Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was first performed in 1962, at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral–built alongside the ruins of the original, destroyed during the Battle of Britain in 1940. The English composer, an ardent pacifist, had left for the U.S. in 1939, not to return until ’42; he dedicated his requiem to four friends killed in the war. Its text juxtaposes the traditional Latin mass for the dead with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who died in battle at age 25, just seven days before the end of World War I. In the early 60s, as Britten worked on the requiem, he must have felt that the prospect of a peaceful future was again darkened–by the construction of the Berlin Wall, by the Bay of Pigs incident, by the mounting conflict in Vietnam. To symbolize his wish for reconciliation, he wrote the piece’s solo parts for three world-class singers from three countries that had suffered greatly during World War II, paying no heed to national loyalties: German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, English tenor Peter Pears, and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. (Vishnevskaya did not perform; Soviet authorities balked at any suggestion of detente with West Germany and denied her visa request.) Upon its debut the War Requiem was declared a masterpiece, the most distinctive blend of operatic and liturgical music since Verdi’s Requiem, and since then critical opinion has enshrined it as one of the key works of the 20th century. Roughly an hour and a half long and scored for a massive complement of performers–the three soloists plus a mixed chorus, boys’ choir, full orchestra, organ, and chamber orchestra–it’s structured as an extended dramatic dialogue between two soldiers (tenor and baritone) on the battlefield and a group of celebrants (soprano, chorus, and boys’ choir) inside a church. Conducting these performances–part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Britten festival–is Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya’s husband and a longtime friend of Britten’s. He’s assembled three first-rate soloists according to Britten’s original wish–German baritone Andreas Schmidt, English tenor Ian Bostridge, and Russian soprano Olga Guriakowa. Duain Wolfe directs the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Vincent Metallo directs the American Boychoir. Thursday through Saturday, May 9 through 11, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Hanya Chlala.