War Requiem

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War Requiem
by Benjamin Britten
Coventry Cathedral Interior, West Midlands, UK - Diliff.jpg
Interior of the new Coventry Cathedral, where the Requiem was first performed
Catalogue Op. 66
OccasionConsecration of the new Coventry Cathedral
  • Latin
  • English
Composed1961 (1961)–1962
  • Roger Burney
  • Piers Dunkerley
  • David Gill
  • Michael Halliday
Performed30 May 1962 (1962-05-30)
  • soprano
  • tenor
  • baritone
  • mixed choir
  • boys' choir
  • organ
  • orchestra
  • chamber orchestra

The War Requiem, Op. 66, is a large-scale setting of the Requiem composed by Benjamin Britten mostly in 1961 and completed in January 1962. [1] The War Requiem was performed for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was built after the original fourteenth-century structure was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid. The traditional Latin texts are interspersed, in telling juxtaposition, with extra-liturgical poems by Wilfred Owen, written during World War I.

In musical composition, the opus number is the "work number" that is assigned to a composition, or to a set of compositions, to indicate the chronological order of the composer's production. Opus numbers are used to distinguish among compositions with similar titles; the word is abbreviated as "Op." for a single work, or "Opp." when referring to more than one work.

Requiem mass celebrated for the repose of the soul or souls of one or more deceased persons.

A Requiem or Requiem Mass, also known as Mass for the dead or Mass of the dead, is a Mass in the Catholic Church offered for the repose of the soul or souls of one or more deceased persons, using a particular form of the Roman Missal. It is usually, but not necessarily, celebrated in the context of a funeral.

Benjamin Britten English composer, conductor, and pianist

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten was an English composer, conductor and pianist. He was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music, with a range of works including opera, other vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces. His best-known works include the opera Peter Grimes (1945), the War Requiem (1962) and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1945).


The work is scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys' choir, organ, and two orchestras (a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra). The chamber orchestra accompanies the intimate settings of the English poetry, while soprano, choirs and orchestra are used for the Latin sections; all forces are combined in the conclusion. The Requiem has a duration of approximately 80–85 minutes. In 2019, War Requiem was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". [2]

A soprano[soˈpraːno] is a type of classical female singing voice and has the highest vocal range of all voice types. The soprano's vocal range (using scientific pitch notation) is from approximately middle C (C4) = 261 Hz to "high A" (A5) =880 Hz in choral music, or to "soprano C" (C6, two octaves above middle C) =1046 Hz or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which often encompasses the melody. The soprano voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, soubrette, lyric, spinto, and dramatic soprano.

Tenor is a male voice type in classical music whose vocal range lies between the countertenor and baritone. The tenor's vocal range extends up to C5. The low extreme for tenors is roughly A2 (two As below middle C). At the highest extreme, some tenors can sing up to the second F above middle C (F5). The tenor voice type is generally divided into the leggero tenor, lyric tenor, spinto tenor, dramatic tenor, heldentenor, and tenor buffo or spieltenor.

A baritone is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range lies between the bass and the tenor voice types. Originally from the Greek βαρύτονος (barýtonos), meaning heavy sounding, music for this voice is typically written in the range from the second F below middle C to the F above middle C (i.e. F2–F4) in choral music, and from the second A below middle C to the A above middle C (A2 to A4) in operatic music, but can be extended at either end. The baritone voice type is generally divided into the baryton-Martin baritone (light baritone), lyric baritone, Kavalierbariton, Verdi baritone, dramatic baritone, baryton-noble baritone, and the bass-baritone.


The War Requiem, first performed on 30 May 1962, was commissioned to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was built after the original 14th-century structure was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid. The reconsecration was an occasion for an arts festival, for which Michael Tippett also wrote his opera King Priam . [3]

Coventry Cathedral Church in West Midlands, England

The Cathedral Church of St Michael, commonly known as Coventry Cathedral, is the seat of the Bishop of Coventry and the Diocese of Coventry, and is part of the Church of England in Coventry, West Midlands, England. The current (9th) bishop is Christopher Cocksworth and the current Dean is John Witcombe.

Coventry Blitz German bombing raids on the English city of Coventry in World War II

The Coventry Blitz was a series of bombing raids that took place on the English city of Coventry. The city was bombed many times during the Second World War by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). The most devastating of these attacks occurred on the evening of 14 November 1940 and continued into the morning of 15 November.

