All that is left of St. Michael's Cathedral, Coventry, England in 1940 after heavy German bombardment during the Battle of Britain.
English conductor and organist Meredith Davies (center left) and English composer Benjamin Britten (center right) at Coventry Cathedral preparing for the premiere of Britten's 'War Requiem', for which they shared the conducting duties. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
50 years ago, May 30, 1962, Benjamin Britten’s ``War Requiem’’ premiered at St. Michael's Cathedral, Coventry, England. Even before this historic performance, it was universally acclaimed a masterpiece.
In the Requiem, Britten combines words of the liturgical Missa pro Defuntis (Mass for the Dead) in Latin with nine anti-war poems by William Owen, who was considered the most distinguished of 'the poets of protest' in the 1914 war. Owen was killed in France on November 4, 1918-just a week before the Armistice-fighting in the Company of the Second Lancashire Regiment. He was 25.
With the war nearing its end, Owen wrote what turned out to be his last piece of writing, a letter to his Mother on October 31: "It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. . . Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.''
Owen considered war to be the ``failure of Christianity’’, views corresponding with Britten’s Christian humanism, including his pacifism, which led him to register as a conscientious objector during World War II.
In reciting Owens’s poems, this profound lament for the war dead arranged by Britten are sung by the solo tenor and baritone, accompanied by a chamber orchestra; while the solo soprano and chorus are accompanied by the full orchestra. A distant boys' chorus, accompanied only by organ, appears in selected parts of the text to underscore somber conditions of incorruptibility and innocence.
Britten conducted the first performance with a solo trio, which consisted of Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and Peter Pears. Britten regarded the three solo singers as fitting representatives of the countries that bore the brunt of the global conflict: England, Germany and Russia.
A Footnote: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the legendary German baritone, who performed at the premiere of Britten’s Requiem in 1962, died recently (May 18, 2012) at the age of 86: [See Guardian obituary ]
The War Requiem gained even more international acclaim when it was performed in London at Westminster Abbey on December 6, 1962. By the end of 1963, it had been performed in a number of major cities around the world, including Berlin, Boston, Paris, Perugia and Prague. Such a strong impression did the Requiem make that the Decca gramophone recording sold over 200,000 sets in only five months.
Britten was commissioned to write a Requiem for the rededication of St. Michaels Cathedral, which had been shattered beyond repair during the Second World War, when factories located in this industrial heartland of the Midlands, suffered merciless bombardment by the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain on November 14, 1940, causing the ancient wooden beams supporting the cathedral to collapse amid the steady rain of incendiary shells. The only remaining relic from this medieval parish church was its walls which were kept as a reminder of the destructive nature of war. Also surviving after the bombing had stopped, among a sea of thousands of dead Britons in the rubble from surrounding neighborhoods, was the cathedral’s single tower.
St. Michaels dates back to 1043, when it was founded as a Benedictine community by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Codiva. The cornerstone for the new cathedral was designed by the Scottish architect, Basil Spence, which was laid by Her Majesty the Queen on March 23, 1956, with the official consecration of the building taking place on May 25, 1962.
After the war, it was decided to rebuild the church with a new design.
Though the War Requiem was intended as a reflective lamentation for the dead during the Great War-juxtaposed with Owen’s poetry—it is in fact a sorrowful howling for all wars: past, present and future; whether it be the battle of the Somme or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The UK lost 887,748 soldiers in World War I, 383, 683 in World War II; and since the Second World War, 3,473 UK troops have gone to their graves in different theaters of operation around the world, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Edward Benjamin Britten, the son of Robert Victor Britten, a dentist, and Edith (who sang in an amateur chorus) and the youngest of four children, was born at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road, in a house facing the North Sea on St. Cecilia Day (patroness of musicians) in the Suffolk town of Lowestof, southeast of Norwich on November 22, 1913.
This aspiring child prodigy began composing at age 5; by age 14 he had written 10 piano sonatas, 6 string quartets, 3 suites for piano, an oratorio and dozens of songs. Soon after graduating from London's Royal College of Music in 1933 where he studied composition with John Ireland and Frank Bridge and piano with Arthur Benjamin and Harold Samuel, he was offered a position writing music for the documentary films being produced by the British Post Office. The eager young English composer wrote scores for 18 documentary films and one feature, ``Love from a Stranger'', a 1937 mystery thriller starring Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone.
In 1937, Britten crossed paths with the English tenor Peter Pears; the two formed an intimate relationship lasting 40 years. Pears melodious operatic voice inspired a number of works by Britten.
