Britten's masterpiece on war and the pity of war
On the night of 14 November 1940, the medieval Coventry Cathedral was destroyed during a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe. When Britten was asked to write a work for the city’s new cathedral - consecrated in May 1962 - he took the opportunity to make his most profound statement on the nature of war.
It was surely inevitable that as a committed pacifist from an early age, he would seek to emphasize the building’s turbulent history. His pacifist beliefs may be traced in numerous works, either as the principal creed of a work such as Owen Wingrave
(1970) or by more subtle hints, as in the closing movement of his Suite on English Folk Tunes (‘A Time There Was…’; 1974), in which Grainger’s transcription of the haunting war song ‘Lord Melbourne’ is recast as a lament of great poignancy.
Dedicated to the memory of four friends, War Requiem
is a profound and deeply disturbing creed, particularly notable for its juxtaposition of war poems by Wilfred Owen alongside the Catholic Mass for the Dead.
The work is scored for tenor and baritone soloists who sing Owen’s words and are accompanied by a separate chamber orchestra; a soprano soloist who stands somewhat apart and who, with the large chorus sings the words of the Mass; and a boys’ chorus at even further remove from the main world, who represent innocence and the unchanging and are mostly accompanied by chamber organ. The main orchestra is large, including triple woodwind and brass, four percussionists and a concert organ (in addition to the smaller one required for the boys’ choir). The small orchestra comprises the same instrumentation (excepting piano and celesta) employed for Britten’s chamber operas The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring
and The Turn of the Screw
: woodwind quintet, string quintet, harp and percussion.
Britten intended that the soloists at the first performance should represent three of the nations involved in World War II: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). In the event, precisely because of this tri-national partnership of representatives, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to attend by the Russian Minister of Culture. Although she was later able to record the work, she did not sing it until 1963; her place at the première on 30 May 1962 was taken by Heather Harper.
Britten took responsibility for the chamber orchestra (the Melos Ensemble) and Meredith Davies directed the main orchestra (the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) and choir. As it happened, this was a fortuitous arrangement, since the composer was suffering from bursitis at the time and would have been unable to conduct the full performance.