Consecrating Coventry Cathedral

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Coventry Cathedral – photo from Association of British Cathedrals

The first time I heard Britten’s War Requiem in concert (at Symphony Hall in Birmingham), I went home and was violently ill. Ok, it may have been food poisoning, but I prefer to think I was so struck by the power of the music that I had a strong physical reaction to the emotions it drew out of me. That’s the angle I’d go for in my biography anyway.

Although I’m from the Midlands, I’d never had much cause to go to Coventry, so when a friend was getting married there it was a good excuse to go for the first time. Coventry has a bit of a Brutalist reputation, but pre-WWII was a lovely medieval city, and a small amount of that remains. The wedding I went to took place in the Coventry Guildhall, which was built in the 14th century. The original St Michael’s Cathedral next-door dates from the same time, but this building was all but destroyed in the Coventry Blitz in 1940. Here are some images (stolen from the internet) to show the damage:

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The new cathedral was designed by Basil Spence, who decided to build a brand new cathedral alongside the ruins of the old one, which would be kept as a memorial. (It’s interesting to compare this to the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which is twinned with Coventry due to their unfortunate shared experiences of destruction by bombing in WWII. The Dresden Cathedral was instead rebuilt using the original plans and, where possible, stones from the rubble of the church.) The new St Michael’s Cathedral was consecrated in 1962.

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Ok, perhaps you’re wondering why exactly this place is appearing as a musical location here (apart from the fact that all churches are musical places, but I can’t exactly pin them all). And the answer lies in the first paragraph – Britten’s War Requiem was written for the consecration and premiered in the cathedral on 30th May 1962. I’d written an essay on the War Requiem the year before, so was quite keen to see the cathedral and its surroundings when in Coventry for the wedding, and walk in the footsteps of Benjamin Britten. (Also Michael Tippett – his opera King Priam was written for the opening festival of the cathedral, too.)

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Britten at rehearsals for the premiere

Britten was given free-reign by his commissioners to write whatever he wanted for the consecration – he opted for a requiem (a mass for the dead), including the latin text and poems by Wilfred Owen, the war poet killed in WWI. In a letter Britten to his friend, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he wrote:

I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass for chorus and orchestra (in memory of those of all nations who died in the last war), and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of a great English poet, Wilfred Owen … These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass.

It is dedicated to four of Britten’s friends, three who died during WWII and one who committed suicide in 1959 (Britten felt he was as much a casualty of the war as the others). The score was dedicated:

In loving memory of Capt Michael Halliday RN, Capt PH Dunkerley, RM, Lt Roger Burney RN and O/S David Gill, RN.

As well as containing such personal meaning to the pacifist Britten, the piece was quite a political statement (for more details see my essay, c. 2010!). Originally the premiere was intended to be performed with soloists Peter Pears, Fischer-Dieskau and Galina Vishnevskaya, i.e. English, German and Russian singers to present a vision of unity (Coventry is also twinned with Volgograd, also heavily bombed). However the Soviet authorities didn’t permit Vishnevskaya to leave, and so she was replaced last-minute by Heather Harper. The original three soloists were able to come together to record the piece in 1963. Here is that recording – it’s tremendously powerful.

This recording and piece clearly spoke to people – in six-months, the recording had sold over 200,000 copies making it the fastest-selling classical music CD at the time.

I’d urge you also to seek out a live performance if you can, because it really does draw out those emotions (it wasn’t just the food poisoning, I promise): I’ve attended performances where fellow audience members have broken down in tears. I feel like no matter how many times I hear it, the piece will still have an incredible impact. It is still performed quite regularly – its popularity hasn’t waned. The CBSO performed the War Requiem on the 50th anniversary of its premiere in the Cathedral and it sold out incredibly quickly. I would have loved to have been there.

Here is a fantastic website where you can discover more about the piece:
http://www.warrequiem.org/
you can read more about the dedicatees, the history of the work, and even do an interactive tour around Britten’s writing desk.

Here also is a BBC iWonder Guide about the Coventry Blitz

(none of the pictures on this post belong to me)

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