It seems fitting on Memorial Day to remember Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (Op. 66), written in 1961 for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral on 30 May 1962. Coventry was destroyed on 14 Nov. 1940, the “burnt offering” of Luftwaffe bombs during that night of World War II.
Britten’s War Requiem is dedicated to four friends*, all of whom fought in World War II and three of whom died or went missing in the War. The Requiem is “a profound and deeply disturbing creed, particularly notable for its juxtaposition of [nine] war poems by Wilfred Owen alongside the Catholic Mass for the Dead.”
The first — and most famous — recording of the piece features Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (who did not sing at the re-consecration), German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and English tenor Peter Pears (both of whom did), with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Britten, produced in 1963 on the Decca label.
The ruins of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral are still visible through the clear glass of the Western Door of the re-built Cathedral. (Take the virtual tour and see for yourself.)
* The four friends:
>> Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was a friend of Britten’s partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and a former chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral. He died aboard the French submarine Surcouf in 1942.
>> Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines. One of Britten’s closest friends. He actually survived combat, taking part in the 1944 Normandy landings. He committed suicide in June 1959, two months before his wedding.
>> David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy. He was killed in action in the Mediterranean.
>> Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve. He was a friend of Britten’s from prep school, reported missing early in 1944.
All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful. — Wilfred Owen
Britten-Pears Foundation: Featured Work: War Requiem Op. 66
Inkpot #83: Classical Music Reviews: Britten War Requiem, by Chia Han-Leon with Ng Yeuk Fan
Text of the War Requiem (based on Wilfred Owen’s poems)