Scroll down the timeline to follow the development of this twentieth-century masterpiece. Click on a topic for more information.
The medieval cathedral in Coventry was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in overnight bombings that devastated the city. The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction, not as an ‘act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.’ Still image courtesy of the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, London (Crown copyright).
A competition to design a new cathedral for Coventry was won by Basil Spence (1907-1976). Building work began in 1956 and was completed in time for the consecration festival in May 1962. Spence was knighted for his work on the building in 1960. Image courtesy of the Basil Spence Archive, Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments Scotland.
Britten was approached by John Lowe, on behalf of Coventry Cathedral Festival’s Arts Committee, to write a new work for the consecration of the new cathedral, due to take place in May 1962. Britten accepted the commission, for which he was paid £1,000, replying: ‘Would you please tell the Arts Committee at Coventry how touched I was by their kind invitation … I should be very honoured to be connected with such a significant and moving occasion, and shall do my best to turn out something worthy of it.’
Early in planning War Requiem Britten copied out the Latin text of the Requiem mass in an old school notebook, interspersed with the Wilfred Owen poems he planned to weave into the piece. His source for the Owen poems was Edward Blunden’s edition of The Poems of Wilfred Owen, reprinted in 1955. Britten’s copy includes some pencil annotations and cuts to the selected poems.
By February 1961 Britten was already thinking about the performers he wanted to take part in the new work. He asked John Lowe to engage the Melos Ensemble as the chamber orchestra. On 16 February Britten wrote to the German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to ask him to perform the baritone role at the work’s premiere: ‘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, who was killed in the First World War … These poems will be set for tenor and baritone, with an accompaniment of chamber orchestra, placed in the middle of the other forces. They will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity and sincerity … and with great temerity I am asking you whether you would sing the baritone.’ Fischer-Dieskau accepted.
On 12 May Britten wrote to John Lowe (of the Coventry Cathedral Festival’s Arts Committee) indicating the projected size of the work: ‘The orchestra will be big … as I am planning for certainly triple woodwind and a nice assortment of brass for the ‘Tuba Mirum’ (possibly as many as fourteen). Then there is the chamber orchestra to make room for, and I think the best position would be immediately in front of the conductor with the two male soloists. The boys, however, I would like to have placed at a distance; they perform throughout only with the organ, so it would be good if they were near the organ console.' The composition draft is written in ‘short score’, with all the music written on a few staves indicating the instruments, rather than in full score. Image: British Library Add MS 60609, f12v (detail). Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, Op. 66. © Copyright 1961 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Photograph courtesy of the British Library (www.bl.uk/manuscripts/)
The 1961 Aldeburgh Festival saw the premiere of the Cello Sonata that Britten had written for the Russian Mstislav Rostropovich. Accompanying the cellist was his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya who – in a late addition to the Festival programme – gave a recital in the Jubilee Hall. She later recalled: 'After the concert Britten came up to me, showered me with compliments, and said he was particularly glad to have heard me right at that moment because he had begun to write his War Requiem and now wanted to write a part for me.' In August, Britten wrote to the Soviet Minister of Culture to ask if Vishnevskaya could participate in the premiere.
Over the course of 1961 formal arrangements were made with Wilfred Owen’s publishers to use the poet’s works in the Requiem. In September a contract was signed between Britten, his publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, and Owen’s publishers, Chatto and Windus. Image: Britten’s annotated copy of The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. London: Chatto and Windus, 1955. Photo: Nigel Luckhurst.
By October, Britten had settle on the title War Requiem, and asked for it to be known as such in the Coventry Festival brochure. In correspondence he had previously referred to the work simply as the ‘Requiem Mass’.
Britten's initial request to the Soviet authorities for them to allow Galina Vishnevskaya to travel to Coventry for the premiere of War Requiem was unsuccessful. On 14 December 1961 he tried again, writing this time to Vladimir Stepanov, an official in the Soviet Ministry of Culture, in a further attempt to secure permission: ‘The Requiem is perhaps the most important work I have yet written, and the dominating soprano part has been planned from the start for Madame Visnhevskaya. When I heard her sing in England this last summer I realised that she had the voice, the musicianship and the temperament that I was looking for. Since then, writing the work, she has been in my mind planning every phrase of the music.’
As Britten completed each section of the War Requiem vocal scores for the singers to rehearse with were prepared by Britten’s assistant, Imogen Holst. Some rehearsals of early sections had already taken place before the work had been completed. Image: Manuscript vocal score (detail). Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, Op. 66. © Copyright 1961 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd.
Britten completed the full orchestral score while on holiday in Greece. Having set all the ideas down in the draft score, writing out the full instrumental parts was a relatively simple process. In a letter after his return from Greece Britten remarked ‘people are amazed that I managed to finish my big score and yet also see so much of the wonderful country.’ Preparing the full score was aided by assistants Imogen Holst and Rosamund Strode who wrote the instrument names and vocal parts and drew in the bar lines. Image: British Library Add MS 60610, f133r. Benjamin Britten, War Requiem, Op. 66. © Copyright 1961 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Photograph courtesy of the British Library (www.bl.uk/manuscripts/)
Over the early months of 1962 Coventry's ‘Festival Chorus’ regularly rehearsed the work. Members of the London-based Ambrosian Singers were drafted in to help the chorus, which was struggling with the complexities of the score. Image: Britten conducting the Ambrosian Singers and English Chamber Orchestra in rehearsal, 1967.
Negotiations for Vishnevskaya’s participation continued with the Soviet Ministry of Culture, but permission was ultimately denied. The soprano, who had been in London performing in Aida, was made to fly home. She was ordered to tell reporters that she was due home for a television appearance, but the real reason was that the Soviet authorities objected to the German money used to build the new Coventry Cathedral. Heather Harper agreed to take the soprano part with 10 days’ notice.
Heather Harper (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Coventry Festival Chorus, boys of Holy Trinity, Leamington, and Holy Trinity, Stratford, The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Meredith Davies and the Melos Ensemble conducted by Benjamin Britten. Galina Vishnevskaya recalled: 'On that day, instead of experiencing the thrill of taking part with all the others in that solemn event, I was sitting at home in Moscow, weeping bitter tears.'
The iconic black and white artwork that made such an impact on Decca's War Requiem LP in fact originated from Britten's music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, who designed it for the cover of the published score.
Early in 1963 Britten recorded War Requiem with his regular record company, Decca, in London's Kingsway Hall. The recording featured Galina Vishnevskaya, who was permitted to appear, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau, The Bach Choir and London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Highgate School Choir, the LSO and Melos Ensemble, and Britten conducted the whole assembled forces. The producer was John Culshaw. 200,000 copies of the recording were sold within a few months of release, making it the fastest-selling classical album to date. At the Sixth Annual Grammy Awards on 12 May 1964, War Requiem won in three categories: • Best Classical Composition by a Contemporary Composer • Best Classical Album • Best Classical Performance - Choral (other than opera)