On the night of November 14th 1940, the city of Coventry–in the industrial Midlands of England–was bombed by the German air force. Among the buildings destroyed that night was the medieval Cathedral of St Michael. A new cathedral was built next to the remains of the old one. Its opening in 1962 would be the setting for one of the most powerful statements in all music about man's inhumanity to man: Britten's War Requiem.
The night Coventry was bombed, Benjamin Britten was not in England, but in the United States, where he and the tenor Peter Pears had been since June 1939. Britten made the trip for various reasons–personal and professional–but the looming threat of war in Europe was certainly a factor. When war did indeed come that September, the pair were advised to stay in America for the time being.
Britten's time in the US was a happy and creative one, but by 1942 he and Pears resolved to return to England, despite the dangers of crossing the Atlantic in wartime. Britten was a committed pacifist, and knew that, once home, he would have to take a stand and refuse the military draft.
'Well, things are coming to a head at last, thank God ... We have a boat, leaving sometime next Monday ... I'm not really happy about the other side ... I am more and more ... convinced that I cannot kill, so it'll be a tribunal, and I am scared stiff of judges and all that.' (Britten to Christopher Isherwood, 10 March 1942)
Britten's pacifism dated back at least to his days at boarding school. Away from school an influential mentor–in music and much else–was the composer Frank Bridge.
'... A lot of feeling about the First World War, which people seem to see in my War Requiem, came from Bridge. He had written a piano sonata in memory of a friend killed in France, and although he didn't encourage me to take a stand for the sake of a stand, he did make me argue and argue and argue.' ('Britten Looking Back', Sunday Telegraph, 17 November 1963)
Arriving back in England in 1942, Britten's options were to sign up for active duty, or try to register himself as a conscientious objector. He chose the second, and set out these reasons to the tribunal that heard his case.
'Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to avoid helping to destroy ... human Iife ... The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction ... I believe sincerely that I can help my fellow human beings best, by continuing the work I am most qualified to do by the nature of my gifts and training ...' (Britten's statement to the Local Tribunal for the Registration of Conscientious Objectors, 4 May 1942)
Once recognized as a conscientious objector, Britten spent the rest of the war giving concerts with Pears.
By 1958, when the committee planning the new Coventry Cathedral wanted a choral work for the opening festival, Britten was the obvious choice. A string of successful operas and other major works since the war had made him the leading British composer of the day.
Earlier that year, Britten had written the song-cycle Nocturne, and included an anti-war text by Wilfred Owen, whose eyewitness poems from the trenches of the First World War were clearly still in the composer's mind when the letter arrived from Coventry.
'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 ... These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass.' (Britten to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 16 February 1961)
Move him into the sun
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it work him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
This lament for a fallen comrade foretold the poet's own fate. Wilfred Owen was killed in France one week before the fighting stopped. His family learned the news exactly one hour after peace was declared. The futility of his death only adds power to some of the finest poetry ever written about 'war and the pity of war'.
In his copy of Owen's work, Britten marked a passage that seemed to sum up his own pacifist beliefs perfectly:
'I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ's essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill.'
The War Requiem was composed at The Red House in Aldeburgh, the Suffolk town where Britten and Pears made their home. Britten started work on the composition sketch in April 1961, and completed the full score on holiday in Greece the following January.
The War Requiem does not just look back to past conflicts. In the 50s and 60s the possibility of nuclear war against the Soviet Union seemed very real to many, including Britten. He was a member of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in 1960 donated money towards one of their largest demonstrations. This was no abstract concern: there were nuclear weapons at a US Air Force base less than five miles from Aldeburgh. As he sat working on the Requiem Britten would have often heard fighter-bombers from the base roaring overhead, practising for war.
The War Requiem was first performed, in the new cathedral, on 30 May 1962. Britten himself conducted those performers who deliver the Wilfred Owen settings: the chamber orchestra, the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and tenor Peter Pears. Meredith Davies conducted the full orchestra, the chorus and boys' choir and the soprano. The soprano part was written for the Russian Galina Vishnevskaya, but in a small sign of the wider Cold War tensions of the time, the Soviet authorities refused her permission to travel, and her place was taken at short notice by Heather Harper. Even before the first public performance The Times declared:
'Any new Requiem setting has to compete with Verdi's and Faure's and Mozart's treatment of the same words. Britten has approached the task in his own fresh and deeply felt way. It is not a Requiem to console the living; sometimes it does not even help the dead to sleep soundly. It can only disturb every living soul, for it denounces the barbarism more or less awake in mankind with all the authority that a great composer can muster. There is no doubt at all, even before next Wednesday's performance, that it is Britten's masterpiece.'