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50 years ago: Benjamin Britten's war protest in Germany

Marita Berg / alsJune 6, 2013

Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" is a mass commemorating those who died during two world wars, but the work also serves as a call for peace. Its German debut came 50 years ago - on June 6, 1963 - in Munich.

Coventry Cathedral (c) picture-alliance/Arco Images
Image: picture alliance/Arco Images GmbH

Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" is considered one of the most important choral works to address the wars of the 20th century. The passionate pacifist composed the piece as a commission to mark the consecration of England's new Coventry Cathedral, also known as St. Michael's. It premiered there on May 30, 1962.

German bombers had destroyed the medieval cathedral during the Second World War. More than 500 people died on the night of those bombings, which also destroyed most of the city's buildings. Afterwards, German propagandists boasted of the bombings: "Blasts complete the annihilation in England's Midlands." A poet's warning

"My subject is War, and the pity of War / … All a poet can do today is warn." Benjamin Britten placed these words by British poet Wilfred Owen at the beginning of his requiem, and interspersed his Latin Mass for the Dead with lines from nine poems about war by Owen. The poet had written the works as a soldier during World War I, and they depict the harrowing experiences of the era - the senseless suffering and fatalities in the trenches - while also exposing the glorification of war by the state. Owen died during the last days of World War II at the young age of 25. 'One of my most important works'

For Benjamin Britten, Owen's poems were about the rejection of destructive forces in the world. The composer viewed them as a kind of commentary on the text of the Mass for the Dead. While "War Requiem" mourns the countless deaths during the war, its purpose was also to be a sign of reconciliation between Great Britain and Germany. And Britten was convinced that reconciliation was possible only when the nations maintained a dialogue. Those convictions were reflected at the premiere of the work, where German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang in Conventry at Britten's request.

The composer had written to the then 37-year-old singer: "The piece I am writing will be one of my most important works. Owen's war poems are designed for tenor and baritone. They require singing of the utmost beauty, intensity and seriousness. Peter Pears agreed to sing the part of tenor, and now I'll be so bold to ask you to sing the part of baritone." Message of reconcilliation

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau immediately agreed. He and Pears sang on May 30, 1962, with Britten conducting the "War Requiem" in Coventry. Fischer-Dieskau called it "one of my most important artistic experiences." And not only that, he also worked to get the choral piece performed across the English Channel.

Fischer-Dieskau went on to sing his part during the German premiere on June 6, 1963, at Munich's Herkulessaal. Rafael Kubelik conducted the Tölzer Knabenchor, as well as the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir.

Those in attendance said the concert hall was silent for a quarter of an hour after the performance. Fischer-Dieskau himself recalled that the emotional intensity during the last song, "Let Us Sleep Now," was hard to bear.

"The performance created such an intense atmosphere that I was completely drained at the end," he said. "I kept thinking about my fallen friends and the suffering of the past." Requiem for Dresden's Frauenkirche

Three years later, the "War Requiem" was also able to scale the Iron Curtain. Its first performance in the GDR was in Dresden's Martin Luther Church on February 13, 1965 - 20 years after the bombing of the city - with Theo Adam and Dresden's Staatskapelle, under the direction of Kurt Sanderling. Benjamin Britten sent greetings at the time, saying, "I was very moved to hear that my requiem is supposed to be performed soon in Dresden, and that it will occur on one of the several days of those horrible events."

Yet that was not the last of the symbolically-laden performances in Dresden. On October 25, 2008, the "War Requiem" was sung under the direction of Claus Peter Flor in Dresden's Frauenkirche, which had meanwhile been rebuilt. The "Sächsische Zeitung" newspaper wrote at the time: "Seldom do sound and space meld together in such harmony. It seemed as though Britten had anticipated the reconstruction of Dresden's Frauenkirche, und unconsciously dedicated his requiem to the building."

A crowd is gathered outside of the Frauenkirche in Dresden for its reopening in 2005 (AP Photo/Fabian Bimmer)
Dresden's rebuilt Frauenkirche during its reopening in 2005Image: AP
German baritone and conductor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
Baritone and conductor Dietrich Fischer-DieskauImage: Getty Images
Benjamin Britten during rehearsals for "War Requiem" (c) AP
Benjamin Britten during rehearsals for "War Requiem"Image: AP
Inside the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in England (AP Photo)
The destruction of Coventry Cathedral, as seen in 1945Image: AP