A recently-discovered scrap of paper in Britten's archive may record the flash of inspiration that gives the War Requiem, so much of its power: ‘?Irony. Owen anti Latin Requiem.’ As Britten later explained to the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: 'I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass ... and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of a great English poet, Wilfred Owen ... These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass.' At the very least, the new discovery seems to be an early attempt to structure the weaving together of the religious and poetic texts.
This tantalising document is written on both sides of a sheet of the letterhead paper used by Britten and Pears at The Red House from 1961 onwards. With one exception, all the lines of text are in Pears’ hand. This is unsurprising: he had previously helped Britten select text to set. In 1960 the two men collaborated closely to adapt Shakespeare’s text into the libretto for the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as is clear from the heavily annotated Penguin edition of the play still in the collection at The Red House.
Under the section headings of the Latin Mass, this apparently early outline lists the titles or first lines of twelve Owen poems together with page references to Britten’s copy of the poems, Edmund Blunden’s 1955 edition. This volume is still at The Red House; its pencil annotations make it clear that this was the book Britten used when planning the War Requiem.
Interestingly, the final selection of Owen poetry in the War Requiem is quite different to this early outline. Several of the initial suggestions were dropped altogether: Asleep, Dulce et decorum est, The Show, Exposure, Fragment. These poems were clearly discounted before Britten annotated his copy of Owen’s poems.
With one exception the poems Britten marked in his Blunden edition correspond to the selection he wrote out in his notebook and then went on to set. By this stage, three additional poems had been selected: The Next War, Futility and At a Calvary near the Ancre. In the notebook Britten wrote out the text of Arms and the Boy, but then crossed it out in favour of At a Calvary. When writing out the poems in the notebook, Britten was also still thinking that The End would form part of the ‘Libera me’—as it is here in the early outline. However, he later used an arrow to show that poem’s eventual position in the ‘Sanctus’.
The text may be transcribed as follows:
Asleep p. 69
Anthem p. 80
? Irony. Owen anti Latin Requiem
Sonnet p 77 –
Dies Irae -
Dulce et decorum p66
The Show 59
Voices (Bugles) 84 [this line possibly in Britten’s hand]
Owen. p 57. So Abram rose –
At Quam olim Abrahae
and the end
"one by one - - - - "
lead to Sanctus.
Arms + the Boy. 58
The End 115
Strange Meeting (cut) 116