By the time the German blitzkrieg on Coventry ended on the night of November 14, 1940, there was little left of the St Michael’s Cathedral. The glorious medieval structure, which had once been one of the largest parish churches in England, was reduced to the tower, spire and the outer wall. The ruins stand intact even today. After the war, it was decided that the remains will be preserved as a reminder of the folly of war, and a new cathedral will be built next to them.

A year before this new cathedral’s consecration in 1962, British composer Benjamin Britten was commissioned to celebrate it with a musical work. Britten responded with The War Requiem, a choral masterpiece. Elaborate in scale, emotion and technical nuance, it was performed this September at the annual musical festival BBC Proms to mark the centenary of the end of World War I.

The War Requiem is one of Britten’s largest and most famous choral works – with a mix of Latin texts and poems by Wilfred Owen. Yet there’s a little known detail about it. Britten was a pacifist and an admirer of Mohandas Gandhi, and his War Requiem was originally planned as the Gandhi Requiem.

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“Shocked” by Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948, Britten sent a letter to Ralph Hawkes (of the famous Boosey and Hawkes publishers) on February 27, in which he revealed his plans for several “big works”. “Added to this list, is now another major piece,” he writes. “As you probably guessed, the death of Gandhi has been a great shock to one of my convictions, and I am determined to commemorate this occasion in, possibly, some form of Requiem, to his honour. When I shall complete this piece I cannot say.”

Britten also discussed the project with writer, poet and playwright Ronald Duncan. Duncan, now best known for his poem The Horse, had prepared the libretto for the 1946 opera The Rape of Lucretia by Britten. He had also written an introduction for and edited Gandhi: Selected Writings, originally published in 1951 by the Beacon Press, Boston, under the title Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi.

From the introduction to Gandhi: Selected Writings, it is clear that Duncan and Britten were close friends, presumably brought together by their shared pacifist views and admiration for Gandhi, apart from their love of music.

Meeting the Mahatma

Duncan begins the introduction by justifying his credentials for editing Gandhi’s writings. In 1937, when he was just 22, the futility of violent protests by coal mine workers in the Rhondda Valley made him a fervent proponent of passive resistance. He printed a pamphlet on the subject, and since no one would buy it, he posted the copies “to anybody whose name came to mind. One of these was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi”.

A correspondence followed. Duncan suggested that they meet. Gandhi cabled a laconic reply: “Meet me Wardha on the 23rd inst”, barely a month later. In a couple of days, he was on his way.

Ronald Duncan. Photo courtesy: The Ronald Duncan Estate.
Ronald Duncan. Photo courtesy: The Ronald Duncan Estate.

Duncan casually mentions that Britten went “as far as Paris with me. There was a feeling I should never return and Britten worried lest I might become a yogi in Tibet”.

The British authorities had a detective accompany Duncan to keep an eye on him, but according to Duncan, they “used to play poker together”.

Duncan’s account of his arrival in Wardha is hilarious. Expecting to hail a taxi from the station and finding none, he nervously got into “a primitive vehicle called a tonga” resembling “Boadicea’s chariot…wooden wheels without rims or tyres, three hand-sawn planks nailed to the axle. The emaciated driver sat on the shaft and steered the lean bullock by twisting its bony tail…no reins, no springs and no road, all ruts and bumps”. He clung on “for I lacked the strength to fling myself off”.

Half an hour later, they were accosted on the road by Gandhi, “smiling mischievously”, who had walked three miles to meet them. Duncan expected Gandhi to commiserate with him on his tonga journey, or at least say something about his long trip from London, but Gandhi just said, “As I was saying in my last letter...”, and carried on the discussion “as though neither time nor place had interrupted our correspondence”.

Towards the end of the introduction, Duncan writes: “One day during a walk, [Gandhi] defined sin to me as ‘being acted upon by the senses’. I remember I instantly asked him if he considered listening to Mozart was a sin. The question was all-important to me.”

“‘All attachment to the senses is death,’ he replied.”

Duncan was apparently disappointed by “Gandhi’s light dismissal of Mozart” and it was the reason he refused a further invitation from Gandhi to return to India again.

Britten’s plan

Britten nevertheless remained a steady admirer of Gandhi, as is evident from his writings. In Letters from a Life, Volume 3 (1946-1951): The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, he mentioned Gandhi several times, especially after his assassination in 1948, which shocked the world and grieved Britten greatly.

Benjamin Britten. Photo credit: Hans Wild/via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].
Benjamin Britten. Photo credit: Hans Wild/via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

In response to Britten’s letter outlining his plans for the Requiem, Hawkes replied on March 3, 1948: “I know how close to your heart this whole business must of course be, and I didn’t realize the regard that you had for Gandhi. I think the idea is terrific and I am sure you will give of your very best for this work. Time will not matter over this for it is bound to be a major work and will involve a great deal of preparation.”

In a letter from his librettist Eric Crozier, it is apparent that both of them “had the idea separately of a work in memory of Gandhi – and Britten has cancelled his American tour very largely so that he can settle down to write it. He wants it to be a Requiem, using the traditional Latin words of the Requiem Mass, with linking interludes that I think he will ask me to write for him. And he has some idea of possible performance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Amsterdam Tonkunst Chor. He’s on fire with the whole idea and says it will really be his Opus 1”.

It began to be referred to by them as the Gandhi Requiem. Britten got Crozier the score of Bach’s St Matthew Passion when they attended a performance together. He was obviously thinking of it as a possible model for his own composition.

For whatever reason, although Britten may have been “on fire” with the idea of a Gandhi Requiem in the immediate aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination, the plan got shelved. Britten had in 1945 contemplated writing with Duncan an oratorio titled Mea Culpa in response to the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it didn’t see the light of day either.

Around 15 years later the War Requiem was born, but in concept, scale and design it is exactly what Britten had planned for his Gandhi Requiem.