I have known this work for some thirty years, I would think; and still cannot get a full grasp of it.
It derives from events and losses mourned of those who could not be but heroic in the European war of 1914-18.
The opening movement is compelling, moving, and deeply profound. The theme that is central to it is so deeply penetrating to the heart that it is irrevocable to memory and hurt. And the construct of the narrator speaking words of The Iliad communicates deeply. In fact, so deeply, I often think that if the balance of the ‘symphony’ had stayed with the words of Homer, it would have been a better work. I have never much cared for Whitman, for I find his verse simply wanders over the windswept grass to no place in particular; and Wilfred Owen, as fine a poet as he is, does not receive the same inspiration as he is given by Britten in the War Requiem. And I would want the vigil on Li-tai-po’s translated phrases to work better.
The work is a tribute to a brother killed on the Somme. It is invested with this loss; of its life, its love, and irrecoverable relation. This feeling is there in full intensity in the symphony. I think it is that that keeps me returning to it in an endeavour to understand what it strives to say, or that strives for me to understand.