Ex Favila

Coventry Cathedral, 1995

The other morning, I woke, having dreamed a vivid dream, where I was called upon to teach a two-hour class on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem just prior to performing it, despite the fact that I had neither researched it nor rehearsed it ahead of time.  I took that as a sign that I should perhaps finally listen to the 1963 recording, made not long after its premiere, that I had picked up during a recent trip to Columbus.  The work had been rattling around in the back of my brain since not quite a year ago, when it figured prominently in a couple of November performances timed with the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.  The War Requiem prominently features the poetry of WWI soldier Wilfred Owen alongside the Latin text of the Requiem Mass, poetry that highlights the horrors and futility of war, and made a fitting selection for this solemn anniversary.  But the roots of this piece go far deeper than that for me, because to me the War Requiem evokes Coventry Cathedral, and to understand the emotions evoked, I must visit 1940, 1962, and finally, 1995.

At 8 pm on November 14, 1940, the cathedral church of St. Michael was first struck by incendiary bombs while Coventry was under attack by the Luftwaffe as part of operation Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata).  Coventry was a decent-sized industrial city in the Midlands of England, and the raid was designed specifically to destroy factories and other infrastructure, with the understanding that there would be no attempt to avoid civilian targets. Per Wikipedia:  “The first wave of follow-up bombers dropped high explosive bombs, knocking out the utilities (the water supply, electricity network, telephones and gas mains) and cratering the roads, making it difficult for the fire engines to reach fires started by the later waves of bombers. These later waves dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. There were two types of incendiary bomb: Those made of magnesium and those made of petroleum. The high explosive bombs and the larger air-mines were not only designed to hamper the Coventry fire brigade, they were also intended to damage roofs, making it easier for the incendiary bombs to fall into buildings and ignite them.”   With the water mains and roads damaged, nearly 2/3 of the city was destroyed, including the medieval cathedral–which, interestingly enough, was originally nothing more than a large parish church (one of the largest in England) and had only been consecrated as a cathedral in 1918. The cathedral was now reduced to a ruin. Nothing remained but its walls, its tower, and the tomb of its first bishop.

The provost of the cathedral, Richard Howard, had “Father Forgive” inscribed on the wall behind the altar of the ruined building, and in a radio address just a month later declared that the cathedral would rebuilt as a symbol of peace and reconciliation between people of all faiths. The decision was also made to leave the ruins of the walls, tower, and tomb in place once the charred debris was cleared, and to keep the space they enclosed as consecrated grounds.  Remember that at this point, war still raged, and would continue to rage for over 4 1/2 more years.  Howard vowed to build a “kinder, more Christ-child-like world” once the war had ended.  It took 22 years after the destruction of the old cathedral for the new one to rise beside it.  The new cathedral is a more modernist structure designed by Sir Basil Spence, but make no mistake, it is a masterpiece ornamented by glass and artworks by many brilliant artists, including what is thought to be the largest tapestry in the world. Spence intended that both the old and new cathedrals be considered as part of one building.  Other less intentional artwork highlighted the theme of reconciliation.   A copy of a drawing of the Madonna done by a German soldier during the Battle of Stalingrad (now in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin) echoes copies now held in cathedrals in Volgograd and Berlin.  A cross of nails from the old cathedral now stands on the new altar, and similar crosses made from the same salvaged nails are now in over 160 churches around the world–including the Chapel of the Reconciliation that now stands in the place of  the Church of the Reconciliation that faced directly onto the Berlin Wall on Bernauer Strasse.  A cross made in the aftermath of the bombing from two charred beams that had fallen together now is placed in the space between the two buildings.


