To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, QYS performs his extraordinary War Requiem. The text below is adapted from information from the Britten-Pears Foundation.
On the night of 14 November 1940, the medieval Coventry Cathedral was destroyed during a bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe. When Britten was asked to write a work for the city’s new cathedral - consecrated in May 1962 - he took the opportunity to make his most profound statement on the nature of war. As a committed pacifist from an early age, Britten sought to emphasise the building’s turbulent history.
Dedicated to the memory of four friends, War Requiem is a profound and deeply disturbing creed, particularly notable for its juxtaposition of war poems by Wilfred Owen alongside the Catholic Mass for the Dead.
The work is scored for tenor and baritone soloists who sing Owen’s words and are accompanied by a separate chamber orchestra; a soprano soloist who stands somewhat apart and who, with the large chorus sings the words of the Mass; and a boys’ choir even further removed from the main world, who represent innocence and the unchanging, and are mostly accompanied by chamber organ. The main orchestra is large, including triple woodwind and brass, four percussionists and concert organ. The small orchestra comprises woodwind quintet, string quintet, harp and percussion.
Britten intended that the soloists at the first performance should represent three of the nations involved in World War II: Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian soprano), Peter Pears (English tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German baritone). In the event, precisely because of this tri-national partnership of representatives, Vishnevskaya was refused permission to attend by the Russian Minister of Culture. Although she was later able to record the work, she did not sing it until 1963; her place at the première on 30 May 1962 was taken by Heather Harper.
The Queensland Youth Symphony has performed Britten’s War Requiem twice previously, on 14 May 1988 and on 11 November 1994.