War Requiem, Op. 66
In 1960, Benjamin Britten received a commission to compose a new work for the consecration of the St. Michael's Cathedral, Coventry. The original cathedral had been destroyed during World War II. The commission specified that the new work "could be a full length or a substantial 30/40 minutes one: its libretto could be sacred or secular."
Britten, a lifelong pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II, chose to portray his disdain for the conflict that led to the cathedral's destruction. In a letter dated February 16, 1961,to German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012), Britten described his vision:
Please forgive me for writing to such a busy man as yourself … Coventry Cathedral, like so many wonderful buildings in Europe, was destroyed in the last war. It has now been rebuilt in a very remarkable fashion, and for the reconsecration of the new building they are holding a big festival at the end of May and beginning of June next year. I have been asked to write a new work for what is to us all a most significant occasion.
I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass for chorus and orchestra (in memory of those of all nations who died in the last war), and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of a great English poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the First World War. These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass; they are, of course, in English. These poems will be set for tenor and baritone, with an accompaniment of chamber orchestra, placed in the middle of the other forces. They will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity, and sincerity.
Peter Pears has agreed to sing the tenor part, and with great temerity I am asking you whether you would sing the baritone.
Peter Pears (1910-1986) was Britten's partner and the creator of most of the composer's music for lead tenor. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), a British Army officer who served in France during World War II, was killed in battle on November 4, 1918—a week before the Armistice. During his military service, Owen wrote a series of remarkable poems. Stripped of any romanticism or patriotic fervor, the poems graphically depict the horrors of war. Indeed, Owen repeatedly portrays enemy soldiers as kindred spirits, innocent pawns in the hands of those who send them off to battle.
Britten's plan for two vocal soloists in the War Requiem changed in the summer of 1961. As part of the Aldeburgh Festival, Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (1926-2012) gave a recital at Jubilee Hall, accompanied at the piano by her husband, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007).
Britten approached Vishnevskaya after the recital, and, according to her, "said he was particularly glad he heard me right at that moment because he had begun to write his War Requiem and now wanted to write in a part for me." Vishnevskaya continued, "His composition, which was a call for peace, would bring together representatives of the three nations that had suffered most during the war: an Englishman, Peter Pears; a German, Fischer-Dieskau; and a Russian, myself." When Britten learned that Vishnevskaya had never sung in English, they agreed he would write her part in Latin.
Britten completed his War Requiem on December 20, 1961. The work bears the following dedication:
In loving memory of
Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines
David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy
Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve
The dedicatees were all friends of Britten. Three died during World War II; Piers Dunkerley committed suicide in 1959.
The premiere of the War Requiem took place at St. Michael's Cathedral, Coventry, on May 30, 1962 (the performance has recently been issued on the Testament label: SBT 1490). On that occasion, Vishnevskaya was not the soprano soloist. The Soviet government, not at all pleased with the symbolism of reconciliation with Germany and England, prohibited her from traveling. English soprano Heather Harper (b. 1930) was pressed into service. Harper studied with Britten, learning the music in just 10 days while in the midst of her busy opera and concert schedule.
Like Britten, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was both a great opera composer and the author of a Requiem Mass. Prior to its 1874 premiere, the German conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow dismissed the Verdi Requiem as an "opera in ecclesiastical garb." Johannes Brahms responded that with such comments, "Bülow has made a fool of himself for all time." Some observers leveled similar accusations toward Britten's War Requiem. In a 1969 interview, Britten responded:
I think I would be a fool if I didn't take notice of how Mozart, Verdi, Dvořák—whoever you like to name—had written their Masses. I mean, many people have pointed out to me the similarities between the Verdi Requiem and bits of my own War Requiem, and they may be there. If I have not absorbed that, that's too bad. But that's because I'm not a good enough composer, it's not because I'm wrong.
Galina Vishnevskaya did join Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in January 1963 for the first commercial recording of the War Requiem, conducted by the composer. During rehearsals, Decca/London producer John Culshaw recorded (without Britten's knowledge) the composer's directions to the performers. These rehearsal recordings, included in later issues of the Decca/London War Requiem, are an invaluable historical document. Britten was a first-rate conductor, and it is fascinating to hear his persuasive synthesis of perfectionism, spirit of collaboration, warmth, and humor.
Britten's comments also provide a unique insight into the composer's view of his War Requiem. It is clear from Britten's instructions to the choruses that he envisioned the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead and Wilfred Owen's despairing World War I poetry in the same light. Both are uttered not as a source of comfort, but as an expression of world-weariness and despair.
Britten told his sister that he hoped his War Requiem would "make people think a bit." And it is a work that never fails to make a profound impact, both upon the audience and the performers. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a prisoner of war during World War II, recalled in his autobiography, "The first performance created an atmosphere of such intensity that by the end I was completely undone; I did not know where to hide my face. Dead friends and past suffering arose in my mind." Peter Pears had to assist the grief-stricken Fischer-Dieskau to his feet.