Britten’s War Requiem: the story of how Britten came to compose his most famous piece

In 1962 the world’s attention turned to war-torn Coventry. In the city's newly built cathedral, Britten’s War Requiem was about to receive its symbolic world premiere. Michael White tells the story

Britten war Requiem

On the night of 14 November 1940 German bombs pulverised Coventry in an infamous raid that would live on in the history books, a raid that someone with a sense of irony in Luftwaffe command had named ‘Operation Moonlight Sonata’.

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Fearing a collapse of morale, the government moved fast and within 24 hours announced that the half-destroyed cathedral would be rebuilt – a pious hope eventually honoured in 1950 with a competition to design a new cathedral on the site.

Basil Spence’s winning entry proposed a modernist Gesamtkunstwerk of art and architecture with commissions from figures like Graham Sutherland and John Piper. And as a symbolic statement of post-war revival, the 1962 consecration was accompanied by a festival of new British music.

Why did Britten compose his War Requiem in memory of Coventry Cathedral?

A former BBC producer, John Lowe, was in charge of the newly commissioned work, having asked Britten in 1958 to contribute. But from the start there were problems. Bizarrely, the festival committee assumed that Britten would work for nothing – an idea he quietly rejected, settling for a fee of £1,000. Worse still, according to Michael Foster who has been researching the Cathedral archives as organiser of this year’s 50th anniversary, the committee weren’t keen on using Britten in the first place.

The second Coventry Cathedral, St Michael's, a 14th century Gothic church later designated Cathedral, that remains as a ruined shell after its bombing during the Second World War.
Coventry Cathedral (Credit: Getty Images)

The perceived failure of his last big ‘public’ piece, the coronation opera Gloriana, was a lingering memory; and so, says Foster, ‘their first choice for the main event in the cathedral was Arthur Bliss, who had put together a scheme for some kind of masque. But then Lowe managed to shoehorn Britten in. And the result was that Bliss got sidelined; his eventual commission – The Beatitudes – never got performed in the Cathedral it was written for. Instead, it was shunted into a nearby theatre that was totally unsuitable’.

Britten’s enthusiasm to take on the Coventry commission, though, is clear. He’d been pondering a large-scale, commemorative choral work on pacifist themes for some time, with near-misses in a proposed oratorio about Hiroshima and a requiem for Gandhi. And the genius in his idea to intercut the Latin of a Requiem Mass with disillusioned (though beneath their bitterness, profoundly Christian) poems from the trenches by Wilfred Owen wasn’t lost on him. ‘I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works,’ he wrote in 1961.

But at the same time, concerns about public reception of the piece caused him to hesitate. His original dedication ‘to all the fellow-sufferers of the Second World War’ was excised for fear of criticism that, as a conscientious objector who’d spent much of the war in America, he had no claim on suffering. And given an uncommonly long time to plan and write the piece, he filled it with far more abortive drafts than was his practice.

Coventry Cathedral with Michael and the Devil sculpture, Coventry, West Midlands, England, UK, Western Europe.
Coventry Cathedral (Credit: Getty Images)

Britten’s War Requiem… what went wrong?

War Requiem had a complicated score that organised the performers into three distinct but overlapping groups: full orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist for the Latin texts; a chamber ensemble with tenor and baritone soloists for Owen’s verses; and a distant boys’ choir whose role is ambiguous. When the writer of the programme book for the first performance wanted to describe them as ‘an angelic chorus’, Britten vetoed that as ‘too specific’ and suggestive of Walt Disney. The adjective was changed to ‘innocent’.

Angelic boys, though, were the least of Britten’s problems, which began in earnest when he visited the Cathedral site in 1960. ‘Our impressions weren’t awfully favourable,’ he wrote afterwards, singling out the concrete stucco on the walls as ‘being what scientists ominously call acoustic’. As events proved at the first performance, the acoustic was awful.

