Benjamin Britten – War requiem


Britten’s War Requiem was written for the consecration ceremony of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. It was the third cathedral in the city. The first one was built in the twelfth century, and used until the sixteenth. By that time there was the St Michaels, but it was only designated cathedral in 1918. In an air raid in 1940 it was bombed, along with the rest of the city.

Coventry in 1940 was an industrial town, and important for the war effort. As such, it can be seen as a valid target for bombing. What happened however was an act of barbarity. 36000 incendiary bombs destroyed around 4300 home in one night, two thirds of the city was flattened in the attack. Only around 600 people were killed, because most inhabitants already fled the city because of earlier raids.

German minister of propaganda Goebels referred to cities in similar bombings as “Coventried”, and the attack was reason for the British bombing tactics to change from precision bombing to carpet boming entire cities with incendiary bombs, out of retaliation.

The old building of Coventry Cathedral stands side by side to the new, modernist building. Lacking a roof, it stands as a monument to both the atrocity of the attack and the reconciliation afterwards.

Britten’s music is a mix between traditional latin liturgical texts and war poetry by first world war soldier Wilfred Owen.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

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