The City of Birmingham Orchestra gave its first performance of Britten’s music in April 1946: Les Illuminations, performed at the Barber Institute with Peter Pears as soloist and the great musicologist Jack Westrup conducting. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra entered the CBSO repertoire the following year at the Town Hall, under the baton of principal conductor George Weldon, with the Four Sea Interludes following in December 1949.
And as the 1950s progressed, Weldon’s successor Rudolf Schwarz cultivated a unique relationship between Britain’s foremost composer and the Second City. Britten respected Schwarz’s musicianship, and after the CBSO premiered the Symphonic Suite from Gloriana in September 1954, Britten promised to compose a new orchestral work for Schwarz and the CBSO. Disappointingly, his enthusiasm cooled after Schwarz left Birmingham for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the piece was never written. Just five years later though, the CBSO found itself entrusted with the most high-profile premiere of Britten’s career – the War Requiem, written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in May 1962.
The work was unlike anything the orchestra had encountered before, and with a nervous Britten in attendance, rehearsals were fraught. Yet the premiere was a triumph; a landmark not just in Britten’s career and the history of the CBSO, but in the history of 20th century music. The CBSO has enjoyed a special connection with the work and its composer ever since. Its 50th anniversary performance in May 2012 under Andris Nelsons attracted a global TV audience.
Successive CBSO music directors have put Britten at the heart of their repertoire. In the 1980s, Simon Rattle gave world premiere performances of the Occasional Overture, American Overture and the original version of the Sinfonia da Requiem, while in 2001 Sakari Oramo rang in the new millennium with a concert performance of Peter Grimes. Elgar may be the Midlands’ best-loved musical son – but Birmingham has always been quick to embrace outsiders, and in this centenary year we celebrate a composer whose music is as much part of this city’s story, as the world’s.