Michael Tippett English composer

Sir Michael Kemp Tippett was an English composer who rose to prominence during and immediately after the Second World War. In his lifetime he was sometimes ranked with his contemporary Benjamin Britten as one of the leading British composers of the 20th century. Among his best-known works are the oratorio A Child of Our Time, the orchestral Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and the opera The Midsummer Marriage.

Britten, a pacifist, was inspired by the commission, which gave him complete freedom in deciding what to compose. He chose to set the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead interwoven with nine poems about war by the English poet Wilfred Owen. Owen, who was born in 1893, was serving as the commander of a rifle company when he was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal in France, just one week before the Armistice. Although he was virtually unknown at the time of his death, he has subsequently come to be revered as one of the great war poets.

Pacifism opposition to war and violence

Pacifism is opposition to war, militarism, or violence. The word pacifism was coined by the French peace campaigner Émile Arnaud (1864–1921) and adopted by other peace activists at the tenth Universal Peace Congress in Glasgow in 1901. A related term is ahimsa, which is a core philosophy in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. While modern connotations are recent, having been explicated since the 19th century, ancient references abound.

Wilfred Owen English poet and soldier (1893-1918)

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare was heavily influenced by his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, and stood in stark contrast both to the public perception of war at the time and to the confidently patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are "Dulce et Decorum est", "Insensibility", "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Futility", "Spring Offensive" and "Strange Meeting".

War poet

A war poet is a poet who participates in a war and writes about his experiences, or a non-combatant who write poems about war. While the term is applied especially to those who served during World War I, the term can be applied to a poet of any nationality writing about any war, including Homer's Iliad, from around the 8th century BC, and the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, that celebrated the actual battle of 991, as well as poetry of the American and the Spanish Civil War, the Crimean War, etc.

Philip Reed has discussed the progression of Britten's composition of the War Requiem in the Cambridge Music Handbook publication on the work. [4] Britten himself acknowledged the stylistic influence of Requiems by other composers, such as Giuseppe Verdi's, on his own composition. [5]

Requiem (Verdi) musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass by Giuseppe Verdi

The Messa da Requiem is a musical setting of the Catholic funeral mass (Requiem) for four soloists, double choir and orchestra by Giuseppe Verdi. It was composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet and novelist whom Verdi admired. The first performance, at the San Marco church in Milan on 22 May 1874, marked the first anniversary of Manzoni's death. The work was at one time called the Manzoni Requiem. It is rarely performed in liturgy, but rather in concert form of around 85–90 minutes in length. Musicologist David Rosen calls it 'probably the most frequently performed major choral work composed since the compilation of Mozart's Requiem'.

Britten dedicated the work to Roger Burney, Piers Dunkerley, David Gill, and Michael Halliday. Burney and Halliday, who died in the war, were friends of Peter Pears and Britten, respectively. According to the Britten–Pears Foundation's War Requiem website, Dunkerley, one of Britten's closest friends, took part in the 1944 Normandy landings. Unlike the other dedicatees, he survived the war but committed suicide in June 1959, two months before his wedding. None of the other dedicatees have known graves, but are commemorated on memorials to the missing. [6]

<i>Brittens Children</i> book by John Bridcut

Britten's Children is a scholarly 2006 book by John Bridcut that describes the English composer Benjamin Britten's relationship with several adolescent boys. Bridcut has been praised for treating such a sensitive subject in "an impeccably unsensational tone". The Britten-Pears Foundation described the book as having been "enthusiastically received as shedding new light on one of the most interesting aspects of Britten's life and career, in a study that is thoroughly researched, wonderfully readable and thought-provoking". Bridcut's book followed his television documentary Britten's Children shown on BBC2 in June 2004.

Peter Pears British opera singer

Sir Peter Neville Luard Pears was an English tenor. His career was closely associated with the composer Benjamin Britten, his personal and professional partner for nearly forty years.


The musical forces are divided into three groups that alternate and interact with each other throughout the piece, finally fully combining at the end of the last movement. The soprano soloist and choir are accompanied by the full orchestra, the baritone and tenor soloists are accompanied by the chamber orchestra, and the boys' choir is accompanied by a small positive organ (this last group ideally being situated at some distance from the full orchestra). This group produces a very strange, distant sound. The soprano and choir and the boys' choir sing the traditional Latin Requiem text, while the tenor and baritone sing poems by Wilfred Owen, interspersed throughout.

The full orchestra consists of the following instrumentation.

