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War Requiem (Britten)
VAI DVD 4429, $29.95

An outspoken pacifist, composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) combined texts from the Latin Mass for the Dead with the sharply poignant writings of the World War I poet Wilfrid Owen to create one of the most gripping works of the modern classical repertoire. This video presents the historic 1963 American premiere of the War Requiem, as performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of its Music Director, Erich Leinsdorf. The soloists are Phyllis Curtin, soprano; Nicholas Di Virgilio, tenor; and Tom Krause, baritone. The DVD boasts a magnificent stereo soundtrack drawn from the archives of the Boston Symphony archives. 89 minutes, Black & White, Stereo, All regions

This performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, captured for
television at Tanglewood on July 27, 1963, by WGBH-TV, and now
available commercially for the first time.


War Requiem, Op. 66
(American Premiere)
Music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Latin text from the Missa pro defunctis
Poems by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Performed in memory of Serge Koussevitzky

Phyllis Curtin, soprano
Nicholas Di Virgilio, tenor
Tom Krause, baritone

Chorus Pro Musica (Alfred Nash Patterson, director)
Columbus Boychoir (Donald Bryant, director)
Daniel Pinkham, portative organ

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Erich Leinsdorf

Berkshire Festival • Tanglewood
July 27, 1963

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Tanglewood

This performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, captured for
television at Tanglewood on July 27, 1963, by WGBH-TV, and now
available commercially for the first time, is remarkable in many

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and the Berkshire Symphonic
Festival (as the Tanglewood Festival was then called) already had a
long history of association with Britten’s music. The Koussevitzky
Music Foundation had commissioned Peter Grimes, which had its
American premiere at Tanglewood in 1946, in a production conducted by
Leonard Bernstein and attended by Britten himself. In 1949, both
Albert Herring and the Spring Symphony received their first American
performances under Serge Koussevitzky’s auspices.

Erich Leinsdorf’s choice of the War Requiem as one of the
centerpieces of his first summer at Tanglewood as BSO Music Director
was as unexpected as it was astute. Leinsdorf’s reputation and
greatest achievements had been in the core German and Austrian
traditions: a clear line from Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and the German
romantics, through Wagner and Strauss, to the second Viennese school.
His authority as a conductor of a broad spectrum of the operatic
repertoire was regarded by many at the time as without equal. His
concert programs and recordings occasionally ventured with great
success into — for him, at least — more exotic fare: the
symphonies of Shostakovich, the music of Janácek and of Ginastera.
Despite his catholicity of taste, English music, on the other hand,
barely featured.

The War Requiem was written for the reopening of St. Michael’s
Cathedral in Coventry, England, in May 1962. According to Britten
scholar Michael Kennedy, it had been proclaimed by one critic as a
masterpiece before it had been performed! The work’s initial
reception was extraordinary; performances were quickly arranged in
the major European centers; a recording issued about a year later
sold over 200,000 LP sets in five months.

It is not known how soon after the world premiere Leinsdorf became
familiar with the Requiem, but he soon identified it as an ideal
vehicle for performance at Tanglewood and as a cornerstone for his
first season there. No doubt, he predicted that the sentiments and
messages of the piece — whose text combined the words of the Latin
Mass for the Dead with the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen —
would find resonance in an American (and, specifically, New England)
public versed in the writers of its own Civil War, from Whitman and
Melville, to Longfellow and Whittier. The Cold War was at its height,
and the War Requiem would speak to an audience who understood and
needed the sensibility of poetic protest. With perhaps the exception
of Aaron Copland, no other composer of the period, or perhaps since,
could marry public and private expression like Britten. Leinsdorf
must have figured that he had the ideal piece for his public and time.

By all accounts, the concert was an unqualified success. It attracted
an audience of nearly 11,000 to the Shed and lawn of Tanglewood. This
was only the second occasion on which a concert had been filmed at
Tanglewood; a special telecast aired on August 4, 1963, in New York
(WNEW-TV) and Washington (WTTG-TV), and as a simulcast with (WBGH)
stereo radio in Boston on August 13. The event drew widespread
attention from the major east-coast press, with virtually unanimous
critical praise of both the performance and the work. (The only
dissenting voice was heard from Harold Schonberg of The New York
Times). “Britten Requiem A Singular Score” was the headline in the
Boston Herald; “War Requiem a Masterpiece” proclaimed the New York
Journal American. The Washington telecast inspired the headline “New
Britten Work Stands as a Great Moving Monument” in The Washington

Leinsdorf was praised for his “sovereign command of the vast
aggregation of forces” (Paul Henry Lang, in the New York Herald
Tribune) and, indeed, the performance seems remarkably assured and
paced, given the limited rehearsal time available for preparation at
Tanglewood. Then-concertmaster Joseph Silverstein recalls that
Leinsdorf shrewdly scheduled more familiar works in the programs for
other concerts around the week of the Requiem, in order to gain
rehearsal; he took separate sessions for the large and chamber
orchestras, for greater efficiency. The soprano, Phyllis Curtin (who
regards this performance as a singular moment in her career),
remembers that the soloists were present for a longer-than-usual
period, and that the main chorus had been prepared with astonishing
discipline under Alfred Nash Patterson and Leinsdorf himself. Though
barely visible in only a couple of sweeping shots on this video (in
the Libera me and In paradisum movements), a large crucifix was hung
over the boy choir placed in the house-left colonnade, in order to
add an atmosphere of solemnity.

The Boston Symphony of this period boasted some of its greatest-ever
principal players. The chamber orchestra featured not only
Silverstein, but Doriot Anthony Dwyer (flute), Ralph Gomberg (oboe),
Sherman Walt (bassoon), and Everett (Vic) Firth (percussion) — all
legendary players in the symphonic world; the trumpets of the main
orchestra included Armando Ghittala and Roger Voisin, whose unique
tonal color had become among the hallmarks of the BSO; the chamber
organist was Daniel Pinkham, the outstanding keyboardist and composer
from the Boston area.

The three vocal soloists perform with unmannered clarity and
eloquence. The accuracy, intensity, and focus of Curtin’s
performance are remarkable by any measure; tenor Nicholas Di Virgilio
delivers his English-language text in a robust and honest American
style; and the young Finnish baritone Tom Krause, in his American
debut, delivers enormous warmth of expression through a voice which
is rich and even throughout the range.

Though the televised version telescopes the end of the concert
(sufficient footage was allowed for credits and William Pierce’s
stentorian voice-overs), The New York Times reported that the
applause lasted “a good 20 minutes,” and it’s easy to understand
why. This performance was, in every way, a major event of its time;
and it is our good fortune that it was documented on video and is now
available for today’s audiences.

Anthony Fogg
Artistic Administrator, BSO
Tanglewood, 2007


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