We mark the premiere performance on May 30, 1962 – 60 years ago today – of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Completed in early 1962, the War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration of the “new” Coventry Cathedral, which was built to replace the original fourteenth century cathedral that had been destroyed on the evening and night of November 14 and 15, 1940.
Today’s post will deal entirely with the events that led up to the composition of Britten’s War Requiem: the destruction of Coventry’s Cathedral of St. Michael, the extraordinary spirit of forgiveness and redemption that came to be identified with its ruins, and the New Cathedral that was built between 1956 and 1962. We cannot appreciate the meaning and spirit of Britten’s War Requiem unless we first come to grips with the meaning and spirit of the destruction and rebirth of Coventry Cathedral. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will get into the specifics of the Requiem itself, along with a recommended recording of the piece.
Coventry and its Cathedral
Coventry is a city in the West Midlands of England, 95 miles north-west of London. Founded by the Romans, by the fourteenth century Coventry had become a major center of England’s fabric trade. The cloth makers of Coventry were particularly famous for a blue fabric called “Coventry blue.” So permanent was the color that it led to the coining of the phrases “as true as Coventry blue” or in short, “true blue.”
Such was the wealth of the city that during the late fourteenth century, a magnificent church was built in the Saint Michael district of the city center using red sandstone quarried in nearby Staffordshire. The Church of St. Michael – at 293 feet in length, 140 feet in width, with a floor area of over 24,000 square feet and featuring a towering spire 295 feet high – was the largest parish church in all of England. …
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