Listening to Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20

(c) Ben Hogwood

Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20 for orchestra (October 1939 – June 1940, Britten aged 26)

1 Lacrymosa: Andante ben misurato
2 Dies irae: Allegro con fuoco
3 Requiem aeternam: Andante molto tranquillo

Dedication In memory of my parents
Duration 20′


Short excerpts from the composer’s recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, made in 1964. With thanks to Decca.

1 Lacrymosa

2. Dies irae

3. Requiem aeternam

Background and Critical Reception

Even for Britten, the Sinfonia da Requiem has an unusual genesis. It was commissioned by the Japanese government, who were looking for a work to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese empire. Britten wrote the piece after an intense bout of influenza, which confined him to bed in Chicago for six weeks from February 1940.

When Britten first floated the idea of an orchestral piece with Christian subtitles it seems nobody registered the potential unsuitability of such a piece for a Japanese emperor. Even less suitable was the plan Britten had to use the commission to combine his thoughts on war with a memorial for his parents. ‘It sounds rather what they would like’, he assumed. Or rather, as Neil Powell details in his biography of the composer, he knew exactly what he was doing when he described it to Enid Slater ‘a work with plenty of peace propaganda in it’.

Michael Oliver writes about the irony that Britten’s country was then at war with Japan’s principal ally, Germany, and notes also that the titles chosen for the three movements ‘are as appropriate to a symphony of mourning as they are to one about the horror of war’. He then goes on to assert that ‘Britten’s answer to the question ‘symphonic or dramatic?’ is a resolute ‘Both!”

Reception was predictably mixed. Sir John Barbirolli conducted the first performance in New York on 29 March 1941. Paul Kildea remarks in his Britten biography of how, on the occasion of the work’s first UK performance in 1942 Jack Westrup ‘continued his pre-war campaign against Britten, as if nothing had changed’. His review said that ‘Britten has published work after work displaying a complete technical assurance; and if nothing but technical assurance were looked for, there would be nothing but praise for his music. What disturbed this critic was the feeling that the technique had become an end in itself’.

Powell writes engagingly about the piece, ending by declaring, ‘The Sinfonia da Requiem lasts only twenty minutes, but it encompasses a world as vast as that of a Mahler symphony; indeed, when it is sometimes programmed with one of the larger Mahler symphonies, one can have a strange sense of it being nowhere near as long but somehow just as big a work’.


What would Britten’s parents have made of their son’s memorial piece to them? The Sinfonia da Requiem is one of the most harrowing pieces in the composer’s output, with barely a chink of light visible until the third of its three linked movements. And yet the power of the piece is such that this moment does leave with it a message of hope to take forward.

The first movement, the Lacrymosa, is a funeral march of unremitting blackness, the timpani at the start seemingly hammering home the message of death. It really is that bleak. But such is the feeling in Britten’s writing, and the use of his forces – divided strings, saxophone, cries from the woodwind – that it is entirely possible to get swept up in his writing and feel the potency of his thinking.

After the steady onward tread of the march it is something of a relief to break into the faster music of the Dies irae, but this too has its pitfalls, with a greater sense of anger and terror here like that found in the Dance Of Death from the Ballad of Heroes. Britten presses on, unstinting, to a masterly passage where the music begins to run out of steam, its last motif gradually slowing, running out of breath, until the Requiem aeternam takes over and we switch from the darkness of D minor to the greater light offered by D major. Here there are strong parallels with the last movement of the Violin Concerto, but the message here is more certain, ending with a twisted sense of hope that after death things might just be alright, despite the pain that so obviously remains.

In his writing here Britten lays bare the influence of Mahler, for this feels like an update of the mood of that composer’s Das Lied von der Erde, though it obviously progresses in a manner common to the composer. In the right performance, although it lasts just 20 minutes, the Sinfonia da Requiem can be an exhausting experience. It gave me a headache the first time I heard it, and even now it carries a remarkably powerful message. That quality has made it one of Britten’s most admired compositions, if perhaps not the most loved.

Recordings used

New Philharmonia Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn (EMI)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir John Barbirolli (NMC)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Libor Pešek (Virgin Classics)
London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Many of the versions above get to the root of the Sinfonia da Requiem, though no first movement has as much outright terror as the composer’s own, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The more modern recordings benefit from digital sound, and those by Rattle, Pešek and Hickox are hard-hitting. André Previn’s recording, made with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1973, is especially good.

A special mention, though, should be made for the earliest recording of the piece, made a day after the world premiere in March 1941 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, and reproduced in remarkably faithful sound by NMC. More of that recording can be heard here. Britten’s own recording, along with the first recording he committed of the piece with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, can both be found on Decca’s box set Britten: The Complete Works


A playlist of six recordings of the Sinfonia da Requiem can be found here, including the versions by the composer himself (twice), Previn, Barbirolli, Pešek, Hickox and Rattle.

Also written in 1940: Rachmaninov – Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Next up: Sonatina Romantica

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4 Responses to Listening to Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20

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