Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:11 am

Battle of Britten

A masterpiece? Or an ‘artistic lie’? Controversy surrounded ‘War Requiem’ when it was first performed fifty years ago

On May 30 1962, more than two decades after a devastating air raid left Coventry Cathedral in ruins, its rebuilding was complete. Some of the most distinguished names in the arts had been involved: Basil Spence was the architect, Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland provided sculpture and art, and Benjamin Britten was invited to compose an “important new work” to mark its consecration.

For Britten, it was the chance to realise a long-held ambition: to write a large choral work in the English tradition. As people would be casting their minds back to that night of destruction in 1940, why not offer a commemorative requiem – or better, a work specifically on the theme of war? Britten hit on the idea of interweaving a requiem mass in Latin with settings of English poems by Wilfred Owen, who had been killed in the final days of the first world war.

Later, he heightened the wartime connection when he decided to cast singers from Britain, Germany and the Soviet Union as the three soloists to represent the combatants in the second world war. But the Soviet authorities, suspecting an anti-Soviet bias, refused to let the Russian soloist, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, attend. Performances of the War Requiem were blocked in the USSR for some years – an irony, that a work intended to promote harmony and forgiveness should lead to diplomatic hostility. Whether or not Britten had set out to write a political work, it certainly became one.

The reviews after the premiere were ecstatic. “Unforgettable”; “Masterpiece on the folly of war”; “A Britten triumph”, ran the headlines. International performances, especially in the Netherlands, met with an overwhelmingly positive response.

But among a small and influential minority, the War Requiem prompted bitter opposition. The German baritone soloist, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, recalls in his memoirs how during rehearsals Erich Auerbach, the official photographer, jeered, “I thought we’d already had Orff’s Carmina [Burana].” There were plenty at the high intellectual end of contemporary music in the 1960s who might have nodded in sympathy. A review of the first Munich performance talked of the work’s “dubious quality”. Another German critic is quoted as calling it an “artistic lie”.

Stravinsky acknowledged the work as one of Britten’s best but could not resist a sarcastic jibe at its acclaim in Britain: “The Battle of Britain sentiment was so thick and the tide of applause so loud that I, for one, was not always able to hear the music,” he said.

The Coventry Cathedral in ruins after being bombed in 1940©Hulton Archive/Getty

The Coventry Cathedral in ruins after being bombed in 1940

One person who has lived with the War Requiem longer than most is conductor Simon Rattle. He first heard the work aged 10 or 11, in his home city of Liverpool, and reminisces about getting the composer’s autograph in his score of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. He says he can understand why some people were confused, as much as moved, by the War Requiem. “The work is an unusual mixture of the very public and the very private. It is immensely powerful but it is also a singular piece in Britten’s output with little that is like it either before or after.”

On the musical “style wars” of the 1960s, Rattle has wise words. “We recognise now that they are all great composers who have much to say,” he says, “and even at the time the argument was not as violent as the one between Brahms and Wagner in the 19th century. In the end, the War Requiem is very much of its time and place.”

This is a point picked up by Dr Nicholas Clark, librarian at the Britten-Pears Foundation. He stresses the difficulties that Britten faced for having been a conscientious objector during the second world war. “As a work strongly denouncing war, the War Requiem came at an opportune time in the 1960s, when there was a more open and vocal movement against war generally. A few months after the premiere Britten was awarded the freedom of the borough of Aldeburgh, probably because of the success of the War Requiem, and that was very important to him, as it showed a final acceptance of his stance during the war.”

Many of the issues that made the first performance a cause of controversy have now abated. Britten’s pacifism is no reason to dislike his music. The disparagement of his work by the hard-line serialists of the period has come to look like intellectual arrogance. Perhaps most important, the outpouring of praise that produced such a backlash has receded into the past, allowing the work to be evaluated on its merits.

Will the War Requiem survive? To judge from the number of performances around the world, it looks likely to secure its place as one of the key musical works of the second half of the 20th century. As Rattle says: “The politics will always be part of the work but no more than the politics of the French revolution are today to [Beethoven’s] Fidelio. By including the Owen poems, Britten connects to the first world war, and from there to everybody’s loss in war. The work will survive because of that humanistic message.”

Clark says: “Even people who are not fans of Britten listen to it. The many different occasions on which it is performed now show that the work is really timeless. It will speak to every generation anew.”

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The 50th anniversary performance of Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ will be given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Coventry Cathedral on May 30

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