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No. 886:
War Requiem

Today, a choral conductor and a soldier's ghost. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

How strangely things come together. Sunday afternoon I heard Robert Shaw directing Benjamin Britten's War Requiem -- a setting of a poem by Wilford Owen. Owen was an English soldier killed in the last days of WW-I.

In 1948 I sang under a Shaw protégé. Shaw was, by then, the young wunderkind who was transforming American choral singing. I was studying calculus, mechanics -- and singing -- surrounded by returning WW-II veterans. I'd survived the war by being just a little too young to go. The students around me -- some damaged, some not, had survived by being luckier than the ones who died.

I went on into engineering and teaching. All the time I sang everywhere I could. In 1974 I was in Jugoslavia singing with the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral and working in the International Center for Heat and Mass Transfer. That August I drove down through Bosnia, and through Mostar, to a conference in Dubrovnik.

The car carried my wife and me, our two boys, and the conference proceedings. We stopped near the famous Mostar Bridge for our sandwiches and juice. Bees hummed in the summer air, and the graceful bridge reflected in the river water.

The Bosnians were nice to us. A couple took us into their house that night. Their daughters slept on the couch. Other Jugoslavs were nice to us, too. But they told jokes about the Bosnians. They told the same jokes I once told about the Polish.

Yesterday I saw a picture of what was left of the Mostar bridge. Croatian guns had pounded it into rubble. And I know I'll never tell Polish jokes again.

Now here's Robert Shaw again, still at it a half-century later. So much comes back: Those ex-GIs; Art Winship, who finished his degree in a wheelchair; John Wagner, who'd survived the terrible 1945 German counteroffensive. That whole part of my life had played to the background of Shaw's musical methods.

The students with me had been through the same things Owen wrote about. They told me about senseless death. This Sunday I listened as Owen dreamed up the ghost of a soldier he'd killed. The ghost speaks:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now ...

Twenty years ago in Jugoslavia I sang and studied coal gasification. I listened to Bosnian jokes and sat by Mostar's lovely bridge. Sunday I heard Wilfred Owen: "It seemed that out of battle I escaped."

Well, he did not escape -- nor, in the end, do we.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

(This episode was written in 1993 and makes reference to the events of that time.)

The Houston Symphony, the Houston Symphony Chorus, and the Fort Bend Boys Choir performed Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, Op. 66, on Sunday, November 14, 1993 at Jones Hall in Houston, Texas. The soloists were Lorna Haywood, soprano; Stanford Olson, tenor; and Davis Wilson-Johnson, baritone. Britten's text is woven from poems by Owen and elements of the Latin Requiem Mass. Sandwiched between the Pie Jesu and the Dies Irae we hear:

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!


WW-I stereopticon photo provided by Sims McCutchan
WW-I stereopticon photo provided by Sims McCutchan


An idyllic photo of the Mostar bridge (From Scribners, June, 1898, p. 669.)

An idyllic photo of the Mostar bridge
(From Scribners, June, 1898, p. 669.)