Sinfonia da Requiem
1 Lacrymosa (Andante ben misurato)
2 Dies irae (Allegro con fuoco)
3 Requiem (Andante molto tranquillo)
Britten’s attachment to his parents, and particularly his mother, was intense. Her sudden death in January 1937 came as a great shock, only a few years after his father. Britten was at the time living in a flat in London with his sister. They were both sick with flu and their mother had come to nurse them, only to fall ill herself. Within days she was dead.
This marked the beginning of a turbulent year for Britten. Only a few months later his close friend Peter Burra died in a plane crash. Britten took on the responsibility of sorting out Burra’s things. He was assisted by a mutual friend and casual acquaintance who would soon become closer: the singer Peter Pears. By October, when Pears was on tour in America, Britten was raising the idea of emigrating to further their careers. At the same time he noted in his diary, “The loss of Mum & Pop, instead of lessening, seems to be more & more apparent every day. Scarcely bearable.” In January 1939 they followed Britten’s friend and mentor Auden and crossed the Atlantic to Canada. The plan was only to stay a few weeks, but they remained there for six months before crossing the border to the United States and New York. In the meantime their professional relationship had become an intimate one, which would last until Britten’s death in 1976.
By now war seemed an increasingly inevitable prospect, and they discussed the subject with Aaron Copland, who later recalled that the pair “worried constantly about whether to return to England.” He wrote advising Britten to stay put: “Anyone can shoot a gun – but how many can write music like you?” In any case, the flow of commissions meant that Britten was able to tell his publisher Ralph Hawkes that he was simply too busy to return. It was Hawkes who told him that Japan was commissioning music to mark 2,600 years of the Mikado dynasty. Britten offered the Sinfonia da Requiem, which he dedicted to the memory of his parents. The Japanese government rejected the work. They considered its use of titles from Christian liturgy insulting. The rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 pulled the USA into the Second World War. To be an immigrant providing music for the enemy would have been an unfortunate situation. In 1942 Britten and Pears returned to the UK and were eventually granted conscientious objector status.
The Sinfonia’s three movements play without a break. The titles of the movements do not indicate any specific liturgical meaning, but suggest the tone of each movement. Thus the opening has the character of a lament, followed by “a form of Dance of Death”, and finally a resolution into peace.