War Requiem

Britten developed an anti-war stance well before the outbreak of the Second World War. As a committed pacifist, he was involved with the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s and left for America just before the outbreak of war, for which he was roundly criticised in the British press. An overwhelming longing for home led Britten back to England in 1942, where he faced a tribunal as a conscientious objector. In 1945, he gave two concerts with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp, an experience that coloured his later works.

The wartime destruction and subsequent rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral provided the impetus for Britten’s War Requiem, which he composed in 1962. The work is scored for full orchestra and chorus, plus a children’s choir, chamber orchestra, and three soloists. Britten sets the text of the Latin Mass of the Dead interspersed with, and transformed by, the poetry of the wartime poet Wilfred Owen. Britten’s powerful musical response to Wilfred Owen’s poems reflected his deep admiration for the poet. ‘Owen is to me by far our greatest war poet, and one of the most original and touching poets of this century’, he wrote.

The War Requiem was first performed on 30 May 1962 to mark the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral. Meredith Davies conducted the larger of the two orchestras required, while Britten conducted the chamber orchestra. Reflecting the spirit of reconciliation, the solo parts were intended for singers from Germany, Britain, and Russia, representing both sides of each conflict: Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone). In the event, only Pears and Fischer-Dieskau took part in the premiere, with the soprano role taken by Heather Harper. Vishnevskaya later revealed that the Russian authorities had prevented her from travelling to Coventry for the performance.

Benjamin Britten

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Kate Kennedy examines the impact of the First World War on British composers and the music composed both during the war and in its aftermath.