken from the small sketchbook I filled when listening to a live dress rehearsal in Aachen in 2011, others from the larger sketchbook I used when I finally started my interpretation in mid-2013. The words from the Requiem Mass and those of Wilfrid Owen’s poems also gave rise to gestures, shapes, marks and colours as I worked towards a coherent representation of this monumental piece of music, distilling the journey into a series of eight prints.

The treble chorus appear three times within the music. Each time I represent them with a shining veil-like screenprint. Here, their light is obliterated by the dark menacing green of encroaching danger.

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Dies irae l

Fanfares of trumpets, and the insistent choir calls all to “this day of wrath … When the judge shall come”. Shells fall and bombs explode, obliterating men from the earth and their families. Evening comes and “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air … Voices of boys were by the river-side. Sleep mothered them”.

Here I have used the birth certificate of my Great-great Uncle, Harry Alfred George Hayter, who served as a Private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, to represent all of those who have died in wartime. The Mother and Son are entwined, yet will be blown apart by the blast or fall under the shells and shrapnel. Using the imagery of the river, the lamentation upon the judgement of the world flows over and around them.

I was thrilled when Dies irae l won the John Purcell Paper Prize at the RE’s National Open Print Competition in London, 2015.

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Dies irae ll

The height of the battle and bullets are flying through the air. Flashes of light from explosions capture figures, holding them still for an instant as the great guns seek their prey. “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse.”

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Dies irae lll

The darkest part of the War Requiem, as the choir announces that that “this day of wrath Shall consume the world in ashes”. Light and hope are extinguished with death. And then the darkness is pierced with a beautiful lament for mercy. “Move him into the sun … If anything might rouse him now The kind old sun will know.”

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Offertorium

The angels sing their request: “deliver the souls of the departed from the pains of hell, and the bottomless pit”. The choir joins in asking Michael to “lead them into the holy light as Thous didst promise Abraham”. Wilfrid Owen’s poem takes the story of Abraham and Isaac, changing the ending so Abraham doesn’t offer the ram: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, – And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

The light of the angels is visible in this print, beneath the figure, the rosehips (representing the “seed of Europe”), and the duet between the Tenor and Baritone.

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Sanctus

Amidst dissonant bells the Soprano sings, flanked by a towering mass of humanity, as they repeat “Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord”. The colours are deliberately sharp and sea-like, as “the Earth, she saith: “My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death. Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified, Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried.”

Within the print is a photograph of Panel 6 from the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, as this includes the name of my Great-great Uncle, Harry Alfred George Hayter, a Private in The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, who died on 11 April 1918 aged 19.

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Agnus Dei

To capture the simplicity and melancholy of this section I have used an image from Prowse Point. Here, the cross is flanked by two weeping willows and can be seen from a distance.
“But they who love the greater love Lay down their life; they do not hate.”

Ripples and fallen vegetation disrupt the precise shape of the cross, as it is reflected in a small pond.

 

Britten War Requiem Prints

 

Libera Me

The end of the journey, through the tunnel and into “the perpetual light” and peace. There is a meeting, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” and reconciliation “Let us sleep now …” The angels’ shining veil appears twice – as the first layer of the print, and again over the two figures who have completed their journey and can now “rest in peace”.

 

Final Note

It took me 9 months to complete this series of prints.  Creating them was an emotional rollercoaster – quite apposite given the subject matter.  A while after completing the series, I saw a documentary which included aerial photographs of Ypres and the surrounding area.  I was stunned by the images: gashes in the landscape, craters, lines of trenches and piles of rubble – as they were also in my sketchbook, drawn in charcoal as I had listened to the music.  Benjamin Britten had put these images into music, and I had found them.

For someone whose work usually celebrates life and joie de vivre, this interpretation took me well out of my comfort zone.  It remains the most challenging series I have created so far.

If you have enjoyed looking at the Britten War Requiem Prints, you might like to see these other series:

Celebrating Evensong

Celebrating Evensong

Shifting Sand

Shifting Sand

 

 

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