War Requiem, Leeds: Personal, Intimate and compelling

28 October 2018 | Chloe Bowerbank

Exhibitions of vintage photographs do not normally accompany concerts by Leeds Festival Chorus, even though it has a long and illustrious history. There will be one already in place, though, to link with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s deeply emotional War Requiem on 17 November, 2018. It is in the Brodrick Bar at Leeds Town Hall for three months, from September.

With the concert, it commemorates the Armistice of 1918. Alongside the Leeds singers will be the City of Glasgow Chorus and the Cantabile Choir, an array of brilliant soloists and the BBC Philharmonic. The conductor will be Simon Wright.

The photographs are of some of the ancestors of members of the three choirs who were active at the time of the First World War. Others are of staff and patients at the Second Northern General Hospital at Beckett Park in Headingley, which was the main war hospital in Leeds. Today, it is part of Leeds Beckett University.

The curator is Richard Wilcocks, who sings bass with Leeds Festival Chorus. He explains: “I asked as many singers as possible to burrow around in their family histories, and used my digital archive from when I was researching my book Stories from the War Hospital in 2014. What I received was personal, intimate and compelling”.

The exhibition includes young men and women who fought in the great catastrophe of a century ago, and those who did not. Nurses and doctors appear beside men who fought, survivors and casualties. One of the larger photographs is of Benjamin Britten, taken in 1964, placed next to a large blow-up of a manuscript by Wilfred Owen, a first draft of his famous poem Anthem for Doomed Youth.

My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity
Benjamin Britten, Wilfred Owen

War Requiem was first composed as a commission for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The horrors of the First World War represent those of all wars. The work demands complete engagement from the audience, yet has remained popular, one of the composer’s most performed pieces in the last half-century.

Britten, a pacifist, was very affected by the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed fighting his way across a French canal in the war’s last month. He wrote a quotation from him on the title page of his score – “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” – and interspersed nine of Owen’s poems amongst the Latin words of the Requiem A soprano soloist with a large chorus is needed for the words of this, and the poems are sung by a tenor and a baritone, giving a visceral sense of what war is really like.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem conducted by Simon Wright, 7.30pm 17 November 2018 at Leeds Town Hall. BBC Philharmonic with Leeds Festival Chorus, City of Glasgow Chorus and Cantabile Choir. Benjamin Appl, baritone, Andrew Staples, tenor, Evelina Dobračeva, soprano.

Tickets £17.50 to £36. Concessions available. Box Office 0113 376 0318 boxoffice@leeds.gov.uk