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In May 1962 Coventry hosted an arts festival to mark the consecration of a new cathedral. The medieval cathedral, and large parts of the surrounding city, had been very badly damaged during an air raid on 14 November 1940. Rather than attempt to rebuild it, the shell of the old cathedral was left as a symbol of the destruction caused by war (the ruin is one of Coventry’s most notable tourist attractions today), and a new building was built nearby. Notable British composers were commissioned to produce new works for the arts festival. Arthur Bliss’s The Beatitudes was heard on 25 May, Michael Tippett’s King Priam on 29 May and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem the following day.
The War Requiem intertwines the traditional Latin mass with the poems of Wilfred Owen who died in the last week of the First World War. Britten wrote the piece for large orchestra and choir, plus a chamber orchestra, a soprano soloist singing in Latin and tenor and baritone soloists performing Owen’s poetry. As a noted pacifist (he had spent the war years in the USA) Britten used the opportunity to make a profound statement about the futility and brutality of war. Even before he had written the music Britten asked German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to partner Peter Pears as tenor soloist as a sign of reconciliation. Coventry had forged lasting links with cities that were also heavily bombed during the war (it is twinned with Dresden, Stalingrad, Warsaw, and Caen among others) and Germany had provided some funding towards the new cathedral. Britten tried valiantly to secure Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya but the Soviet authorities ultimately refused her permission to sing. English soprano Heather Harper stepped in just ten days before the broadcast. Britten injured his arm shortly before the premiere so he enlisted the help of Meredith Davies to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra while he conducted the Melos Ensemble.
Tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) was Britten’s partner and was closely associated with his music. Britten wrote many of his operatic tenor roles specifically for Pears and he appeared in opera houses around the world as Peter Grimes, Captain Vere, and Aschenbach. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) was one of the pre-eminent baritones of the twentieth century, singing a wide operatic and lieder repertoire with the world’s best conductors and orchestras. This is a rare example of him singing in English. Heather Harper (1930-2019) enjoyed her most consistent success at Covent Garden, where she performed a wide variety of roles between 1962 and 1981, but she also appeared in Bayreuth, New York and Buenos Aires.
BRITTEN War Requiem - Nocturne - Our Hunting Fathers (1959-62)
BRITTEN War Requiem, Op. 66
1. BBC War Requiem Introduction (3:21)
2. i. Requiem Aeternam - Requiem aeternam (2:55)
3. ii. Te decet hymnus (2:23)
4. iii. What passing bells for these who die as cattle (2:32)
5. iv. Kyrie eleison (1:32)
6. v. Dies Irae - Dies irae (3:59)
7. vi. Bugles sang saddening the evening air (2:22)
8. vii. Liber scriptus (2:57)
9. viii. Out there we've walked quite friendly up to Death (1:54)
10. ix. Recordare Jesu pie (3:15)
11. x. Confutatis maledictis (1:14)
12. xi. Be slowly lifted up thou long black arm (1:59)
13. xii. Dies irae (2:55)
14. xiii. Move him into the sun (3:22)
15. xiv. Pie Jesu Domine (2:04)
16. xv. Offertorium - Domine Jesu Christe (1:35)
17. xvi. Sed signifer Sanctus (2:05)
18. xvii. So Abram rose and clave the wood (3:18)
19. xvii. Hostias et preces tibi (3:13)
20. xix. Sanctus Sanctus (6:00)
21. xx. After the blast of lightning from the East (4:09)
22. xxi. Agnus Dei - One ever hangs where shelled roads part (4:00)
1. xxii. Libera Me - Libera me (6:44)
2. xxiii. It seemed that out of battle I escaped (2:31)
3. xxiv. None said the other (6:47)
4. xxv. Let us sleep now ... In paradisum (4:24)
5. xxvi. Requiescant in pace (1:08)
6. BBC War Requiem Conclusion (1:15)
Live BBC Broadcast, Coventry Cathedral, 30 May 1962
BRITTEN Nocturne, Op. 60
7. BBC Nocturne Introduction (0:35)
8. I. On a poet's lips I slept (3:29)
9. II. Below the thunders of the upper deep (3:24)
10. III. Encinctured with a twine of leaves (2:14)
11. IV. Midnight's bell goes ting (2:21)
12. V. But that night when on my bed I lay (3:07)
13. VI. She sleeps on soft, last breaths (4:16)
