Reflecting On 'War Requiem' 50 Years After Premiere

Fifty years ago on Wednesday, composer Benjamin Britten's haunting work "War Requiem" premiered at the Coventry Cathedral in England. Melissa Block and Robert Siegel have more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" is a harrowing and haunting reflection on the toll of the war.

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SIEGEL: Britten premiered his composition 50 years ago today at the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England. At the time, the work was meant to mark two occasions, the destruction of the Medieval Cathedral during a World War II air raid back in 1940 and its reconsecration more than 20 years later.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On the score's title page, Benjamin Britten quotes the British soldier and poet, Wilfred Owens. My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is to warn.

Owens' poetry is used throughout this choral work in combination with the text of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead.

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SIEGEL: Benjamin Britten was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. His "War Requiem" was intended to denounce the wickedness of war, but not the wickedness of man. In fact, for that first performance in 1962, Britten deliberately chose three soloists from three different countries - a British tenor, a German baritone and a Russian soprano from the Soviet Union, ultimately barred from traveling to the premier.

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BLOCK: Afterward, the composer wrote to a friend and said of the music, whether I have succeeded, I can't tell, but anyhow, it has had certainly a remarkable extra musical success which, at any rate, may make people think a bit.

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BLOCK: And so, today, 50 years later, we remember Benjamin Britten's masterpiece.

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