Last week, I attended a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. While I was immediately struck by the high quality and incredible beauty of the performance, I was also deeply drawn to the qualities inherent within the composition itself that makes it such a stunning tour de force. I realized as I listened to the eighty-five minute work, and later as I reflected on the performance, that its power comes from the way Britten worked through and used the compositional elements in imaginative ways to express the tensions and contrasts of suffering and hope. In the end, the shock, pain, and revulsion of war are brilliantly mixed with the peace, comfort, and stillness of everlasting rest.
The experience of opposite extremes of human emotion created a special kind of lasting beauty, with the mixture of elements creating a new wholeness of understanding.
That’s why people listen to music or look at paintings. To get in touch with that wholeness.
~ Corita Kent
Even in our everyday lives, we don’t truly ever forget the hopelessness of anguish. Instead, we’re constantly renewed by its contrast with love and unity. Artists often use their art form like this to help us see in new ways, shaking us up to greater awareness and understanding.
When onstage, I always try to take my audience through as many emotions as I possibly can. I want them to go from laughter to tears, be shocked and surprised and walk out the door with a renewed sense of themselves—and maybe a smile.
~ Reba McIntyre
We can all learn to see in new ways through the artistic process of contrast. In our everyday lives, the discovery of something after a struggle is often much more rewarding than one which is easy and immediately clear. Artists manipulate the relationship of elements—such as structure, size, texture, shape, and position—to enhance or redefine possibilities and convey deeper meaning. The contrasts of opposites are conflated to become one whole.
To abolish all valleys
is to get rid of all mountains.
~ Alan W. Watts
Contrast is important because the meaningful essence of any thing is defined by its value or quality relative to something else. It’s a way to learn and grow to understand the meaning in our lives. We can create our own art as a human being by using the seemingly contrary forces of daily life to shape our world—the entirety of our life experience.
Britten’s War Requiem is scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ, and two orchestras—a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra. The soprano, choirs and orchestra are used for the Latin sections of the Requiem and the chamber orchestra accompanies intimate settings of English poetry. Various contrasting groupings of performers participate together throughout—the full chorus used to highlight wrath and anger, the tenor and baritone singing separately and together, the ethereal quality of the boy choir separated spatially from the other performers—but it isn’t until the latter part of the last movement that all performers are combined for a profound sense of completion and renewal.
Contrast enriches our understanding of the world. As in creating great art, contrasting elements of our own personal experiences increase our awareness, helping us to become more flexible and free, and more able to cope with life’s challenges. Let’s experiment with contrast and meaning and create our lives as art.