Navigation:   TowerBells Home  => Unrelated topics => War Requiem


(One man's encounters with Britten's War Requiem)

NOTE for the Web:  The following essay was written for my colleagues in the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus as we prepared to perform Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the conclusion of the 2006-07 Symphony season.  It is reproduced here unchanged except for the addition of footnotes.

My first encounter with Benjamin Britten's War Requiem happened in Connecticut in the Fall of 1963, only a year and a half after its first performance in England.(*1)  I was living at home after washing out of my first attempt at graduate school (long story, for another day), waiting to enter the Air Force Officer Training School.  I joined my mother in singing with the Hartford Symphony Chorale,(*2) a group very much like the St.Louis Symphony Chorus.  One of the several pieces of music scheduled for the 1963-64 year was the War Requiem.  I was tremendously impressed by it, to the point of hand-copying onto music paper the marvelous choral cadences which close the Requiem aeternam, the Dies irae, and the Libera me.

A few years later, by a stroke of luck (or divine Providence, as you prefer), I was on temporary duty in Washington DC when the War Requiem was performed in the still-unfinished National Cathedral.  Hearing it in that awesome environment, I was struck by the realization that Britten had composed it with cathedral acoustics very much in mind.  The solo and semi-chorus passages wafted among the gothic columns like the voices of ethereal spirits, while the full orchestra and chorus sections filled the reverberant space with sound until one felt nearly drowned in it.

About this time, I also acquired a copy of the recording of the War Requiem, directed by Britten and with his original choice of soloists.  I found it so powerfully moving that I only let myself listen to it once a year, if that often.

Ten years later, I was in England with my young family, as I commanded the weather communications detachment which served the Air Force and Army in the European theater.  We lived not far from Oxford, that famous university city of dreaming spires, in one of which I learned to handle a bell for change-ringing.  (The English love tower bells, which must be partly why Britten incorporated the sound of bells into this music.)  On the 15th anniversary of the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, the War Requiem was performed in the building for which it had been written.  My wife and I drove up to Coventry that glorious sunny May day, and before the performance we walked through the stabilized ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, still standing beside the new.  In the place where the altar once stood, there is now a rugged cross made of nails that were sifted from the ashes as the city recovered from the bombardment of World War II.(*3)  With such an introduction to the place of its origin, that performance of the War Requiem really put me through a wringer even more than the previous ones.

Finally, in these past months I've been re-learning the music, after a gap of decades.  It's been interesting to discover what I remembered accurately, and to add the Tenor II and HML variations.(*4)  Thanks to my fellow Chorus members for being such a great group of singers, and for making this new encounter possible.

That's the encounters; what about the strange records?

Firstly, I joined the Chorus last fall in order to be able to sing the War Requiem.  (So I am very thankful to Chorus director Amy Kaiser for accepting me.  The preparation for the audition was one of the most difficult things I've done in a long time.)  Although no one keeps records, it appears that at the age of 66 (as I was then) I might be in contention for the record of oldest person to pass an incoming audition to join the Chorus.  (Though of course I'm not the oldest to sing here.)

Secondly, after accepting me into the Chorus, Amy suggested gently that I might benefit from voice coaching.  Being an old military man, I took that suggestion as an order, and have indeed been benefitting significantly from Margaret Campbell's coaching during these last several months.  It amuses me greatly to realize that I sang (fairly well!) in church choirs for more than half a century before beginning professional voice training, and I can't help wondering whether that is also some sort of record.  (*5) 

Thirdly, by the time we perform the War Requiem later this month, it will have been more than 43 years since I first learned the music.  This is where the "gratification deferred" title of this memo originated; surely it is quite rare to have waited such a long time between learning and performing a piece of music.

Finally, I may be able to claim the longest distance traveled by out-of-town guests specifically for a Chorus performance.  My sisters are coming from Ohio and Rhode Island (with their husbands), and will be attending the Saturday performance, which by a marvelous coincidence (or divine Providence again?) is on the 43rd anniversary of the single performance by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, in which our mother sang.  (My wife, daughter, son and daughter-in-law will all be there as well.)

You might be wondering whether that Hartford performance was the American premiere of this work.  I had thought so for many years, but in doing some research last summer I discovered that my memory was faulty.  In fact, the Boston Symphony had accomplished the American premiere, apparently in the summer of 1963.  I had also "remembered," quite wrongly, that I had sung in the Hartford performance.  Actually, it took place on the day that I graduated from Officer Training School in San Antonio, Texas.  So while it's barely possible that I might have flown to Connecticut in time to hear the performance, I certainly would not have been singing in it.  Thus these past several months have not only been about learning a lot of interesting music, developing better vocal production and getting acquainted with many of you, but also about rectifying my own memories.

I've written this memo while listening to the recent re-release on CDs of the original recording.  (Incidentally, the CD faces imply that the original LPs were released under the Decca label.  Not so — they were released by Decca under the London label, as a boxed set.  I have not only my own copy of that but also the copy which I inherited from my mother.  The excellent description which accompanies the LPs is unfortunately not found in the booklet which accompanies the CDs, though the booklet's new material about the origin, performance and recording of the War Requiem more than compensates for the absence.)  Reliving the memories narrated above, between the music and the commentary, hit me with the same emotional impact as the early encounters.  So if you find me totally wrung out after a performance in Powell Hall, you will know why.

Carl Scott Zimmerman, Tenor II
1 May 2007


1  For the complete background and history of the War Requiem, see the English Wikipedia article about it.

2  The Chorale separated from the Symphony in 1972, becoming today's Hartford Chorale.

3  Although I remembered the cross in the ruins as being made of nails, current documentation indicates that the cross was made of charred timbers.  However, three large nails salvaged from the ashes of the roof of Coventry Cathedral had been used to make a cross that stood in the ruins temporarily.  And what I did not know until the summer of 2013 was that other salvaged nails were made into peace crosses as gifts to churches in Germany and elsewhere.  When I saw one such cross in a German church, and learned its connection to Coventry Cathedral, I also learned that the German word for such large nails is "Zimmernageln", or "room nails".  (The German language capitalizes all nouns.)  Now I had known since a German class in high school that my family name (originally spelled Zimmermann) could be translated as "carpenter" but was more literally translated as "room man", i.e., a carpenter who builds the timber framing for rooms, roofs, etc., and not a cabinetmaker.  Learning of the Zimmernageln from Coventry gave me a linguistic connection to the men who had built St.Michael's Church centuries before it became Coventry Cathedral.

4  In choral singing, HML refers to the division of a chorus section into three equal parts (high, middle, low) instead of the customary two (tenor & bass) or four (tenor I/II, bass I/II).  The purpose is of course to get a better musical balance than would be heard from a TTB or TBB division of voices.  (Naturally the same applies to soprano and alto sections.)  I am not aware of any regular usage of the HML designation by composers or music publishers, but it is a common practice of the present Chorus director, Amy Kaiser.

5  See Addendum below.


Following the performance of the War Requiem, I continued to sing with the Chorus because it was such a joy to work under the leadership of Chorus director Amy Kaiser and Music Director David Robertson, as well as to be surrounded by over a hundred excellent voices in rehearsal and performance.  Later, my voice benefitted even more from coaching by Alice Montgomery.  Also worthy of mention is the fine collegial partnership between the Chorus and the world-class Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), as well as the wonderful array of guest conductors from all over the world who have graced the stage of Powell Hall and inspired the Chorus with their varied and distinctive talents.

This page was created on 2015/02/15 and last revised on 2022/02/23.

Please send comments or questions to