14. VII. What is more gentle than a wind in summer? (3:24)
15. VIII. When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see (3:50)
16. BBC Nocturne Conclusion (0:35)
Live BBC Broadcast, Orford Church, 21 June 1959
BRITTEN Our Hunting Fathers, Op. 8
17. BBC Our Hunting Fathers Introduction (0:52)
18. Prologue (1:59)
19. Rats Away! (4:33)
20. Messalina (6:38)
21. Dance of Death (Hawking for the Partridge) (6:06)
22. Epilogue and Funeral March (6:53)
23. BBC Our Hunting Fathers Conclusion (0:14)
Recorded 11 June 1961, BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, TX 15 June 1961
Peter Pears, tenor (all)
Heather Harper, soprano (War Requiem)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (War Requiem)
Coventry Festival Choir (War Requiem)
Boys Of Holy Trinity, Leamington (War Requiem)
Boys Of Holy Trinity, Stratford (War Requiem)
Melos Ensemble (War Requiem)
City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (War Requiem)
Aldeburg Festival Orchestra (Nocturne)
London Symphony Orchestra (Our Hunting Fathers)
conducted by Benjamin Britten (all)
conducted by Meredith Davies (War Requiem)
XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Coventry Cathderal, 1940
Total duration: 2hr 20: 20
(CD1: 63:01, CD2: 77:19)
© 2019 Pristine Audio
Coventry Cathedral had its musical christening proper last night when the first major choral concert of the festival to be given there took place - the first performance of Britten's "War Requiem." Like his previous work on a similar theme "The Sinfonia da Requiem composed during the last war in memory of his parents the War Requiem," is an anti-war requiem, and interspersed with the main sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead are nine of Wilfred Owen's anti-war poems. This mass of material makes it the most extended work that Britten has written other than the operas, and it is equally large in all other dimensions, conceived on the scale of the Berlioz and Verdi, and scored for mixed and boys' choirs, three soloists, full orchestra, chamber orchestra and organ. The chamber orchestra accompanies throughout the tenor and baritone soloists, who are cast as the soldiers in the Owen poems, while the soprano soloist sings always in Latin with the choir and full orchestra as one of those at home who mourn them. Although the groups are not mixed until the final movement, the use of them all in the one work points again to the kind of synthesis of chamber and full orchestral music that was a feature of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which requires a chamber orchestra expandable into a full one.
In other aspects, too there are some marked similarities to the opera, notably in the opening "Requiem Aeternam" where much of the orchestral music recalls that of Theseus and Hippolyta, where a whole-tone phrase in in the boys' chorus, "Te decet hymnus" jerks us sharply into the world of the fairies. This latter is one of several passages in the requiem where Britten toys with twelve-note technique, and as in the opera declares again the ambiguity of his feeling about it by compensating for the so-called "cerebral" nature of the technique by making it yield the sweetest music in the work.
A similar sweetness is a characteristic of much else in the work, notably the final ensemble "In Paradisum," in the hymn-Iike tenor solo in Owen's poem "At a Calvary" (where sweetness is combined with bitonality), and in the "Lacrimosa" and the "Benedictus," two of the most "beautiful" movements in the work, both with Choral harmonies surmounted by a soaring decorative melodic line for the soprano soloist.
The interpolation of the Owen poems into the text of the Mass is brilliantly done, and some of the transitions are among the most memorable moments - for instance, the final cadential "Kyrie Eleison" to an exquisite progression of soft harmonies, after Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" in the first movement; the alternations of the "Lacrimosa" with the stanzas of Owen's "Futility" the mingling of the "Agnus Dei" with "At a Calvary"; and above all the gradual diminuendo of the gigantic G-minor chord at the climax of the "Libera Me" into the quiet sustained chord, still the same G-minor triad, over which the tenor soloist sings Owen's "Strange Meeting" beginning "It seemed out of battle I escaped down some profound dull tunnel" – which, hushed as it is, is undoubtedly the emotional climax of the work.
