Notes and Editorial Reviews
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
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 regards.
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 Post.
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.
Artistic Administrator, BSO
Works on This Recording
War Requiem, Op. 66 by Benjamin Britten
Tom Krause (Baritone),
Nicholas Di Virgilio (Tenor),
Phyllis Curtin (Soprano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra,
Pro Musica Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1961; England
Date of Recording: 7/27/1963
Venue: Berkshire Festival, Tanglewood
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