During the night of 14 November 1940, the 14th-century St Michael's Cathedral in the centre of Coventry was almost completely destroyed by the bombs the Luftwaffe rained down on the city during the Coventry blitz. The same night, more than 4,000 homes were destroyed, along with three-quarters of the city's factories. Benjamin Britten, a conscientious objector, was living as an exile in America at the time. Twenty-two years later, a new cathedral, designed by architect Basil Spence on a site directly adjacent to the ruins of the original, was consecrated, and on 30 May 1962, Britten's War Requiem, commissioned for the occasion, was premiered.
The War Requiem is a masterpiece of the deepest emotional and moral depth. It is also an enormous contraption of musical ingenuity. For some people the two things simply don't go together, and it has always been a controversial work, with a feeling (unjustified as far as I am concerned) that its authenticity is fatally compromised by this professional gloss, as well as by its popularity. Britten's extraordinary facility as a composer was, early on, felt to be akin to heartlessness or lack of profundity, and his homosexuality and his conscientious objector status in the second world war, after his return from America in 1942, only added to the mainstream suspicion that he was a rum cove, not to be trusted, outside the emotional or social mainstream. The commission to write a piece for Coventry was a measure of how central as a creative artist he had become, despite this difficult history. But the public appeal of the work - the LP sold more than 200,000 copies - created renewed suspicion among highbrow critics and even disconcerted the composer himself.
Looking at Britten's development over the period between his earliest masterpieces and his middle style, what is striking is the conscious choice he made to become more austere and less overtly, less flamboyantly engaged. The rebelliousness of Our Hunting Fathers, an anti-war, almost anti-politics song cycle of 1936, co-conceived with WH Auden; the raw emotion and scintillation of the Rimbaud cycle for voice and string orchestra Les Illuminations; the melodic passion of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, written for and performed by the composer and his lover at the Wigmore Hall on 23 September 1942 (the day the Russian counter-attack at Stalingrad commenced and gassings began at Auschwitz) - these gave way to the subtler inflections of operas such as Billy Budd and the Turn of the Screw.
For the Requiem, however, Britten turned outwards once again, employing techniques he had honed over the previous decade in the creation of a musical engine harnessed to his greatest public passion - his pacifism. As he told friends at the time, it wasn't, for him, the music that mattered on this very public occasion but the message, a striking sentiment from such a peerless and deep-dyed musician.