Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

An Act of International Reconciliation

As the world celebrates the centenary of this central figure of 20th century classical music, noted scholar John Evans illuminates the power and impact of his great choral-orchestral work.

In November 1940, as the Second World War entered a new, accelerated phase, St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England, was destroyed by enemy action in a devastating raid on the city that left only 31 buildings intact out of almost a thousand in the city center. Twenty years later, a new cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence, adorned by a High Altar tapestry by Graham Sutherland and a Baptistry window by John Piper, stood on a site adjacent to the ruins of the old cathedral. The building was designed as a symbol of international reconciliation, and its consecration was celebrated in May 1962 by a three week Festival of Music and the Arts for which the War Requiem was commissioned.

The West German government flew over the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for two concerts in the cathedral, one conducted by Eugen Jochum, the other by Sir John Barbirolli. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted two Anglo-German concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; the Royal Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company participated; Sadler’s Wells Opera performed The Bartered Bride, The Magic Flute, Murder in the Cathedral, and Iolanthe; Covent Garden Opera performed La Traviata, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the world premiere of Sir Michael Tippett’s King Priam. Medieval Mystery Plays were staged in the old cathedral ruins; Yehudi Menuhin played unaccompanied Bach; and Britten and Pears performed Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin.

Coventry Cathedral. © Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

A Project of Peace

The seeds of War Requiem go back to 1948. On January 30 of that year, Mahatma Gandhi, that apostle of non-violence whom Britten greatly admired, was assassinated. Britten was working at the time with one of his favoured librettists and opera directors, Eric Crozier, on the cantata St Nicolas. Moved by the tragedy of Gandhi’s death, the two men began discussing the concept of a Gandhi Requiem in which the Latin Mass for the Dead would be articulated, both structurally and dramatically, by accounts of incidents from Gandhi’s own life, interpreted in prose by Crozier.

The work got no further than the early planning stage, as the two men were heavily engaged on the Festival of Britain commission for the opera Billy Budd (which they had to deliver to Covent Garden by 1951) and Britten was already committed to writing his Spring Symphony for Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However Britten never wasted a good idea, merely filed it for future use, and just over a decade later, on receiving the commission in October 1958 for a work to consecrate the newly re-built Cathedral in Coventry, he saw the potential for adapting the original Requiem scheme conceived just after the war. The final details of the commission were agreed upon with the cathedral authorities in November 1960 and the work was completed in draft just over a year later: the composition sketch is dated “December 20th 1961.”

A life-long pacifist, Britten seized this opportunity to write not only a Mass for those who had died in the Second World War, but also a parable for those who had survived the conflict and for future generations. For the “parable” texts, Britten chose the poems of the First World War poet Wilfred Owen. Very few people had heard of Owen in the early 1960s, let alone read his poetry, and it is perhaps surprising that Britten did not chose poetry from the Second World War, particularly as the symbol of reconciliation embodied in the new cathedral related to the Second World War rather than the 1914-18 war. But World War II did not produce war poets of the calibre of Siegried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen.

The older generation’s experience of the horrors of the trenches and gas warfare produced precisely the sort of vivid, sometimes shockingly gruesome poetic images that can fire a composer’s imagination and argue a case for pacifism on a fundamental level. Not that Wilfred Owen was a pacifist in the sense that Britten was. Owen fought as a British Infantry Officer in the 1914-18 War and was awarded the Military Cross, but he described himself as a “conscientious objector with a very seared conscience.” His poetry speaks disturbingly of the horrors and anguish of war from first hand experience. The quality of Owen’s wonderful poetry apart, two reasons that Britten might have been drawn to these texts is that Owen was killed in France in 1918, just a week before the end of the war, and his noble life was cut short at the age of just 25—Britten’s own age at the outbreak of World War II.

War Requiem was written expressly for a vast cathedral acoustic and a big amateur chorus, the original Festival Choir was assembled from no fewer than nine choirs from all over the Diocese of Coventry, with an additional boys’ choir drawn from Holy Trinity, Leamington and Holy Trinity, Stratford. Pursuing the theme of international reconciliation, Britten conceived the work with three international soloists in mind, each in a sense representing their nation—the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya from the USSR, the tenor Peter Pears from Great Britain and the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from Germany.

A life-long pacifist, Britten seized this opportunity to write not only a Mass for those who had died in the Second World War, but also a parable for those who had survived the conflict and for future generations too.

A Historic First Performance

The circumstances of the first performance were hardly ideal. Though Vishnevskaya’s name appeared in the Festival program book, she had to be replaced at just 10 days’ notice by Heather Harper, a noted Britten artist and a fine musician who quickly mastered this demanding role and made it very much her own. In those pre-Glasnost days, the Soviet authorities strongly disapproved of a Russian artist standing alongside a German in a work of public reconciliation, and prevented Vishnevskaya from taking part by refusing to release her from her contract to sing Alice in Verdi’s Falstaff at The Bolshoi.

To further complicate matters, not enough rehearsal time had been set aside to bring together the disparate forces of the Festival Chorus and at a fairly late stage Britten lost his nerve at the thought of conducting the premiere himself, as he had originally intended. Luckily, Meredith Davies (the renowned choral conductor, who had trained the chorus and was to conduct the second performance at Coventry) was on hand, and Britten asked him to share the conducting role with him. Thus the precedent was established that the work should be directed by three conductors: one for the symphonic setting of the Requiem Mass (the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Davies at the premiere), a second for the boys’ choir and organ in the gallery, and a third for the chamber ensemble (the Melos Ensemble, directed by the composer at the premiere) for the Wilfred Owen settings.

