Listening to Britten – War Requiem, Op.66

Detail of a picture by Jane Mackay. Used with grateful thanks to the artist, whose artwork – much of which is in response to Britten’s music – can be viewed on her Sounding Art website.

War Requiem, Op.66 – for soprano, tenor and baritone solos, chorus, orchestra, chamber orchestra, boys’ choir and organ (ca April 1961 – January 1962, Britten aged 48)

1 Requiem aeternam
Requiem aeternam – Te decet hymnus – Anthem for Doomed Youth – Kyrie eleison
2 Dies irae
Dies irae – Bugles sang – Liber scriptus proferetur – The Next War – Recordare Jesu pie – On seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action – Dies irae – Lacrimosa dies illa – Futility – Pie Jesu Domine
3 Offertorium
Domine Jesu Christe – Sed signifer sanctus Michael – The Parable of the Old Man and the Young – Hostias et preces tibi Domine
4 Sanctus
Sanctus – The End (‘After the blast of lightning from the East’)
5 Agnus Dei
At a Calvary near the Ancre – Agnus Dei
6 Libera me
Libera me, Domine – Strange Meeting – In paradisum

Dedication In loving memory of Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant R.N.V.R., Piers Dunkerley, Captain Royal Marines, David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy, Michael Halliday, Lieutenant R.N.Z.N.V.R.
Text Missa pro Defunctis (set in Latin) and poems by Wilfred Owen
Language Latin and English
Duration 85′

Extracts taken from the first recording of the work, with Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Highgate School Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus, The Bach Choir, the Melos Ensemble and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. With thanks to Decca.

Requiem aeternam (choir)

What passing bells for these who die as cattle? (Pears)

Dies irae (choir)

Bugles sang, saddening the evening air (Fischer-Dieskau)

Liber scriptus proferetur (Vishnevskaya)

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death (Pears and Fischer-Dieskau)

Recordare Jesu pie (chorus)

Be slowly lifted up (Fischer-Dieskau)

Dies irae (chorus)

Lacrimosa dies illa (Vishnevskaya)

Move him into the sun (Pears)

Domine Jesu Christe (boys’ choir)

So Abraham rose, and clave the wood (Pears and Fischer-Dieskau)

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus (Vishnevskaya)

After the blast of lightning from the East (Fischer-Dieskau)

One ever hangs where shelled roads part (Pears)

Libera me, domine (chorus)

It seemed that out of battle I escaped (Pears and Fischer-Dieskau)

Let us sleep now…In paradisum (all)

Background and Critical Reception

“I was completely undone; I did not know where to hide my face. Dead friends and past suffering arose in my mind.”

The words of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau after singing in the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem, commissioned to mark the reopening of Coventry Cathedral after its catastrophic damage in the Second World War. The first performance, on 30 May 1962, was the centrepiece of a festival to celebrate the cathedral’s consecration, and was broadcast live on the BBC.

As Michael Kennedy notes, the commission ‘appealed to Britten the pacifist and hater of cruelty and violence. He determined, it would seem, to make a powerful public protest, in a world still ravaged by war and terrorism, against the obscenity of mass slaughter.’

It also centralised a number of projects with which Britten had been recently concerned – a proposed requiem for Gandhi from the 1940s and a projected collaboration with Ronald Duncan among them. Britten was also able to commemorate his lost friends Piers Dunkerley, Roger Burney, David Gill and Michael Halliday, each in their own way affected by and dying from the consequences of war, as wrought in the second world conflict in particular. In his mind Britten’s task was one of ‘reparation’, commemorating loss, speaking his mind at the obscenity of it, but finding hope in the recovery of Coventry’s new cathedral, for which his friend and English Opera Group colleague John Piper had designed a new stained glass window.

Britten chose poems by Wilfred Owen, all related to war, its atrocities and its aftereffects, and he wove them into the fabric of the Requiem Mass. This was a risky move in the case of The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, a biblical story of Abraham and Isaac that Britten had already set as his Canticle II. Here its ending was mercilessly reinterpreted by the poet so that Abraham killed his son in a sacrifice, and ‘half the seed of Europe, one by one’.

There were to be three distinct performing forces, expanding on an idea successfully deployed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The choirs were to sing the Requiem mass, bolstered by the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, wife of Mstislav Rostropovich. An English tenor (Pears, naturally) and German baritone (Fischer-Dieskau) would sing the Owen settings with their own dedicated chamber orchestra. Above all this turmoil would sit a chorus of boys’ voices, literally half way to heaven – effectively representing the passage to the afterlife. In this way Britten brought together three of the nations most affected by the Second World War – Russia, Britain and Germany – though there was no explicit reference to the Jews, other than by using the requiem text itself.

