MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2024
60,000 reviews
... and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Some items
to consider

new MWI
Current reviews

old MWI
pre-2023 reviews

paid for

Acte Prealable Polish recordings

Forgotten Recordings
Forgotten Recordings
All Forgotten Records Reviews

Troubadisc Weinberg- TROCD01450

All Troubadisc reviews

FOGHORN Classics

Brahms String Quartets

All Foghorn Reviews

All HDTT reviews

Songs to Harp from
the Old and New World

all Nimbus reviews

all tudor reviews

Follow us on Twitter

Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
Rob Barnett
Editor in Chief
John Quinn
Contributing Editor
Ralph Moore
   David Barker
Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger


Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical
All Naxos reviews

Hyperion recordings
All Hyperion reviews

Foghorn recordings
All Foghorn reviews

Troubadisc recordings
All Troubadisc reviews

all Bridge reviews

all cpo reviews

Divine Art recordings
Click to see New Releases
Get 10% off using code musicweb10
All Divine Art reviews

All Eloquence reviews

Lyrita recordings
All Lyrita Reviews


Wyastone New Releases
Obtain 10% discount

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing



Coventry Cathedral or War Requiem

The Idea Was Good - The story of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem
By Michael Foster
ISBN: 978-0-9544197-1-4
142pp incl. Bibliography
First published 2012
Retail price £12.75

Experience Classicsonline

This book has been published under the imprint of Coventry Cathedral to mark the 50th anniversaries of the cathedral itself and of Britten’s War Requiem, which was commissioned for the arts festival that coincided with the consecration of the cathedral on 25 May 1962. The première of Britten’s new work took place in the cathedral on 30 May 1962. Fifty years later, to the day, that first performance was commemorated with a magnificent reading of the work by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Andris Nelsons; I had the good fortune to attend that event (review). 

Michael Foster is an established writer on matters musical; his previous publications include a fascinating book on Elgar’s ‘Apostles Trilogy’ - Plotting Gigantic Worx (2003). In this new book he chronicles the gestation and creation of a work about which he clearly cares very deeply.
He outlines the story of the rebuilding of the cathedral and then goes on to relate in much more detail how War Requiem came into being. He also gives a full account of the problems encountered in preparing and giving the first performance. Along the way there’s a considerable amount of interesting information. I didn’t know, for example, that Coventry City Council actually opposed the grant of a building licence, believing that in the days of post-war austerity there were greater priorities in their city - there’s a contemporary resonance for you! To his eternal credit, the Minister of Works, Sir David Eccles, saw the bigger picture and issued the licence in May 1954. I was also very interested to read of the pivotal role in the commission played by John Lowe, sometime Head of BBC Midland Region Music, who was Artistic Director of the Consecration Festival at Coventry Cathedral. Fascinatingly, Lowe went on to direct Liverpool’s Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965. In that capacity he invited Britten to write a new work to mark the 1966 opening of the city’s Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. Britten declined the commission: one can only wonder what he might have written for a cathedral that turned out to have an acoustic even more challenging than the one at Coventry.
It’s well known that the run-up to the première was fraught with difficulties, not least that the choir, formed specially for the Consecration Festival, wasn’t really up to the job. Foster paints a vivid picture of all this without overwhelming the reader with minutiae. He makes one appreciate, for example, what a gamble it was to put on so complex a score in what was then a completely untried acoustic. He’s also a good guide to the gestation of the work, showing the thread that links War Requiem back to the pacifist views that Britten had held from an early age and forward to Owen Wingrave. There’s valuable discussion, for example, of the aborted project in the 1940s for a post-Hiroshima oratorio entitled Mea Culpa and the draft libretto by Ronald Duncan is printed in full.
Throughout, Michael Foster writes in a clear, very readable style. It’s obvious that he knows his subject thoroughly and not only does he know the history of the work very well indeed but also he understands and loves the music itself. This is evident not least from the detailed and very good analysis of the work, section by section, that forms the first section of ‘supplementary material’ in Part Three of the book. Incidentally, Foster’s interest in the work is anything but academic: he knows it from the inside, as it were, as a bass in the CBSO Chorus in which capacity he took part in the 50th anniversary performance.
The one disappointment, for me, lies in the section on recordings of the work. Foster gives details of sixteen audio recordings and two DVDs, one of which is a film by Derek Jarman that uses Britten’s own recording as its sound-track. Sadly, however, he devotes just two pages to discussion of the recordings. Most of that is devoted to Britten’s own, celebrated recording and the only other one that he mentions is the fine live performance led by Ernest Ansermet (review) - Jarman’s 1989 film is discussed elsewhere in the book. I’m sure Michael Foster knows most, if not all, of the recordings well and I should have been interested to read some brief comments on some of the others, especially the lesser known ones.
The book is copiously illustrated in black and white, which is a definite strength. However, to accommodate the number of illustrations many of the pictures are small. One slight problem with this is that several of the illustrations are reproductions of letters and the elderly typefaces are not always easy to read. The worst example of this is the first page of a handwritten letter from Meredith Davies to Britten, written after the première. This is reproduced on page 80 - not as a full sized picture - but, unfortunately the handwriting is small and not easy to read and what Davies had to say, which is surely of interest, is not repeated in the text of the book: a pity.
I found this book enjoyable, highly engaging and informative. It certainly deepened my knowledge of the work significantly and reinforced my admiration for it. Such criticisms I have centre on aspects of the production of the book. There is no index, unfortunately. In a book this length that may not be a major issue but even a general index would have been beneficial. I found the typeface a little on the small side. That may not be a problem for all readers, of course, but many of the paragraphs are quite lengthy and I would have preferred either slightly shorter paragraphs or a larger font size. The footnotes are inadequate, I’m afraid. The convention is not followed whereby if a letter is quoted we should be told, say, “Britten to Pears” and the date of the letter. Instead, the footnotes will say, typically “Letter in the BPA [Britten-Pears Archive].” That’s insufficient: if correspondence is being cited we should be told who it is between and when it was written.
However, such criticisms should not detract at all from what is an invaluable book; a piece of scholarship and a labour of love. It is an indispensable read not just for Britten enthusiasts but also for anyone interested in the cultural history of post-war Britain.
Two final points are worth making. All profits from the book will go towards the cost of Coventry Cathedral’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. Secondly, the very striking cover design has been done by Luke Matthews, an A-level art student at King Charles I School, Kidderminster.
John Quinn








