This book has been published under the imprint of Coventry Cathedral
to mark the 50th anniversaries of the cathedral itself and of
Britten’s War Requiem, which was commissioned for
the arts festival that coincided with the consecration of the
cathedral on 25 May 1962. The première of Britten’s
new work took place in the cathedral on 30 May 1962. Fifty years
later, to the day, that first performance was commemorated with
a magnificent reading of the work by the City of Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Andris Nelsons; I had
the good fortune to attend that event (review).
Michael Foster is an established writer on matters musical;
his previous publications include a fascinating book on Elgar’s
‘Apostles Trilogy’ - Plotting Gigantic Worx
(2003). In this new book he chronicles the gestation and creation
of a work about which he clearly cares very deeply.
He outlines the story of the rebuilding of the cathedral and
then goes on to relate in much more detail how War Requiem
came into being. He also gives a full account of the problems
encountered in preparing and giving the first performance. Along
the way there’s a considerable amount of interesting information.
I didn’t know, for example, that Coventry City Council
actually opposed the grant of a building licence, believing
that in the days of post-war austerity there were greater priorities
in their city - there’s a contemporary resonance for you!
To his eternal credit, the Minister of Works, Sir David Eccles,
saw the bigger picture and issued the licence in May 1954. I
was also very interested to read of the pivotal role in the
commission played by John Lowe, sometime Head of BBC Midland
Region Music, who was Artistic Director of the Consecration
Festival at Coventry Cathedral. Fascinatingly, Lowe went on
to direct Liverpool’s Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965.
In that capacity he invited Britten to write a new work to mark
the 1966 opening of the city’s Roman Catholic Metropolitan
Cathedral of Christ the King. Britten declined the commission:
one can only wonder what he might have written for a cathedral
that turned out to have an acoustic even more challenging than
the one at Coventry.
It’s well known that the run-up to the première
was fraught with difficulties, not least that the choir, formed
specially for the Consecration Festival, wasn’t really
up to the job. Foster paints a vivid picture of all this without
overwhelming the reader with minutiae. He makes one appreciate,
for example, what a gamble it was to put on so complex a score
in what was then a completely untried acoustic. He’s also
a good guide to the gestation of the work, showing the thread
that links War Requiem back to the pacifist views that
Britten had held from an early age and forward to Owen Wingrave.
There’s valuable discussion, for example, of the aborted
project in the 1940s for a post-Hiroshima oratorio entitled
Mea Culpa and the draft libretto by Ronald Duncan is
printed in full.
Throughout, Michael Foster writes in a clear, very readable
style. It’s obvious that he knows his subject thoroughly
and not only does he know the history of the work very well
indeed but also he understands and loves the music itself. This
is evident not least from the detailed and very good analysis
of the work, section by section, that forms the first section
of ‘supplementary material’ in Part Three of the
book. Incidentally, Foster’s interest in the work is anything
but academic: he knows it from the inside, as it were, as a
bass in the CBSO Chorus in which capacity he took part in the
50th anniversary performance.
The one disappointment, for me, lies in the section on recordings
of the work. Foster gives details of sixteen audio recordings
and two DVDs, one of which is a film by Derek Jarman that uses
Britten’s own recording as its sound-track. Sadly, however,
he devotes just two pages to discussion of the recordings. Most
of that is devoted to Britten’s own, celebrated recording
and the only other one that he mentions is the fine live performance
led by Ernest Ansermet (review)
- Jarman’s 1989 film is discussed elsewhere in the book.
I’m sure Michael Foster knows most, if not all, of the
recordings well and I should have been interested to read some
brief comments on some of the others, especially the lesser
The book is copiously illustrated in black and white, which
is a definite strength. However, to accommodate the number of
illustrations many of the pictures are small. One slight problem
with this is that several of the illustrations are reproductions
of letters and the elderly typefaces are not always easy to
read. The worst example of this is the first page of a handwritten
letter from Meredith Davies to Britten, written after the première.
This is reproduced on page 80 - not as a full sized picture
- but, unfortunately the handwriting is small and not easy to
read and what Davies had to say, which is surely of interest,
is not repeated in the text of the book: a pity.
I found this book enjoyable, highly engaging and informative.
It certainly deepened my knowledge of the work significantly
and reinforced my admiration for it. Such criticisms I have
centre on aspects of the production of the book. There is no
index, unfortunately. In a book this length that may not be
a major issue but even a general index would have been beneficial.
I found the typeface a little on the small side. That may not
be a problem for all readers, of course, but many of the paragraphs
are quite lengthy and I would have preferred either slightly
shorter paragraphs or a larger font size. The footnotes are
inadequate, I’m afraid. The convention is not followed
whereby if a letter is quoted we should be told, say, “Britten
to Pears” and the date of the letter. Instead, the footnotes
will say, typically “Letter in the BPA [Britten-Pears
Archive].” That’s insufficient: if correspondence
is being cited we should be told who it is between and when
it was written.
However, such criticisms should not detract at all from what
is an invaluable book; a piece of scholarship and a labour of
love. It is an indispensable read not just for Britten enthusiasts
but also for anyone interested in the cultural history of post-war
Two final points are worth making. All profits from the book
will go towards the cost of Coventry Cathedral’s Golden
Jubilee celebrations. Secondly, the very striking cover design
has been done by Luke Matthews, an A-level art student at King
Charles I School, Kidderminster.