Britten's War Requiem is a difficult work. It stares right down the barrel of the moral gun, while addressing central concerns within the composer's life. As a conscientious objector, the message of peace over violence had particular power. The work's premiere in Coventry Cathedral 50 years ago provided fitting psychogeography for its message, while the line-up of soloists - one from Russia, one from Britain, one from Germany - offered vocal détente.
In creating a memoir of that first performance, for which Galina Vishnevskaya was sadly not allowed to attend, Coventry Cathedral Books and author Michael Foster could have easily dodged issues and created a one-sided souvenir, yet their new publication is marked by admirable breadth and depth of approach.
Foster looks at the work in the widest context, looking at the history of the Requiem Mass - including comparisons with Brahms's German Requiem at which Britten would have blanched - and the composer's own difficult relationship with the authorities and the subject of war. Furthermore, Foster underlines the tradition of British musical acts of remembrance, from Elgar's Spirit of England via Bliss and Foulds to Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem.
Rather than a one-off, the War Requiem is part of Britten's on-going investigation into issues of power and peace and Foster not only looks at well-known works, but also at putative, abandoned and less-celebrated projects. Written with the intent of educating rather than assuming, true Britten cognoscenti will already know much of what is presented here. Yet the approachability and clarity of the text and the sweeping history of this work make for an impressive well-illustrated volume.