Britten's War Requiem performed on 50th anniversary

Performance of Britten's War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral Britten's War Requiem was commissioned for the dedication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962

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"It's a huge pacifist statement - it's Benjamin Britten warning against war, the horrors and the results of war, and these ruins speak volumes about destruction and war itself."

So said Michael Foster, the festival director for Coventry 2012, as Britten's War Requiem was performed at Coventry Cathedral by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) on the 50th anniversary of its premiere.

The War Requiem was commissioned for the dedication of Coventry Cathedral, and was played for the first time on 30 May 1962.

Mr Foster said the words for the piece came from two very different sources.

"He decided to take the latin mass for the dead and intersperse into it the bitter, ironic and sometimes hateful war poetry of Wilfred Owen.

"The message of reconciliation is echoed in this place and it is very special for the cathedral," he said.

In the audience for the 50th anniversary performance was Maggie Cotton, the youngest member of the orchestra who played at the premiere.

"We were in here before the cathedral was consecrated and it was a different atmosphere - it was like a workshop with people hammering, there was sawdust everywhere, people mopping up the floors," she said.

Deathly silence
Maggie Cotton, who played at the premiere of Britten's War Requiem. Maggie Cotton played in the orchestra at the premiere of Britten's War Requiem

Ms Cotton remembers the composer's close involvement in the rehearsals leading up to the performance.

She said: "Britten was around all the time and he was terribly twitchy, and he was obviously anxious that the hand-copied orchestral parts were correct.

"If anyone made an error he'd come tearing around the back, and it was scary.

"Everyone was on their best behaviour - but it was his baby and he only had one chance to get it right."

Britten insisted that there should be no applause at the end of the piece, going so far as to have a note included in the programme.

Ms Cotton said: "At the end there was deathly silence, and nobody knew what to do - people were in tears, we were in tears, it was so moving."

Adrian Spillett, the principal percussionist for the CBSO, who performed on the anniversary, said the atmosphere was no less charged 50 years on.

"With the silence, you could hear a pin drop - the audience seemed to be spellbound throughout."

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