The forces required for a successful performance are immense, and as such the work can be performed with as many as three conductors, especially given Britten’s spatial requirements. The boys’ choir should ideally be detached from the main body of performers, while the male soloists should stand right at the front with their twelve-piece ensemble. On the occasion of the premiere, the main work was conducted by Meredith Davies while Britten presided over the chamber orchestra.

The premiere was famously fraught with difficulty. The Russian authorities did not allow Vishnevskaya to travel on account of the War Requiem‘s contents, so Heather Harper had to step in with only ten days to rehearse. The cathedral’s acoustic was problematic, as was its staging, and an idea to trim the chorus had to be swiftly abandoned when a strike was threatened. Then, on the evening of the premiere, the cathedral staff refused to open more than one entrance to the assembled throng trying to get in, resulting in a protracted silence at the start of the BBC broadcast as the audience found their seats!

In spite of these conspiratorial elements, the work enjoyed a successful first performance, and an even more auspicious recording career, headed by Britten’s own recording, which stood out with its distinctively branded black sleeve and white lettering.

For many Britten scholars the War Requiem is among his most important, accomplished and deeply felt achievements. Michael Kennedy decrees it as ‘both an emotional and an artistic landmark in his development’. Michael Oliver writes, ‘The choral settings of the Mass are a culmination of Britten’s symphonic writing, the Owen settings his most extensive orchestral song-cycle. The work is a synthesis of two of the most important strands in his output, and an attempt to weave a climactic statement from them. The correspondences Britten draws from the Owen poems and the text of the Mass are powerful, the source of much of the Requiem’s impact.

Interestingly the composer Robin Holloway, when interviewed in 1977, aired concerns over how the music now had a ‘public’ manner – and it has indeed been over performed in Britten’s centenary year. That is undoubtedly the strongest possible indication of the respect in which the work continues to be held, but John Bridcut hits the nail on the head, when he says, ‘This is visceral music, demanding a physical response. Encounters with it should be reserved for exceptional occasions.’


If there is a single piece of Britten’s more relevant to our time than the War Requiem then I have not yet heard it. A particularly poignant and often argumentative meeting of the sacred and secular, it enjoys a unique place in British music, acting both as a vehicle for remembrance but also as a stark warning for future conflicts.

As is characteristic with Britten, we can move one moment from a single instrument in the chamber orchestra to one of the massive perorations he assigns to the chorus, especially in the Dies irae and the Sanctus. These are moments of outcry, with elements of rejoicing but with much more pain than gladness.

There are so many standout moments in the War Requiem that it is impossible to do them all justice, but a few come to mind. The first appearance of the boys’ choir, after the main choir have begun the Requiem over orchestral textures similar to Shostakovich, suddenly opens out the aural perspective of the entire work. Then there is the wondrous, unaccompanied choral end to three of the sections of the mass, sung as quietly as possible by the choir. They begin this slow and solemn intonation with conflicting tritones, before opening out beautifully into the purity of F major each time.

At the other end of the dynamic scale is the emotionally raw climax of the Dies irae, the combination of euphoria and rage unleashed in one telling and utterly overwhelming blow, the artillery fire of the percussion rumbling beneath fierce outcries of brass. This is prefaced by the horror of Owen’s utterance, Sonnet on seeing a piece of our artillery brought into action, unleashed by the baritone to the words ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’.

As a musical aside, it is equally impressive that Britten makes this movement, set in 7/4 time, sound so utterly inevitable, and even though parts of this section are undoubtedly in thrall to Verdi’s own Requiem they are shot through with Britten’s own experience and emotion, his musical language at its purest. Likewise the Agnus Dei has an inevitability to its own 5/4 setting, a seamless and graceful juxtaposition of this part of the Requiem Mass with Owen’s poem At a Calvary near the Ancre. The tenor’s closing ascent, to the words ‘dona nobis pacem’, is sublime.

