Skip to page content

Composed: 1961
Length: c. 80 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet and E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, castanets, chimes, Chinese block, cymbals, gong, orchestra bells, snare drums, tambourine, tenor drum, triangle, vibraphone, whip), piano, organ, children’s chorus, mixed chorus, soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, and strings, plus chamber ensemble of flute (= piccolo), oboe (= English horn), clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, harp and single strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 15, 1991, André Previn conducting

“The whole building was a seething mass of flame and piled up blazing beams and timbers interpenetrated and surmounted with dense, bronze-coloured smoke. Through this could be seen the concentrated blaze caused by the burning organ, famous for its long history, back to the time when Handel played upon it.”

Entry of November 16, 1940,
in the annals of Coventry Cathedral,
written in conjunction with a visit to
its ruins by King George VI on that date.

Two nights earlier the Luftwaffe had unleashed a rain of bombs on the Cathedral of St. Michael in the English industrial city of Coventry, reducing to rubble the mostly 14th-century structure, the attack razing much of the town center as well. Since the Cathedral, which had no strategic importance, was specifically targeted, the act was widely regarded as a particularly brutal attempt to break the spirit of the British people only a year into the war, when everything seemed to be going Germany’s way.

The structure was never rebuilt. Rather, a new house of worship, designed by Basil (later Sir Basil) Spence, was erected, ingeniously incorporating the remains of the original. The new cathedral was some 16 years abuilding. This boldly-conceived, perhaps unprecedented – certainly in England – structure was completed in May of 1962.

Surely music would play a major part in the dedication celebrations: something upbeat, in the grand British choral tradition, and/or pastoral-peaceful (equally at home there), signifying a future without conflict. There was discussion of a large dedicatory composition in the “noble” vein, possibly by Sir Arthur Bliss, the Master of the Queen’s Music; but Bliss was at the time deeply immersed in what he regarded as his magnum opus, the cantata The Beatitudes.

The honor went to the 48-year-old Benjamin Britten, erstwhile boy wonder of the arts in Britain, widely regarded as the country’s most gifted living composer; moreover, one who had won worldwide acceptance and acclaim, particularly for his vocal music.

Which is hardly to imply universal approbation of the choice. Britten had, after all, been a pacifist during the war, in some circles tantamount to an act of treason. He had written a good deal of leftist agitprop music in his younger days. This included the Pacifist March, with lyrics (in the Brecht-Eisler style) by his friend, poet-playwright Ronald Duncan, for the Peace Pledge Union, of which the composer would remain a member for the rest of his life, and the later Ballad of Heroes (text partially by another friend, W. H. Auden), dedicated to the memory of British volunteers fallen in the Spanish Civil War. Britten and his companion, the tenor Peter Pears, had in fact left England for the United States some months before Britain’s entry into the war and were abroad when Coventry was hit.

Yet there were those at home who understood that Britten’s antiwar stance hardly implied a condoning of fascism. The powerful British Council – founded in 1935 with government support to, according to its charter, “promote abroad a wider appreciation of British culture and civilization” – went so far as to secure for the composer in 1940, while he was in America, the commission for “a festivity honoring the reigning dynasty of a foreign power.” No further information was initially provided, and Britten agreed on condition that “no form of musical jingoism” was demanded.

As it turned out the “foreign power” was Japan, although not yet (in 1940) involved in hostilities with the West. And the work that emerged was the Sinfonia da Requiem: an embarrassment for all concerned when Britten delivered the completed score and the Japanese angrily rejected it, displeased with its solemnity and outraged by its references to Christian dogma.

The pacifist theme loomed large again immediately after the war, when the aforementioned Ronald Duncan, by now also the librettist for Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, suggested to the composer an oratorio on the subject of “the savage atrocity” (Duncan’s words) of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The work would be entitled Mea culpa. (How simplistic that sounds at this remove!) Whether the idea really appealed to Britten is not known; but we do know that plans, if indeed there were any, for Mea culpa came to naught. Duncan’s later statement that it failed to see the light of day “because of a stalemate between Boosey & Hawkes [Britten’s publisher] and the BBC” doesn’t withstand close scrutiny.

