The Idea Was Good - The story of Benjamin Britten’s War
By Michael Foster
142pp incl. Bibliography
First published 2012
Retail price £12.75
COVENTRY CATHEDRAL BOOKS
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
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
- 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.
Further information at www.warrequiem.co.uk
Invaluable; a piece of scholarship and a labour of love. An indispensable read.