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In this handsomely produced volume Michael Foster, coordinator of the 60th anniversary musical celebrations at Coventry Cathedral, explores the story behind the 1962 world premiere of Britten’s masterwork, the War Requiem. He digs deep: this is a rewarding book, chock-full of nuggets.

Foster’s starting point is instructive: that it was Britten’s besetting ambition to produce a major choral work that might stand on a par with The Dream of Gerontius or Belshazzar’s Feast (one might surely add A Child of Our Time by Britten’s friend Michael Tippett, whose opera King Priam formed part of the same opening festival).

Britten had previously toyed with various promising projects, principally in collaboration with Ronald Duncan, his Lucretia librettist: in particular, he had hopes of paying a large-scale tribute with an oratorio based on the life and teachings of pacifist leader Mahatma Gandhi. A work on St Peter also appealed to him.

In the event it was a fusion of the Requiem Mass with Wilfred Owen’s poetry that won the day for the Coventry commission. Foster explores in meticulous detail its genesis and reception, from every angle. In particular he outlines the numerous problems that vexed rehearsal and performance, and which caused Britten, in his disappointment, to comment to his chosen fellow-conductor, Meredith Davies, ‘The idea was good’ – a remark which provides Foster’s painstaking and absorbing tome with its title.

Doubts about the orchestra (the CBSO) were a recurring concern; so was a far from ideal chorus; the intended Soviet soprano (Rostropovich’s wife Galina Vishnevskaya) was admirably replaced by a last-minute English soloist (Heather Harper). Foster teases out the stages by which the libretto emerged, with some casualties; assesses the moral standpoint; compares other Requiem settings; points to the daring of much of the musical writing. The urgent demands of rehearsal time resulted in a major casualty: the ejection from the cathedral (to a local theatre) of Bliss’s commission, The Beatitudes.

This is a splendidly thought-out book, amply illustrated, carefully researched, perceptive and thorough. Foster knows his material, and marshals it with skill, dividing it with clear sections and headings. It surely merits a place alongside the historic BBC Music Guides.

RODERIC DUNNETT Read the full review on Agora Classica


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