It is impossible here even to list, let alone describe all the striking musical ideas in the work. Every movement brings several new ones, particularly the "Sanctus," which is rather like the "Cantata Academica" in miniature, every line a marvellous new short movement, but the work is also to a considerable extent "through-composed," with several prominent thematic recurrences – most often and most conspicuously of the "mourning" motive, a tritone persistently present both in the harmony and in the melody. This draws together all the abundance and variety of invention in the work, and gives a tight formal unity and tautness, despite its 90 minutes, to what is undoubtedly one of Britten's masterpieces.
It received a magnificent performance last night, in which the cathedral revealed itself as accoustically much better for music on this scale than it had promised at rehearsal, with no audience to absorb the resonance. Heather Harper, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were all three superb in the solo parts, and the Festival Choir fully redeemed itself after its unsatisfactory performance in the Bliss last week. The excellent orchestra was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Meredith Davies was the masterly conductor, with the composer as assistant conductor for the sections with chamber ensemble, which were finely played by the Melos Ensemble.
The Guardian, 31 May 1962
Benjamin Britten’s new War Requiem, a grand and solemn act of prayer and repentance, was commissioned to commemorate the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, and here tonight it had its first performance. Large forces are employed and these will ensure that performances are rare. One could wish that everyone in the world might hear, inwardly digest, and outwardly acknowledge the great and cogent call to a sane, Christian life proclaimed in this Requiem; yet the work is so superbly proportioned and calculated, so humiliating and disturbing in effect, in fact so tremendous, that every performance it is given ought to be a momentous occasion.
The performance, which will be repeated on Friday, was certainly that. It had certain special distinctions: first that of its setting, then of Mr. Peter Pears and Mr. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as male-voice soloists (a collaboration musically, as well as symbolically, of profound impressiveness), of scrupulously prepared choral and orchestral forces (the Melos ensemble as well as the City of Birmingham Orchestra) under two conductors, the composer for the smaller group, Mr. Meredith Davies, surely and authoritatively directing the full strength, and chiefly the distinction of the work’s novelty.
As our music article last week concluded, A War Requiem is the most masterly and nobly imagined work that Britten has ever given us; this hearing of the piece only confirmed and intensified the extraordinary impact made earlier by a study of the score. The idea of superimposing Wilfred Owen’s poetry upon the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead was audacious, but it succeeds triumphantly in provoking active meditation upon the meaning of the ritual. But moving as is the compilation of the bilingual text, the power of this War Requiem chiefly resides in Britten’s musical structure: in the transition, by acceleration, retardation, alternation, or a gradual and awe inspiring fade, from one text to another; and in the eloquent growth of the larger sections— notably the Libera me — whose prayers, increasingly urgent, are gradually swamped by the terrible, inexorable tramping of a march-figure that, in its turn, disintegrates into stillness from which the chamber orchestra grasps a chord and so initiates the last and most moving poetic interpolation of all.
Sorrow, acknowledgement of our own guilt, prayers of contrition are the principal themes of Britten’s new work; but his War Requiem is now without its consolation and its thanksgiving: in the gentle, lilting melody of Benedictus, the remote, eternally strengthening intonation of the boys’ choir (and of the full chorus in the remarkably conceived Pleni sum coeli) and of chiming bells, and in the flaming brilliance of the D major Hosanna. There is, too, the sturdy, angelic certainty of the solo soprano part at the beginning of Sanctus, and here Miss Heather Harper’s voice rang out grandly. Later performances in less resonant buildings will surely reveal some detail, particularly in quick contrapuntal music, that was only suggested in Coventry Cathedral. But tonight’s performance was one which will never be forgotten.
The Times Music Correspondent
31 May 1962