Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)
Britten was steeped in the English choral tradition and its liturgical music. In 1962, he was able to fulfil his long-held desire to compose a large‑scale choral work when he was asked to provide music for the dedication of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt after Luftwaffe bombs Coventry’s beloved 14th-century Cathedral. An important symbolic occasion, it allowed Britten to air in public his pacifist beliefs and his faith in humanity’s capacity for compassion. In a break from tradition, he blended the traditional Latin mass for the dead with nine of Wilfred Owens’ poems from WW1. In Britten’s own words, he offered the War Requiem as “an act of reparation”. On the title page of the score, he quoted the poet, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity …All a poet can do today is warn.”
The Requiem requires huge forces: a very large orchestra, a smaller chamber orchestra which accompanies the soloists, two organs, three soloists, main chorus, and boys’ choir. When it was first recorded, the Requiem sold 200,000 copies within five months — a rare example of a contemporary work that was immediately embraced by the public.
Stravinsky noticed, and sniped, "Behold the critics as they vie in abasement before the wonder of native-born genius. Kleenex at the ready, and feeling as though one had failed to stand up for God Save The Queen, one goes from the critics to the music…”
Britten could give as well as take, saying of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, "I liked the opera very much. Everything but the music."