The Idea Was Good - The story of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem
By Michael Foster
ISBN: 978-0-9544197-1-4
142pp incl. Bibliography
First published 2012
Retail price £12.75
Availability: from Coventry Cathedral or online here

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 known ones.
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 Britain.
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.
John Quinn
Further information at
Invaluable; a piece of scholarship and a labour of love. An indispensable read.