This brings us to 1962. To consecrate the new chapel, Benjamin Britten, England’s most celebrated living composer at the time, was commissioned to write a work for the occasion.  The War Requiem was the result, and was premiered in the cathedral (along with several other works) five days after Queen Elizabeth formally consecrated the new space. In fitting with the cathedral’s focus on peace and reconciliation, the pacifist Britten wrote a profoundly moving work that marries the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass with nine poems by Wilfred Owen that focus on the tragedy and senselessness of war.  Britten wrote the work for a massive choir, orchestra, and soloists, divided thusly:

    • The Requiem is truly a large-scale work, calling for huge musical forces. It is scored for three soloists, a chamber orchestra, a full choir and main orchestra, and a boys choir and organ. The performers are divided into three distinct planes, often physically separated. Closest are the tenor and baritone soloists and the chamber orchestra. They portray the victims of war. The soloists sing the Owen poetry and communicate in the most personal manner of the three groups. One level removed is the orchestra and chorus, portraying the mass. The soprano soloist adds color to the voices in the chorus, but their Latin singing is less personal than that of the male soloists. Finally, the boys choir and organ present a sound that is almost inhuman. Britten recommended that a small organ be placed in the wings with the boys choir, to create a more distant sound.

To play up that same connection between English, German, and Russian, the work was written with three specific soloists in mind:  German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and British tenor (and his partner) Peter Pears.  (Vishnevskaya was unable to obtain a visa in time to attend the premiere, but she does appear on the premiere recording that I own).  And Britten was not writing at a dispassionate distance. The work is dedicated to four friends he lost in WWII.  War Requiem is moving enough on its own, but situate it within Coventry Cathedral, and the effect is flatteringly evocative.

1995.  It’s a rainy day, one of only a few in what was a glorious late September/early October. We came to Coventry specifically to see the cathedral.  I really only knew the sketchiest of details about it, having been mostly immersed in the study of the Middle Ages for five years, to the detriment of any other period. It wasn’t quite what I had expected, which was something more along the lines of the other great cathedrals–Ely and Westminster– I would see during this trip to England to look at texts for my PhD thesis. I had assumed the new cathedral would have been a recreation of the old. I had also not yet really learned to appreciate 20th century architecture, So when I saw the modern cathedral, I almost completely ignored it, took no photos of it at all.


But the ruins!  Standing there in the midst of the sanctuary, now open to the skies (which were opening themselves), I learned why they had been left in situ.  My mild disappointment at the decision not to rebuild was overwhelmed with the much deeper feelings evoked by the skeleton of the cathedral, the tomb of the bishop, the charred cross, a monument to what had been lost. And learning of the cathedral’s dedication to reconciliation and peace, I understood the story that the ruined cathedral adjoined to the reborn one told.  We can rise from the ashes, and while the new may be beautiful, the scars, the empty spaces, the loss is never forgotten.   Closing my eyes, I could imagine the cathedral in its final moments in 1940, and the both the defiance and the the hope that led to the proclamation just a month later that the Cathedral be a place of peace going forward.  At that juncture in WWII, Great Britain still stood alone against Nazi Germany in Europe. Stalin and Hitler were still allies.  Despite the hope that the victories in the Battle of Britain in the face of overwhelming odds had given them, to talk of peace and reconciliation in 1940–and to already be thinking of retaining the smoking ruins at the heart of a broken city as a memorial–must have been an act of courage.  That desire to acknowledge the horrors of war and the craving for peace permeated the entire site.

Coventry taught me the power of intentional ruins–ruins purposely left in place as a memorial to allow reality to silently speak louder than any constructed monument. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin has been preserved in much the same way, with only the ruined tower left standing after bombing as a memorial and a modern church erected beside it.  It holds not only the Volgograd Madonna mentioned above, but also one of the crosses of nails from Coventry.  Other similar intentional ruins include an intact stretch of the Berlin Wall (now part of a museum), the wreck of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbour, and the preserved death camp at Auschwitz are other examples of ruins used in this way.   The broken places speak to the pain humans have inflicted on each other over the years, yet the mere fact that we can now see these places as ruins makes us both humble–and hopeful.