The War Requiem was written for the reconsecration of Coventry
Cathedral (the old cathedral is pictured at left), and was first performed
there 30 May 1962. Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed during the Battle
of Britain in World War II. Britten was commissioned to write a piece for
the ceremony marking the completion of a new cathedral, designed by Basil
Spence, built along side the the ruins of the original millenium-old structure.
Since the work was to be performed inside the new cathedral, it was a good
acoustic challenge for Britten. The ceremony was comprised of several works,
The War Requiem was not meant to be a pro-British piece or a glorification of British soldiers, but a public statement of Britten's anti-war convictions. It was a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of other men. The fact that Britten wrote the piece for three specific soloists -- a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), and a British tenor (Peter Pears) -- demonstrated that he had more than the losses of his own country in mind, and symbolized the importance of reconciliation. (Unfortunately Vishnevskaya was not available for the first performance, and had to be replaced by Heather Harper). The piece was also meant to be a warning to future generations of the senselessness of taking up arms against fellow men.
It was dedicated to four of Britten's friends who were killed during World
The first London performance was on 6 Dec 1942, in Westminster Abbey. The Decca recording that we have used was recorded in 1963. The work received immediate critical acclaim and was hailed as a masterpiece. It was widely performed both in Britain and abroad. Perhaps the combination of English poetry with the familiar text of the Latin mass made the Requiem accessible to such a range of listeners and caused it to be so well received.
Later, the War Requiem was incorporated into a movie with the same name. The movie, which would have otherwise been silent, is a strange, dark work. Most of it seems completely pointless, which leaves one wondering if that was the intention -- to show how pointless war is.
For the text of the War Requiem, Britten interspersed the Latin
Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen (pictured at
left), a World War I footsoldier who was killed a week before the Armistice.
In total contrast to The Spirit of England, written by Britten's
compatriot Edward Elgar, the War Requiem
was a decidedly antiwar piece. The Spirit of England was also an epic
work in which poetry was set to music, but it brought forth quite a different
Wilfred Owen's poetry is strange, and interesting. On the following page, we discuss the English text, as well as the significance of the particular poems that Britten chose to use.
For the first performance, and the recording that we have used, the main orchestra and choir was conducted by Meredith Davies, while the chamber orchestra was conducted by Britten.
Simon Rattle conducting the War Requiem