Britten’s dramatic placing, always a quality of his best works, reaches its peak here. So many elements, both human and musical, combine to make this an inspired work, where world class soloists can rub shoulders with near-amateurs once again – though some musical accomplishment is obviously needed for the choral singing. The two male singers, with the chamber orchestra, make the most harrowing of impressions with their stark renditions of the Owen poems. The most profound of these is Strange meeting, the last poem to be set in the Libera me, where a series of apparitions brings a dead soldier into direct contact with the enemy who killed him the day before. ‘I am enemy you killed, my friend’ is the unforgettable line, laced with hallucinatory threads from the chamber orchestra. Yet as the poem finishes, the two soldiers are reconciled, and as peace finally breaks out the refrain ‘let us sleep’ is taken up, and ‘in paradisum’ spreads to the choir in response. Yet this is not quite the end, for the warning bells toll again from afar – once more at a distance of a tritone – and we are reminded that out there war is continuing, in spite of the chorus’s closing calm.

This may be the ultimate soapbox from which Britten can express his pacifist beliefs, but he does so in such a way that everyone involved in war, its aftermath or its possible beginning, is included. Nobody emerges from a good performance of this remarkable piece unblemished or unmoved, and it will surely remain one of Britten’s – and Britain’s – most important compositions.

Recordings used

Heather Harper (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Coventry Festival Choir, Boys of Holy Trinity, Leamington and Holy Trinity, Stratford, Melos Ensemble / Benjamin Britten; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Meredith Davies (Testament) (remastered world premiere recording from 30 May 1962)

Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), Peter Pears (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Highgate School Choir, The Bach Choir, Melos Ensemble, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Elisabeth Söderström (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor), Sir Thomas Allen (baritone), Boys of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)

Sabina Cvilak (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Choir of Eltham College, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (LSO Live)

Susan Gritton (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme, Trebles of The Choir of New College Oxford, Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh (Signum Winged Lion)

Naděžda Kniplová (soprano), Gerald English (tenor), John Cameron (baritone), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Kühn Children’s Chorus, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Karel Ančerl (Supraphon)

The War Requiem discography was effectively completed this year with Testament’s issue of the world premiere for the first time. Recorded live in Coventry Cathedral on 30 May 1962, it crackles with atmosphere, like the passing of an electrical storm. This is comparatively quick version, with Britten conducting the chamber orchestra and Meredith Davies in charge of the fill performance. It is quite chaotic at times, with a strange balance and some understandable wavering in the chorus in the Dies Irae and Libera me, but that becomes largely incidental to the intensity of this incisive performance. The first appearance of Fischer-Dieskau is terrifying, such a strong performance, and he and Pears are a fearsome team. Heather Harper, performing instead of the ‘grounded’ Galina Vishnevskaya, is a powerful soprano. The recording, restored by Paul Baily, is exceptionally clear given what he had to start with, and the slight hiss left in actually aids the ear.

Britten’s own version, meanwhile, is a magnificent document, remastered for this year and including an indispensable rehearsal disc that throws extra light on the surrounding conditions of Decca’s sessions. This is a disc that sold 200,000 units in its first five months of release, a phenomenal figure for a contemporary classical composer, and features many of the artists at the top of their form. It also features an authoritative Galina Vishnevskaya, now able to join the cast, and Fischer-Dieskau is if anything even more powerful in the studio setting. The Libera me, where many performances can fall short, is terrific.

Sir Simon Rattle benefits from excellent recorded sound, and three outstanding soloists in Elisabeth Söderstrom, Robert Tear and Thomas Hampson. Paul McCreesh musters the power of an enormous choir, though they are incredibly hushed initially. There are many other versions, with one in particular deserving of mention as Karel Ancerl conducts an account from the 1960s, available on Supraphon with the Young Person’s Guide and the Spring Symphony as company.

Time has unfortunately prevented me from listening to a further number of recordings, but the new one from Antonio Pappano is extremely highly regarded.


The War Requiem‘s discography is handsomely represented on the streaming service, with all major recordings present save for the premiere on Testament itself. The composer’s recording for Decca can be heard here in its first remastering.

Other versions available are from Sir Simon Rattle, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Kurt Masur (his LPO version), and a terrific live performance I was privileged to attend at the Barbican in 2010, overseen by Gianandrea Noseda, with Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside among the soloists. That is available here. Finally the newest of all the recordings, conducted by Antonio Pappano, can be heard by clicking here.

Also written in 1962: Shostakovich – Symphony no.13 in B flat minor, Op.113 (Babi-Yar)

Next up: The Bitter Withy

This entry was posted in Choir and orchestra, English, Latin, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Listening to Britten – War Requiem, Op.66

  1. garethhevans says:

    I am enjoying your posts so much. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Cantata misericordium, Op.69 | Good Morning Britten

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  4. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Poet’s Echo, Op.76 | Good Morning Britten

  5. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Owen Wingrave, Op.85 | Good Morning Britten

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