But there was worse. Having requested a specific choir as his chorus, Britten got instead a trawl of choral societies from throughout the diocese whose efforts he found ‘deplorable’. Having asked for the London Symphony Orchestra, he got the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a band he considered ‘second-rate’. And, refusing to use CBSO players as the chamber instrumentalists, he booked the Melos Ensemble whose fee demands upset the budget.

Increasing costs caused problems with the Cathedral clergy who, from the start, weren’t sure they were getting the piece they wanted. Britten complained of ‘Trollopian clerical battles’. And things came to a head during the final rehearsals, which happened against the noise of workmen still finishing the building. The chancel proved too small for the chorus. Suggestions that some singers should drop out provoked a near-riot. And requests for platforms so that everyone could all see the conductor were dismissed as impossible.

Who performed and conducted Britten’s War Requiem at its premiere?

As 30 May, the date for the premiere, approached, there was a sense of panic. And behind it lay the biggest problem of all, for which Britten alone was responsible: the last-minute lack of a soprano.

He had begun assembling his soloists the year before, and chosen Peter Pears (English), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German) and Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian) to represent reconciliation between the three front-line casualties of 20th-century European conflict. But for Vishnevskaya he needed permission from the Soviet Minister of Culture, sending off his request in August 1961. The answer was no. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Soviets considered the Requiem a political statement that made propaganda for West Germany (which they wrongly saw as the source of funding for the rebuilt cathedral).

Britten wrote more letters and got more refusals – which, bizarrely, he ignored. Vishnevskaya’s name was printed in the programme book. And as she happened to be in England during May 1961, for a run of Aidas at Covent Garden, he seems to have assumed that, come the day, the Soviets would relent and she’d slip up to Coventry. But he was wrong.

When the Aidas finished she was summoned back to Moscow – and with less than a fortnight to go, Britten had no soprano. Enter Heather Harper, who had perfect pitch, could sing at sight, had a repertoire that ranged from Mozart to Schoenberg (she sang the British stage premiere of the latter’s Erwartung in 1960), and was the new Helena in Britten’s own Midsummer Night’s Dream.

‘He knew I was a fast learner,’ she says, ‘so I was summoned to St John’s Wood where he had a flat, and we went through
it on the piano. But I only had my own line of music, nothing else. It wasn’t until I got to Coventry that I had any idea how it sounded. How big it was.’

Asked what she recalls of Britten during the rehearsals, she says ‘he was tetchy, very tetchy. But it was difficult. The sound was bad. None of us liked the place – that tapestry with Jesus looking like a man in a skirt, horrible. But I don’t remember much else. I was focused on the notes. That’s all I could do.’

Britten’s tetchiness was increased by the fact that on the night of the premiere the clergy refused to open all the Cathedral doors – which meant it took longer than planned to get the audience seated and forced Britten to delay the start, complaining it was ‘like a market-place’. And as he hadn’t wanted to conduct the premiere at all (though listed in the programme as ‘conductor’, he ended up sharing the task with Meredith Davies), it became a painful experience.

When the performers left the platform – in silence, because the audience had been instructed not to applaud – Britten’s only backstage comment was a crushed ‘Well, the idea was good’. The BBC producer responsible for the live broadcast was less reticent in his report, describing the performance as close to disaster.

How was Britten’s War Requiem received by the public?

Surprisingly, though, it was no disaster to the listeners who tuned in and wrote to the BBC commending even the long silence at the start, which they attributed not to problems with closed doors but a pause for spiritual reflection. In fact, the combination of critical acclaim and popular appeal was so relentless that Britten found it oppressive – not least because it inspired from certain other composers wounding expressions of jealousy. To criticise the War Requiem, said Stravinsky, was ‘as if one had failed to stand up for God Save the Queen… Behold the critics as they vie in abasement.’

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In 1963 when Decca’s famous recording came out, it sold 200,000 copies in 12 months. Sadly for Heather Harper, the Soviet authorities had by then softened their stance and Vishnevskaya bounced back into the picture as soprano soloist (behaving so badly at the recording sessions that at one point, according to the producer John Culshaw, she lay on the floor and shrieked).