It's half a century since Benjamin Britten premiered his masterpiece War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral. Christopher Morley recalls a young boy who was transfixed by the moment all those years ago.
One late spring evening in 1962 I was doing my homework in our back kitchen in Brighton, listening to a little Philips radio tuned to the Third Programme.
“Turn that modern rubbish off!” yelled Dad from the living-room (he held no truck with contemporary music those days, but how he’s changed; now in his late 80s, he’s undoubtedly John Adams’ greatest fan).
But I didn’t switch the radio off, as I was transfixed by what I was hearing; it was the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, relayed direct from Coventry Cathedral – and the first time I ever heard the orchestra which has come to play such a major part in my life, the CBSO.
War Requiem has remained in the world’s consciousness ever since, a symbol of a huge festival of reconciliation celebrated in Coventry that spring surrounding the consecration of Sir Basil Spence’s new Cathedral of St Michael on May 25 1962.
The centuries-old Cathedral had been all but decimated in a devastating German air-raid on November 14, 1940, but the spirit of Coventry rallied itself round and the result was this brilliant new edifice, complete with Graham Sutherland’s apse-deep tapestry of the suffering Christ as well as decorations by Jacob Epstein and John Piper.
There were other premieres during the three-week diocese-wide festival, including Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam, The Beatitudes by Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Arthur Bliss, and something by the veteran Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (whose contribution I haven’t been able to identify).
But these shrink into insignificance alongside Britten’s masterpiece, which immediately imprinted itself as a work whose pacifist message could scarcely be ignored.
Its structure is brilliant, interspersing the traditional text of the Latin Mass for the Dead with settings of poems by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen, the whole 80-minute composition operating on three levels: children’s chorus way aloft singing as angels; full chorus and orchestra with majestic soprano soloist delivering the “Missa Pro Defunctis” ranged where we would normally expect to find them; and a chamber orchestra, perched closest to the audience, accompanying tenor and baritone soloists for the Owen settings.
And the final Owen poem, Strange Meeting closes War Requiem in an atmosphere of reconciliation far too close for tears. Enemy soldiers who have just killed each other meet in the afterlife, and realise “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” before, holding hands, “Let us sleep now”; meanwhile the choir, soprano and children’s chorus cast their blessing in Latin.
The tritone chord (a dissonance which the medievalists described as “diabolus in musica” -- the devil in music – and for a premonition of it, listen to the last two xylophone notes before the fugue begins in Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’) which has pervaded the entire work, at last resolves into quiet consonance, and the masterpiece is over. Braying applause must never follow.
I remember a Philharmonia performance at the Royal Albert Hall, only a few years after the premiere, when many minutes ticked by before any hands were joined together.
Britten’s ideal of reconciliation was exemplified in his choice of soloists for the premiere of the War Requiem. The Russian Galina Vishnevskaya was to be the soprano soloist, Peter Pears the tenor, and the German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who sadly died last Friday, adding an extra layer of poignancy to this event) the baritone.
But Cold War politics intervened, and Vishnevsakaya was told by Soviet apparatchiks that if she left the country she would never be able to re-enter.
At virtually the last minute the great British soprano Heather Harper (her sister Alison was later to become a CBSO cellist) was engaged, learned the taxing part in just a few days, and triumphed – though Vishnevskaya was able to rejoin the cast for the iconic Decca recording conducted by the composer.
The Russian connection with War Requiem is stronger than some know. Britten and the great, brooding composer Shostakovich had already established a strong relationship, Britten’s Coventry masterpiece mirroring the stark String Quartet no.8 Shostakovich had composed in 1960 in response to his horror at visiting Dresden and seeing the results of the Allies’ end-of-war bombing there.
And a link between the two composers was the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya’s husband, who premiered so many works by both of them. Just two years after War Requiem’s premiere, students at the Leningrad Conservatoire gave a surprise performance of excerpts from the work to greet a visit by Britten.
My friend, the conductor Alexander Anissimov, was among the choristers, and described the occasion to me.
But there were also strong Midland connections, too, beginning with the person chosen to conduct the CBSO and chorus, Meredith Davies, organist at Hereford Cathedral and conductor of the City of Birmingham Choir (who formed part of the Festival choral contingent). Britten himself conducted the Melos Ensemble for the chamber-orchestral Owen settings.
Richard Butt, renowned for his many years as conductor of the Birmingham Bach Choir, was producer of the BBC broadcast, and the announcer was the affectionately-remembered Barry Lankester, who had to cope with at least a minute’s-worth of silence as the audience trooped in, Cathedral elf-and-safetee (even in those days) job’sworths having only allowed one door to be opened to admit the public.
All the aspects surrounding this momentous event are detailed in an indispensable account of the ‘War Requiem’s’ context, Michael Foster’s “The Idea was Good”, available from Coventry Cathedral (£12.75).
It could do with a bit of tight editing, but the documentary evidence it contains is invaluable, and I recommend it to anyone upon whom the spell of Britten’s masterpiece has fallen – as it did upon a schoolboy in a Brighton back-kitchen half a century ago.
* Britten’s War Requiem is performed by the CBSO and Chorus, with soloists Erin Wall, Mark Padmore and Thomas Quasthoff, Andris Nelsons conducting, at Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 50 years to the day of the premiere (returns only). Kristine Opolais, who had been due to perform has had to withdraw and is replaced by Erin Wall.