His international reputation, meanwhile, took shape beginning in 1945 with ``Peter Grimes'', an opera which was performed at the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1948. This was followed with ``The Rape of Lucretia'' (1946), an opera in two acts, ``Albert Herring'' (1947), a comic opera, a recomposition of ``The Beggar's Opera'' (1948) and a children's piece, ``The Little Sweep’’ (1949). Also meeting with critical acclaim was his opera based on Henry James's ``The Turn of the Screw’’ (1954) which made its way to the New York City Opera.
Among his choral works, the most celebrated include: ``A Ceremony of Carols'', ``Les Illuminations,'' for solo voice and orchestra; ``Spring Symphony'' and ``Symphony for Cello and Orchestra.’’
Britten’s most stinging setback came in 1951 when he was commissioned to compose an opera for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. ``Gloriana'' (1953), was ruthlessly assailed by critics and was arguably the English composer’s least successful effort.
Taken together, Britten produced almost 100 compositions, ranging from full scale operas to musical compositions for children. His interest in providing children with a strong musical education was evident with ``The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'' a musical composition originally commissioned for an educational documentary film called ``The Instruments of the Orchestra’’ which received additional notoriety when it was used by Jerome Robbins for his ballet, ``Fanfare.’’
Music historians attribute Britten’s pacifism to his association early in his life with the poet, W.H. Auden, considered to be one of the most important influences on his life, who also provided Britten with the text for his first major song cycle, ``Our Hunting Fathers’’ (1936).
``Death in Venice’’ based on the novella by Thomas Mann would be the last of Britten's 15 operas and stage pieces in 1973. Critics point out this work revealed his most public statement yet concerning his life long relationship with Peter Pears.
Because of his resistance to the war, Britten fled for the United States between 1939 to 1942, spending most of his time in Brooklyn Heights, New York at 7 Middagh Street in a brick house owned by George Davis, a magazine editor who was married to Gypsy Rose Lee.
While in the United States, Britten completed a violin concerto, an operetta (Paul Bunyan), his first symphony (Sinfonia da Requiem), and his first string quartet. What’s more, ``Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge ‘’ (1937) was performed by orchestras in Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.
The most enthusiastically received of Britten's new compositions performed in the United States was the Violin Concerto, with Olin Downes of The New York Times, describing it as "sometimes very simple, often very brilliant, [but] nevertheless so expert that the violin is never covered when it is intended to show forth, while at no time does the writing appear impractical or ineffective."
So uncomfortable with other British artists making concerted sacrifices during the war (William Walton, for example, was reportedly driving an ambulance; Lennox Berkeley was a fire-watcher; Edmund Rubbra and Alan Bush had joined the army), while he was still plying his trade and drawing a handsome salary on foreign soil, that Britten returned to England in 1942 and applied for registration as a conscientious objector. He was soon granted exemption from military service in return for writing music for the British Broadcasting Corporation's propaganda broadcasts.
After the war, discouraged his homeland had only two opera companies, Britten founded the English Opera Group in 1947; and later in collaboration with Peter Pears and the librettist Eric Crozier, created the annual Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, (Aldeburgh is a coastal town in Suffolk, East Anglia, England), which in addition to providing a much needed venue for opera performances, also included readings of poetry, literature, drama, lectures and exhibitions of art.
So warmly received was his ``War Requiem’’, that in July, 1964, Britten traveled to Aspen, Colorado to receive the newly established Aspen Award by Robert Anderson of the Institute of Humanistic Studies at Aspen.
Suffering from a defective heart valve, Britten underwent an operation on May 7, 1973 at the National Heart Hospital, which left him an invalid. Lingering helplessly for three years, England’s greatest composer since Henry Purcell in the 17th century, died on December 4, 1976 at his country home in Aldeburgh England, twelve days after his 63rd birthday and just six months after Queen Elizabeth granted him a life peerage when he became Baron Britten of Aldeburgh.
He was buried in the graveyard of Aldebrugh Parish Church. A service of Thanksgiving for his life and work was held in London, at Westminster Abbey on March 10, 1977.
Upon hearing the news of his death, the New York Philharmonic issued a statement echoed by its principal conductor Leonard Bernstein, stating: ``Britten’s creative output has greatly enriched the history of music.’’ Aaron Copland, considered the most influential friend to Britten during his time in the United States, told The New York Times in its obituary of the English composer that ``He [Britten] wrote some of the best music of our period and was undoubtedly England’s most distinguished and gifted living composer.’’ In the same obituary, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, observed that Britten had provided a ``link with the great Elizabethan tradition, which is reflowering today, largely thanks to him.’’
May 30, 2012