Redemption at Coventry

Musical Opinion, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

Redemption at Coventry


t is a matter of record that much of the music commissioned for the Festival held to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962 has, since it was first performed, been the subject of much debate. Not that the musical lang- uage of the various composers involved was of itself notably contentious - far from it - but two works, in particular, have stood out from the rest from the beginning. These are Britten's War Requiem, premi- ered in the Cathedral, and Michael Tippett's opera King Priam. Both works almost immediately entered the internat- ional repertoire, and, because of the initial impact they made, tended to overshadow other music that was also heard in Coventry for the first time.

The new Cathedral was built to replace the 14th-century St Michael's Cathedral, destroyed in November 1940 by German bombers. As one act of reconciliation, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra came to Coventry for a concert conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Whilst such concerts pass into history, barely remembered - despite the importance of the occasion - another major work also commissioned for the consecration Festival has suffered a not dissimilar fate, to the extent that we are reminded of a statement by Schopen- hauer: 'the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.'

The philosopher was not of course writing about music, but his comment may be applicable, nonetheless, to the high rate of interest regularly paid to the works of Britten and Tippett, compared with the postponement of the redemption of the third major score, which until very recently has been virtually forgotten. In 1962, the then Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Arthur Bliss, 70 years old yet in full health, composed his largest concert work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, The Beat- itudes, for that inauguration Festival, in natural expectation that it would be performed in the new Cathedral - as Britten's War Requiem was so designed to be heard, and was. In the event, the performance of Bliss's work in the Cathed- ral did not happen - neither did it happen for half a century - owing to a series of misunderstandings the composer, despite his eminence, was obliged to conduct the premiere of his major new piece in a Coventry Theatre, making last-minute changes in order to accommodate his score to the alternative largely unsuitable venue with its very unsuitable cinema- organ.

Few works could survive such a flawed launch (various authors have detailed the circumstances under which that first perf- ormance took place in recent issues of the Bliss Society Journal), and although Bliss himself made light of the problems, at least publicly, whenever circumstances conspire to damage the proper realization of a score at its first appearance, it is always the composer who gets the blame. 'After all', as the idea took hold, 'Bliss himself was conducting, wasn't he? - It had to have been an authoritative perf- ormance.' The impact made a few days later by Britten's evening-long masterpiece tended, in the nature of things, to over- shadow any other work or concert performance at the time. …

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