The chamber orchestra consists of the following instrumentation.

Movements and structure

The work consists of six movements:

  1. Requiem aeternam (10 minutes)
    1. Requiem aeternam (chorus and boys' choir)
    2. "What passing bells" (tenor solo) – Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth"
    3. Kyrie eleison (chorus)
  2. Dies irae (27 minutes)
    1. Dies irae (chorus)
    2. "Bugles sang" (baritone solo) – Owen's "But I was Looking at the Permanent Stars"
    3. Liber scriptus (soprano solo and semi-chorus)
    4. "Out there, we walked quite friendly up to death" (tenor and baritone soli) – Owen's "The Next War"
    5. Recordare (women's chorus)
    6. Confutatis (men's chorus)
    7. "Be slowly lifted up" (baritone solo) – Owen's "Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action"
    8. Reprise of Dies irae (chorus)
    9. Lacrimosa (soprano and chorus) interspersed with "Move him, move him" (tenor solo) - Owen's "Futility"
  3. Offertorium (10 minutes)
    1. Domine Jesu Christe (boys' choir)
    2. Sed signifer sanctus (chorus)
    3. Quam olim Abrahae (chorus)
    4. Isaac and Abram (tenor and baritone soli) – Owen's "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young"
    5. Hostias et preces tibi (boys' choir)
    6. Reprise of Quam olim Abrahae (chorus)
  4. Sanctus (10 minutes)
    1. Sanctus and Benedictus (soprano solo and chorus)
    2. "After the blast of lightning" (baritone solo) – Owen's "The End"
  5. Agnus Dei (4 minutes)
    1. Agnus Dei (chorus) interspersed with "One ever hangs" (chorus; tenor solo) – Owen's "At a Calvary near the Ancre"
  6. Libera me (23 minutes)
    1. Libera me (soprano solo and chorus)
    2. Strange Meeting ("It seemed that out of battle I escaped") (tenor and baritone soli) – Owen's "Strange Meeting"
    3. In paradisum (organ, boys' chorus, soprano and mixed chorus)
    4. Conclusion – Requiem Aeternam and Requiescant in Pace (organ, boys' choir and mixed chorus)

Musical analysis

The interval of a tritone between C and F is a recurring motif, the occurrence of which unifies the entire work. The interval is used both in contexts that emphasize the harmonic distance between C and F and those that resolve them harmonically, mirroring the theme of conflict and reconciliation present throughout the work. [7] The Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, and Libera me movements end in a brief choral phrase, consisting mainly of slow half notes, each first and second phrase ending on a tritone's discord, with every last (i. e. third) phrase resolving to an F-major chord; while at the end of the Agnus Dei the tenor (in his only transition from the Owen poems to the Requiem liturgy, on the key words, Dona nobis pacem – Give us peace) outlines a perfect fifth from C to G before moving down to F to resolve the chorus's final chord. At the end of the Dies irae, the tenor sings (from Owen's "Futility") "O what, what made fatuous sunbeams toil, to break earth's sleep at all?" The notes of "at all" form the tritone and lead into the choir's formal resolution. In the final Owen setting, "Strange Meeting", one of the most prominent expressions of the tritone is sung by the tenor, addressing an opposing soldier with the words "Strange friend". This poem is accompanied by sporadic detached chords from two violins and a viola, which include the tritone as part of a dominant seventh chord. At the end of the poem, the final string chord resolves to the tonic, bringing the work to its final, reconciliatory In paradisum. On a more practical level, Britten facilitated musical execution of the tritone in the closing bars by having the F sung in one voice, but the C in another. [8]

Four other motifs that usually occur together are distinct brass fanfares of the Dies irae: a rising arpeggio, a falling arpeggio followed by a repeated note, a repeated fourth in a dotted rhythm ending in a diminished arpeggio, and a descending scale. These motifs form a substantial part of the melodic material of the piece: the setting of "Bugles sang" is composed almost entirely of variations of them.

Another linking feature can be found in the opening of the final movement, Libera Me, where the slow march tune in the double basses (preceded by two drums outlining the rhythm) replicates the more-rapid opening theme of the first poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth.

One striking juxtaposition is found in the Offertorium, a fugue in the repeating three-part-time scheme 6
, 9
, 6
where the choir sings of God's promise to Abraham ("Quam olim Abrahae promisisti, et semini eius" – "which you once promised Abraham and his seed"). This frames Owen's retelling of the offering of Isaac, in which the angel tells Abraham to:

'... offer the ram of pride instead of him.'
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
and half the seed of Europe, one by one.