In direct response to the scale of the new cathedral, War Requiem exploits spatial effects in the relationships between these three distinct musical planes. Many commentators have identified the influence of Britten’s beloved Verdi and his great Requiem Mass, and War Requiem certainly has a theatrical dimension to it in much the same way as Verdi’s great masterpiece, perhaps not surprising for a man of the theatre like Britten.

In the foreground of the action, as it were, are the tenor and baritone soloists—the soldiers—accompanied by the chamber orchestra. Their settings of Owen’s war poems confront us with the bitter reality of war and function, in effect, as an orchestral song-cycle for tenor, baritone and chamber-ensemble, integrated within a much larger symphonic canvas—sometimes commenting on and sometimes directing the narrative drama of the Missa pro Defunctis. Surrounding them are the forces that perform the Latin Mass, itself delivered by the soprano soloist, mixed chorus and full orchestra, who provide the traditional ritual, offering the formal expression of suffering and deliverance contained within the Mass. Beyond them, distant and isolated from the adult protagonists, is the chorus of boys’ voices accompanied by chamber organ (also performing parts of the Mass) representing in Britten’s mind an innocence yet to be destroyed by man’s inhumanity to man.

Each of these constituent parts is distinctive in its musical language. The writing for the boys’ choir is derived from that of Britten’s Missa Brevis (composed for George Malcolm and the boys of Westminster Cathedral in 1959, just two years earlier) with its characteristic demand for an open continental production and vocal tone. The settings of Wilfred Owen inhabit the sound world of the song cycle Nocturne (1958); while the music of the Latin Mass acknowledges Britten’s love of Verdi, whose Messa da Requiem is unquestionably Britten’s primary musical inspiration for this work. The unifying factor throughout is the pervading interval of a tritone (the “Diabolus in Musica” – the Devil in music) first heard explicitly on the bells that articulate the solemn hymn that closes the opening Requiem aeternam. The juxtaposition and eventual superimposition of these three musical planes creates an extraordinary tension that is perhaps one of the ultimate strengths of the War Requiem

Britten dedicated War Requiem to four friends who had died during or as a result of the 1939-45 conflict. The score is inscribed: “In loving memory of Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant R.N.V.R.; Piers Dunkerley, Captain Royal Marines; David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy; Michael Halliday, Lieutenant R.N.Z.N.V.R.”

Critical Response

The premiere on May 30, 1962 was broadcast live throughout the UK on the BBC Home Service and such was its impact that the activities of the three-week arts festival staged for the consecration were totally eclipsed by this one event. The critical response to the first performance was overwhelming. In The Times, William Mann described it as “the most masterly and nobly inspired work” Britten had composed to date, going on to say “one could wish that everyone in the world might hear, inwardly digest and outwardly acknowledge the great and cogent call to the Christian life, proclaimed in the Requiem… practically everyone who has heard it has instantly acknowledged it as a masterpiece.” Commenting on the work for the BBC, the great musicologist Hans Keller concluded that

“…the direct expression at which Britten consciously aimed has certainly succeeded. Indeed, this is perhaps the first occasion in the history of 20th century music where the cleft between the composer and audience has been closed rather than merely bridged. At the same time Britten has not, at any point, sacrificed depth to simplicity: in fact for one and a half hours he has imposed an unbroken armistice on the notorious crisis of contemporary music.”

"I suppose War Requiem is the piece I hope will be remembered longest." -Benjamin Britten

In 1963 Britten conducted War Requiem for his record company, Decca, with Vishnevskaya, Pears, Fischer-Dieskau, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Bach Choir, the Highgate School Choir, and the Melos Ensemble. Within five months the recording had sold a quarter of a million copies (something unheard of for a contemporary classical work in those days) and it remains a best-seller in its CD transfer to this day. In a 2004 listeners’ poll to mark the 2,000th edition of BBC Radio 3’s CD Review programme, War Requiem was voted one of the four greatest commercial recordings of the 20th century. It also remains, despite its complexity and the scale of forces required for its execution, one of Britten’s most often-performed works outside of his great canon of operas.

Though Britten had no personal ambition to be immortalized through his work, he once confessed: “I suppose War Requiem is the piece I hope will be remembered longest. But that is not because of the music, it is because of the message contained within, which I hope will be used for many years to come.”  It is sad to reflect that in the five decades since its premiere, further bloody conflicts in the Middle East, Vietnam, the Falklands, and still today in Afghanistan constantly remind us of the work’s continued relevance. The potent strength of War Requiem is its message, and the honest and uncompromising quality of the profound music Britten created to communicate that message. But as Wilfred Owen concluded in the preface to his war poems, a sentiment shared by Britten and quoted on the title-page of his score:

“ My subject is War and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity…
All a poet can do today is warn.”

Original composition sketch page from War Requiem, Op. 66 by Benjamin Britten and Wilfrid Owen. © the Britten-Pears Foundation. British Library Add. MS 60609. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library Board. All rights reserved.

John Evans is the president and executive director of the Oregon Bach Festival and a board member of Chorus America. He has lectured extensively on Britten throughout the UK and North America and his many publications include Benjamin Britten: Pictures from a Life 1913–1976, A Britten Source Book and contributions to The Britten Companion and opera handbooks on Peter Grimes, Gloriana, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice. He is the editor of Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten.


Evans will deliver a talk before the War Requiem performance featured at the 2013 Chorus America Conference in Seattle. Look for more details when the conference website goes live in February 2013.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Winter 2012/2013.

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