Britten's War Requiem had been commissioned by the festival to celebrate the consecration of St Michael's Cathedral at Coventry, built following the devastation to the city during the Second World War.
Originally performed by the singers: Heather Harper, Peter Pears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Heather Harper was replaced on the first recorded version by the Russian Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya for whom the part had been written. The intention being to have singers from England, Germany, and Russia.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns
Bugles sang, sad'ning the evening air;
And bugles answer'd, sorrowful to hear.
Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, -
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
On seeing a piece of our heavy artillery brought into action
Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering t'ward Heaven about to curse;
Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whisp'ring of fields unsown.
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
Comparing the biblical story of the ram caught in the thicket being offered by the angel to Abraham in exchange for his son Isaac whom he had bound ready for sacrifice. For Owen though, instead of taking up the proffered ram:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe one by one...
After the blast of lightning from the East,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
The words on Owen's Grave are taken from this poem
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war he too lost a limb;
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
As the work draws to a close, the soprano sings the Libera Me (Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal) whilst the two men (Tenor and Baritone) continue with Strange Meeting, the two discovering ultimately that:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I know you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold,
Let us sleep now...