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Were you a chorister for Benjamin Britten? Record label searches for 1963 singers of War Requiem

Highgate Boys School Choir joined composer Benjamin Britten to record his War Requiem in 1963
Highgate Boys School Choir joined composer Benjamin Britten to record his War Requiem in 1963 - ALICE FAURE

A search has begun to track down choir members who sang for Benjamin Britten 60 years ago.

The composer first recorded his War Requiem in 1963 with the help of singers in the Highgate Boys School Choir, and record producers are now hoping to bring about a reunion.

Decca Records, which owns the right to the first War Requiem recording, has begun the search by taking out an advert in a local paper, calling for the choristers heard on the record to come forward.

The advert, placed in the Ham and High press, states: “Searching for original members of Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ choir of 1963.

“Did you sing in the boys’ choir on Benjamin Britten’s legendary ‘War Requiem’ recording in 1963?

“If you were one of the choristers who performed at the original Decca recording session of the ‘War Requiem’ in 1963 – conducted by the composer himself, Benjamin Britten, at Kingsway Hall in London – we want to hear from you!”

Marking the 60th anniversary of the release of the original recording, Decca producers want to gather the personal stories of the boys, now several decades older, who took part in the recording session with one of Britain’s most important composers.

Britten wrote War Requiem using Wilfred Owen's wartime poetry which reflected Britten’s pacifists distaste for war
Britten wrote War Requiem using Wilfred Owen's wartime poetry which reflected Britten’s pacifists distaste for war - REG WILSON/REX

Britten was commissioned to produce a piece to celebrate the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962.

The original mediaeval structure was severely damaged amid concentrated bombing of the city in 1940 and Britten devised his piece Latin Mass for the Dead, interspersed with the poetry of Wilfred Owen which reflected Britten’s pacifists distaste for war.

The piece was first performed in Coventry Cathedral in 1962, and recorded the following year at Kingsway Hall in London with the help of singers from Highgate Boys School Choir, which was placed at some distance from the recording equipment to give a sense of their voices being distant.

Composer and conductor John Rutter, who sang in Highgate School choir as a teenager, said the recording process was a “cherished memory” and that the boys “knew something special was going on”.

Mr Rutter said that the boys were placed “up in the balcony” away from the ground floor of Kingsway Hall where the musicians were assembled, and “didn’t really hear” the intended puns of the piece as a whole.

The boys would hear Britten and Decca’s vision for the recording on its release, which proved unusually successful for a classical record, and sold 200,000 copies within a matter of months. It is still considered a masterpiece of classical recording.

Russian operatic soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (standing, front row) with the Bach Choir during a recording session for War Requiem
Russian operatic soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (standing, front row) with the Bach Choir during a recording session for War Requiem - ERICH AUERBACH/HULTON ARCHIVE

A remastered version of the recording has been developed by Decca sounds engineers, and the label is hoping to invite surviving members of her boys choir to listen to their work 60 years after they record with Britten.

The advert put out to try and track down the surviving choristers states: “Decca invites members of the original boys’ choir to attend a special, exclusive listening session of the recording in Dolby Atmos HD immersive audio at the record label’s London offices.”

More senior performers who took part in the famous recording have already passed away, including Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the British tenor Sir Peter Pears, all included to represent nations involved in the Second World War.

Tom Lewis, Decca’s co-president, said of the plan: “Britten is unquestionably one of the UK’s most important composers – our Mozart or Beethoven.

“And, to think that there are some singers still alive who were in the room with him, taking and responding to those instructions. That’s simply too tantalising an opportunity. We had to see if we could get them together again.”

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