Making a Donation to MusicWeb

Writing CD reviews for MWI

About MWI
Who we are, where we have come from and how we do it.

Site Map

How to find a review

How to find articles on MusicWeb
Listed in date order

Review Indexes
   By Label
      Select a label and all reviews are listed in Catalogue order
   By Masterwork
            Links from composer names (eg Sibelius) are to resource pages with links to the review indexes for the individual works as well as other resources.

Themed Review pages

Jazz reviews


      Composer surveys
      Unique to MusicWeb -
a comprehensive listing of all LP and CD recordings of given works
Prepared by Michael Herman

The Collector’s Guide to Gramophone Company Record Labels 1898 - 1925
Howard Friedman

Book Reviews

Complete Books
We have a number of out of print complete books on-line

With Composers, Conductors, Singers, Instumentalists and others
Includes those on the Seen and Heard site


Nostalgia CD reviews

Records Of The Year
Each reviewer is given the opportunity to select the best of the releases

Monthly Best Buys
Recordings of the Month and Bargains of the Month

Arthur Butterworth Writes

An occasional column

Phil Scowcroft's Garlands
British Light Music articles

Classical blogs
A listing of Classical Music Blogs external to MusicWeb International

Reviewers Logs
What they have been listening to for pleasure



Bulletin Board

Give your opinions or seek answers

Past and present

Helpers invited!

How Did I Miss That?

Currently suspended but there are a lot there with sound clips

Composer Resources

British Composers

British Light Music Composers

Other composers

Film Music (Archive)
Film Music on the Web (Closed in December 2006)

Programme Notes
For concert organizers

External sites
British Music Society
The BBC Proms
Orchestra Sites
Recording Companies & Retailers
Online Music
Agents & Marketing
Other links
Web News sites etc

A pot-pourri of articles

MW Listening Room
MW Office

Advice to Windows Vista users  
Site History  
What they say about us
What we say about us!
Where to get help on the Internet
CD orders By Special Request
Graphics archive
Currency Converter
Web Ring
Translation Service

Rules for potential reviewers :-)
Do Not Go Here!
April Fools

Error processing SSI file