As the male soloists sing the last line repeatedly, the boys sing "Hostias et preces tibi, Domine" ("Sacrifice and prayers we offer thee, Lord"), paralleling the sacrifice of the Mass with the sacrifice of "half the seed of Europe" (a reference to World War I). The "reprise" of "Quam olim Abrahae" is sung in inversion, diminuendo instead of crescendo.

The whole of the Offertorium is a reference to Britten's earlier Canticle No. 2 "Abraham and Isaac" from 1952. Britten here uses much of the musical material of the earlier work, but the music in the Requiem is twisted into much more sinister forms.

Although there are a few occasions in which members of one orchestra join the other, the full forces do not join together until the latter part of the last movement, when the tenor and baritone sing the final line of Owen's poem "Strange Meeting" ("Let us sleep now ...") as "In Paradisum deducant" ("Into Paradise lead them ...") is sung first by the boys' choir, then by the full choir (in 8-part canon), and finally by the soprano. The boys' choir echoes the Requiem aeternam from the beginning of the work, and the full choir ends on the resolved tritone motif.

Premiere and performances

For the opening performance, it was intended that the soloists should be Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau [9] [10] (a German), to demonstrate a spirit of unity. Close to the premiere, the Soviet authorities did not permit Vishnevskaya to travel to Coventry for the event, [11] although she was later permitted to leave to make the recording in London. With only ten days' notice, Heather Harper stepped in and performed the soprano role.

Although the Coventry Cathedral Festival Committee had hoped Britten would be the sole conductor for the work's premiere, shoulder pain forced his withdrawal from the main conducting role. [12] He did, however, conduct the chamber orchestra, and this spawned a tradition of separate conductors that the work does not require and Britten never envisaged. [13] The premiere took place on 30 May 1962, in the rebuilt cathedral with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Meredith Davies [14] (accompanying soprano and chorus), and the Melos Ensemble, conducted by the composer (accompanying tenor and baritone). [15] At Britten's request, there was no applause following the performance. [16] It was a triumph, and critics and audiences at this and subsequent performances in London and abroad hailed it as a contemporary masterpiece. [17] Writing to his sister after the premiere, Britten said of his music, "I hope it'll make people think a bit." On the title page of the score he quoted Wilfred Owen:

My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity...
All a poet can do today is warn.

Because of time zones, the southern hemisphere premiere was about 12 hours ahead of that in North America, though they were on the same day, 27 July 1963. The southern hemisphere premiere was in Wellington, New Zealand, with John Hopkins conducting the New Zealand National Orchestra (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) and the Royal Christchurch Musical Society, with soloists Peter Baillie, Graeme Gorton and Angela Shaw. The North American premiere was at Tanglewood, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra with soloists Phyllis Curtin, Nicholas Di Virgilio, Tom Krause and choruses from Chorus Pro Musica and the Columbus Boychoir, featuring boy soprano Thomas Friedman. [18]

The Dutch premiere took place during the Holland Festival, in 1964. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir were conducted by Bernard Haitink; the chamber orchestra (consisting of Concertgebouw Orchestra instrumentalists) by Britten himself. The soloists were Vishnevskaya, Fischer-Dieskau and Pears, in their first public performance together.

The English Chamber Choir performed the work at Your Country Needs You, an evening of "voices in opposition to war" organised by The Crass Collective in November 2002.

To commemorate the eve of the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the original cathedral, a performance of the Requiem took place in the new cathedral on 13 November 2010 [19] , featuring the soprano Claire Rutter, the tenor Daniel Norman, baritone Stephen Gadd, The Parliament Choir, Saint Michael's singers, Deutscher Chor London, the ESO Chamber Orchestra, The Southbank Sinfonia and The Girl Choristers of Coventry Cathedral. It was conducted by Simon Over and Paul Leddington Wright [20] . A recording was made and broadcast a day later on Classic FM [21] . A second performance with the same performers took place on 17 November 2010 at Westminster Cathedral [22] .

