Performing the War Requiem: a chorus member’s view

Margie Brett, a soprano in the Burford Singers, reminisces about her experience of singing in the very early performances of the War Requiem in 1963:

Royal Albert Hall, August 1963

It is extraordinary and exciting to be singing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem again.  I last sang this wonderful work in October 1963 at La Fenice in Venice, which was a repeat of our performance in the Royal Albert Hall the previous August.  I was nineteen at the time, studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was a member (2nd sop.) of the Bach Choir. I now realise that it is 55 years ago. Can this really be true?

The War Requiem had had its premiere in Coventry on 30 May 1962.  This was followed by the London premiere at Westminster Abbey on 6 December 1962. Then came the Bach Choir’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 August 1963. Galina Vishnevskaya, the famous Russian soprano, who had missed out on the Coventry premiere because of visa problems, was able to sing in this performance along with Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  David Willcocks conducted the LSO and the Bach Choir and Benjamin Britten conducted the Melos Ensemble and the Highgate Boys Choir. Simon Preston played the organ.  Quite a gathering of eminent musicians of the day.  The performance was greeted with great enthusiasm by the London audience.

La Scala, Milan, October 1963

In 1963 we also made the first recording of the work with the same soloists and conductors that performed in the Albert Hall concert.  It was a fascinating experience.  And then came the tour of Italy at the end of September 1963.  My letter of invitation from David Willcocks included the following sentence “The final arrangements for the finance of the Tour have not been negotiated, but members may assume that their personal contribution towards their expenses for travel and subsistence will not exceed £5.”  

Our soloists on tour were Heather Harper, Donald Bell and Peter Pears.  A ‘warm-up’ concert was given at the Chiesa Nuova in Perugia followed by the official Italian premiere performance at La Scala in Milan with a final performance at La Fenice in Venice.  It has to be said that the La Scala audience appeared to be somewhat baffled by the music –somewhat of a departure from their normal fare!

The brass section of the LSO proved to be very lively travelling companions.  And I remember having the best pizza I have ever tasted  – even to this day – beside a wood burning pizza oven on a street in Venice in the pouring rain.

How lucky now to be given a second chance to sing this great work – and to be given the privilege of singing in two wonderful venues – Winchester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey.