It's half a century since Benjamin Britten premiered his masterpiece War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral. Christopher Morley recalls a young boy who was transfixed by the moment all those years ago.
One late spring evening in 1962 I was doing my homework in our back kitchen in Brighton, listening to a little Philips radio tuned to the Third Programme.
“Turn that modern rubbish off!” yelled Dad from the living-room (he held no truck with contemporary music those days, but how he’s changed; now in his late 80s, he’s undoubtedly John Adams’ greatest fan).
But I didn’t switch the radio off, as I was transfixed by what I was hearing; it was the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, relayed direct from Coventry Cathedral – and the first time I ever heard the orchestra which has come to play such a major part in my life, the CBSO.
War Requiem has remained in the world’s consciousness ever since, a symbol of a huge festival of reconciliation celebrated in Coventry that spring surrounding the consecration of Sir Basil Spence’s new Cathedral of St Michael on May 25 1962.
The centuries-old Cathedral had been all but decimated in a devastating German air-raid on November 14, 1940, but the spirit of Coventry rallied itself round and the result was this brilliant new edifice, complete with Graham Sutherland’s apse-deep tapestry of the suffering Christ as well as decorations by Jacob Epstein and John Piper.
There were other premieres during the three-week diocese-wide festival, including Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam, The Beatitudes by Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Arthur Bliss, and something by the veteran Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (whose contribution I haven’t been able to identify).
But these shrink into insignificance alongside Britten’s masterpiece, which immediately imprinted itself as a work whose pacifist message could scarcely be ignored.
Its structure is brilliant, interspersing the traditional text of the Latin Mass for the Dead with settings of poems by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen, the whole 80-minute composition operating on three levels: children’s chorus way aloft singing as angels; full chorus and orchestra with majestic soprano soloist delivering the “Missa Pro Defunctis” ranged where we would normally expect to find them; and a chamber orchestra, perched closest to the audience, accompanying tenor and baritone soloists for the Owen settings.
And the final Owen poem, Strange Meeting closes War Requiem in an atmosphere of reconciliation far too close for tears. Enemy soldiers who have just killed each other meet in the afterlife, and realise “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” before, holding hands, “Let us sleep now”; meanwhile the choir, soprano and children’s chorus cast their blessing in Latin.
The tritone chord (a dissonance which the medievalists described as “diabolus in musica” -- the devil in music – and for a premonition of it, listen to the last two xylophone notes before the fugue begins in Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’) which has pervaded the entire work, at last resolves into quiet consonance, and the masterpiece is over. Braying applause must never follow.
I remember a Philharmonia performance at the Royal Albert Hall, only a few years after the premiere, when many minutes ticked by before any hands were joined together.