A 50th anniversary performance was given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons at Coventry Cathedral on 30 May 2012. [23]


War Requiem
Studio album by
Genre Classical
Label Decca Records
Producer John Culshaw
Benjamin Britten chronology
Sonata for Cello and Piano
War Requiem
Psalm CL
Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svg [24]

The first recording, featuring Vishnevskaya, Fischer-Dieskau and Pears, with the London Symphony Orchestra and The Bach Choir conducted by Britten, was produced by Decca in 1963. Within five months of its release it sold 200,000 copies, an unheard-of number for a piece of contemporary classical music at that time. [25] Recording producer John Culshaw reports that Vishnevskaya threw a tantrum during the recording, as she believed – not having performed the work before – she was being insulted by being placed with the choir instead of at the front with the male soloists. [26] [27] The newest (2013) CD reissue of this recording includes 50 minutes of surreptitiously taped rehearsal footage at the time of the recording.

Other recordings [28] of the work include the following:

Film adaptation

In 1988, the British film director Derek Jarman made a screen adaptation of War Requiem of the same title, with the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, produced by Don Boyd and financed by the BBC. It features the final film performance of Laurence Olivier, in the role of an ageing war veteran.

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The Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance has been awarded since 1961. There have been several minor changes to the name of the award over this time:

Requiem (Fauré) requiem mass composed by Gabriel Fauré

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Britten's War Requiem (1963) is the first recording of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. It featured Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Melos Ensemble, The Bach Choir and the Highgate School Choir, and was conducted by Britten himself. The recording took place in the Kingsway Hall in London and was produced by John Culshaw for Decca. Within five months of its release in May 1963 it sold 200,000 copies, an unheard-of number for a piece of contemporary classical music at that time.


  1. Philip Reed "The War Requiem in Progress" in Britten: War Requiem by Mervyn Cooke (1996).
  2. Andrews, Travis M. (March 20, 2019). "Jay-Z, a speech by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and 'Schoolhouse Rock!' among recordings deemed classics by Library of Congress". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 25, 2019.
  3. "Purpose". Caltech. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  4. Evans, Peter (August 1997). "Review of Britten: "War Requiem" (Cambridge Music Handbook series), by Mervyn Cooke". Music & Letters. 78 (3): 466–468. JSTOR   737454.
  5. Paul Kildea (18 July 2003). "In his own words". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 10 May 2008.
  6. "Dedicatees". Britten-Pears Foundation War Requiem web site. Retrieved 14 November 2014. Further details of the war service of Burney, Gill and Halliday are available on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
  7. Arnold Whittall, The Music of Britten and Tippett, Cambridge University Press, 1982 ( ISBN   0-521-38501-6).
  8. Michael Berkeley (21 June 2003). "Come let us mumble". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 20 May 2007.
  9. Stephen Moss (31 March 2000). "Golden cords". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 20 May 2007.
  10. Martin Kettle (20 May 2005). "It is the start of the final episode". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 18 May 2007.
  11. Richard Fairman (5 May 2012). "Battle of Britten". Ft.com.
  12. Reed, Philip & Cooke, Mervyn (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten: Vol. 5, 1858-1965. Boydell Press, 2010: p. 335.
  13. Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, p. 458
  14. Philip Reed (30 March 2005). "Obituary for Meredith Davies". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 18 May 2007.
  15. Britten-Pears Foundation first performance
  16. See souvenir programme of the 1962 Coventry Cathedral Festival and Michael Foster: "The Idea Was Good – the story of Britten's War Requiem" pub. Coventry Cathedral Books 2012
  17. See Peter Evans "Britten since the War Requiem" in Listener, 28 May 1964: cited in Cooke, p.79 (1996)
  18. Lang, Paul Henry (October 1963). "Current Chronicle: Lenox, Massachusetts". The Musical Quarterly. 49 (4): 510–517. doi:10.1093/mq/XLIX.4.510 . Retrieved 1 May 2008.
  19. "War Requiem concert broadcast on Classic FM". Classic FM. Retrieved 2018-04-12.
  20. "Flyer for War Requiem Coventry 13 November 2010" (PDF). Parliament Choir. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  21. "War Requiem concert broadcast on Classic FM". Parliament Choir. Retrieved 2018-04-12.
  22. "Flyer for War Requiem 17 November 2010" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-04-12.
  23. "50th Anniversary Performance: Britten's War Requiem". City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. 30 May 2012. Archived from the original on 4 March 2012.
  24. https://www.allmusic.com/album/c40645
  25. Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1992: p411.
  26. Culshaw Putting the Record Straight (1981): pp. 312-13
  27. Humphreys, Garry (18 December 2012). "Galina Vishnevskaya". The Independent. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  28. Andrew Clements (23 April 1999). "Keynotes". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved 20 May 2007.