May 30, 1962—Twenty years after St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry was destroyed in a German air raid, a new cathedral adjacent to the old site was dedicated, with a musical centerpiece composed by a pacifist widely shunned by many in Britain during WWII.
Since its tumultuous premiere, the reputational arc of War Requiem has paralleled that of composer Benjamin Britten: Tremendous acclaim followed by furious reaction, succeeded in turn by recognition near the top of 20th-century classical music.
The new musical at the Public Theater, February House, sounds like a fascinating attempt to capture an unusual moment in cultural history (i.e., Britten, W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee all sharing a home in Brooklyn in the early 1940s), but in the case of one couple—Britten and longtime companion Peter Pears, depicted as persnickety—the depiction sounds cartoonish. It doesn’t sound as if another tangible aspect of Britten’s life is examined much in this instance: his anxiety over the war-torn world and his place in it.
When war broke out on the continent in 1939, Britten and Pears, like W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, left Britain for the U.S. That action did not sit well with many who saw the conflict with Hitler as a struggle for national survival itself. When homesickness drew the composer back in 1942, he was accorded noncombatant status on the stipulation that he give concerts for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts.
During the war, the Luftwaffe’s blitzes—including attacks on the Midlands industrial city Coventry that left 380 people killed and 865 injured, along with the destruction of the 14th-century cathedral--did much to harden feelings against the Germans. It also left the nation’s 59,000 conscientious objectors, including Britten, in a position not always comfortable.
Flash forward 20 years. The reconstructed cathedral in Coventry enlisted the top names in the arts to participate in its rebirth: architect Basil Spence, architects Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland—and Britten, now the colossus of Britain’s classical music scene, largely due to landmark operas he had created in the meantime (notably Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw).
Britten saw an opportunity to fulfill two of his longtime aims: 1) compose a major choral work in the English tradition, and 2) not only commemorate the victims of a terrible act, but condemn war itself. The work would feature the dignity of ancient ritual—a requiem Mass in Latin—side by side with the searing modern poetry of Wilfred Owen, who had been killed just before the armistice that ended WWI.
The reception given Britten’s vastly ambitious work (scored for three soloists, a chamber orchestra, a full choir and main orchestra, and a boys choir and organ) was rife with irony. Here was a composer once castigated by large sections of the British public for refusing to fight against his country’s longtime enemy, now lionized by a country that, over the prior year, had grown increasingly terrified of the tensions between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev over Berlin.
War Requiem ended up posing an uncomfortable question: how much did one’s response to it depend on an aesthetic rather than political judgment? The issue came to the forefront because of the casting of the principals: From Britain, Pears; from Germany, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, his country’s greatest baritone; from Russia, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The Kremlin’s cultural commissars insisted that Vishnevskaya not attend the ceremony because of their fear that Britten’s work would put the U.S.S.R. in a negative light.
The appeal to international harmony may have had its limits, but otherwise the performance was greeted rapturously: “Unforgettable,” “Masterpiece on the folly of war,” and “A Britten triumph” were typical of the reactions. Then a counterreaction set in.
As Richard Fairman’s recent retrospective in The Financial Times noted, naysayers at “the high intellectual end of contemporary music in the 1960s,” perhaps put off by the hype, were scathing. The first Munich performance prompted one critic to label the piece of “dubious quality,” while another German critic called it “an artistic lie.” Moreover, composer Igor Stravinsky cracked that “The Battle of Britain sentiment was so thick and the tide of applause so loud that I, for one, was not always able to hear the music.”
You’ll still find some quarters where this choral work—or, at least, the environment in which it originated—comes in for criticism. Terry Teachout, for instance, has lumped Britten in with Copland, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Hindemith and Randall Thompson among musicians with a particular bent in their worldview: “Only in the twentieth century did major composers get into the propaganda business, and then their preferred causes tended to be not religious but secular.”
Such sentiments have become increasingly rare, however. Because of its size, War Requiem has become the classical-music counterpart to King Lear: not as much performed as others in the career of a genius, but recognized as towering over others in his canon and, indeed, in the wider cultural landscape.