“It was a pity,” Duncan would write, “since the War Requiem could have been written in 1946 instead of 1961.” The remark seems particularly graceless in light of what was written in 1961. Duncan is hardly Wilfred Owen, while the notion of combining the Liturgy with Owen’s searing verses is so inspired as is the musical result of their juxtaposition as to render Duncan’s observations purest sour grapes.

Relative to the commissioning of the War Requiem, the late John Culshaw, producer of most of the composer-led recordings of Britten’s music, observed: “Britten’s adversaries were quick to point out that [other] music for official or ceremonial occasions had never been his strong point: had not Gloriana, his coronation opera [1953], been a flop – or even worse in that, according to some in a position to know, it had offended certain members of the royal family, because of its frankness in dealing with the affair between Elizabeth and Essex and daring to show that even a Queen of England did not choose to wear her wig in bed. There were also rumors, soon to be confirmed, that the ‘soldier’ soloists in the Requiem included a German.”

Britten scholar Peter Evans noted that the War Requiem “represented... a conscious resolve on the composer’s part to put the experience of his entire creative activity to that date at the service of a passionate denunciation of the bestial wickedness by which man is made to take up arms against his fellow.”

The first performance, which took place as scheduled at the dedication of the new St. Michael’s Cathedral on May 30, 1962, enlisted the services of Meredith Davies as overall conductor, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and a large choral ensemble. Britten himself conducted the chamber orchestra (the Melos Ensemble). The vocal soloists were Heather Harper, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

It should be noted (and rarely is) that the Bliss Beatitudes was in fact the first work performed in the new, as yet unconsecrated Coventry Cathedral, the date of the premiere being May 25, 1962. The cantata was not, however, commissioned by the Cathedral. Bliss, like Britten, was in the United States (teaching at UC Berkeley) when war broke out. His reasons for being here were, however, strictly professional and he returned to England in 1941 to become director of music for the BBC. While Bliss admirers might be miffed at the thought, The Beatitudes premiere served as a sort of logistical and acoustical rehearsal for the War Requiem.

Cautiousness was never a watchword with Britten, and he invited debate over the War Requiem with the political/philosophical choices he made for his tremendous composition. He let it be known even before he had started setting pen to paper that it would be a “memorial to the dead of all wars,” utilizing the Latin Requiem Mass, which hardly seemed an affirmative choice for the re-born cathedral. But there was even more to arouse consternation in the bastions of tradition: The text of the Requiem would be interspersed with settings of the chillingly evocative and deeply pessimistic, posthumously published poems “from the trenches” of Wilfred Owen, who died in battle in France only a week before the end of the war, the First World War.

The result was a score of striking originality, combining the apocalyptic visions of destruction, suffering, and, ultimately, of the eternal (but as rendered by Britten, unquiet) peace of the Mass for the Dead – in the tradition of Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi – with the personal, inner visions of the English soldier-poet. The combining of these two seemingly irreconcilable worlds creates a bitter irony that is uniquely Brittenesque: for example, his juxtaposition (in a splendidly spiky fugue) of God’s promise to “Abraham and his seed” (God, of course, bids Abraham spare his son, Isaac) with Owen’s cruel, But the old man would not do so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

While Britten tends to keep his two worlds, the liturgical (Mass) and the profane-contemporary (Owen), separate on the surface, they are nevertheless always subtly interrelated, either musically, through the common employment of the tritone, the discomforting interval, C to F-sharp, known as diabolus in musica, and such unifying cross-references as the “Tuba mirum” of the Mass segueing into Owen’s “Bugles sang”; or the soprano’s “Rex tremendae majestatis” shattered by the two male soloists invoking not the heavenly ruler but the earthly one, the great leveler:        Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
       We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
       No soldier’s paid to kick against his powers.

And, crushingly, the “Libera me” of the Mass joins Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” wherein a British soldier encounters, in a dark, uncelestial afterlife, a German soldier who tells him, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”.

The work ends with words of peace, the choral “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” and the boys’ “Requiescant in pace. Amen”. But there is no guarantee in Britten’s music that peace will be granted. At the head of his score Britten inscribed the solemn words with which Owen prefaced his poems:

       My subject is War, and the pity of War.
       The poetry is in the pity.
       All a poet can do is warn.

The warning, clearly, was not heeded.

- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.