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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Thursday, May 30

Britten's "War Requiem"

Synopsis

On today’s date in 1962, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra, had its premiere performance at Coventry Cathedral in England. The Cathedral had been virtually destroyed in World War II bombing, and Britten’s big choral work was commissioned to celebrate its restoration and reconsecration.

Britten was a committed pacifist, and his “War Requiem” text combines poems by Wilfred Owen, who had been killed in the First World War, with the traditional Latin text of the Mass for the Dead. For the premiere, Britten requested soloists representing nations who had fought during the Second World War.

With Britten’s life-time partner, tenor Peter Pears, representing England, the plan was to have a German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and a Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, for the 1962 premiere. As a young man, Fischer-Dieskau had been drafted into the German army, and had been a prisoner of war, but was eager to participate. Unfortunately, the Soviet authorities wouldn’t issue a visa for soprano Vishnevskaya to sing in the new Britten piece. “How can you, a Soviet woman, stand next to a German and an Englishman and perform such a political work,” they told her. The British soprano Heather Harper substituted for her.

For many, Britten’s “War Requiem” is his masterpiece, and shortly after its premiere, Britten wrote to his sister, “The idea did come off, I think... I hope it will make people think a bit.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) War Requiem soloists; choirs; BBC Scottish Symphony; Martyn Brabbins, cond. Naxos 8.553558

Additional Information

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