War and Peace: Coventry Cathedral with Libor Pešek

Libor Pešek (1933-2022)
Photo courtesy of IMG Artists

By Peter Davison

I was very sorry to hear that the great Czech conductor Libor Pešek had died at the end of October. He was eighty-nine, and his career had been long and illustrious. My grief has been felt more deeply because I had the privilege of working with him at the Liverpool Philharmonic not long after his appointment there as Music Director in 1988. By the time I was in post, he was already having an impact on the musicians’ confidence, beginning to develop the distinctive Czech repertoire for which he and the orchestra would later become rightly renowned. 

My early impressions of Libor were of a rounded personality, good-humoured and approachable, someone who was fascinated by life and interested in all kinds of people. I could at this point relate countless anecdotes about him or describe many of his thrilling and moving performances. However, one occasion stands out in my memory, when I had the task of driving Libor back to Liverpool after staying overnight for a concert in Reading. I suggested that we stop on route for lunch in Coventry to view the famous cathedral which had been built as a symbol of Britain’s post-war renewal. He eagerly agreed, so we diverted from the motorway to visit this architectural marvel which had served as a showcase for a clutch of the country’s leading artists, including John Piper and Elizabeth Frink.

As we entered the building, which abuts the bombed-out ruin of Coventry’s former medieval cathedral, Libor pulled out a small portable dictating machine into which he spoke from time to time. He looked up at the vivid colours of the stained glass and the vast tapestry of Christ the King by Graham Sutherland which hangs as an impressive backdrop to the high altar. He was clearly absorbing the anima loci with great delight, all the more for knowing this had been the venue of the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem which had taken place to mark the cathedral’s consecration in May 1962. 

It was then that Libor turned to me and said with sharp conviction, ‘it is impossible to build a cathedral in the modern age.’ He offered no explanation for this remark. It was a gut-reaction, not intended to condemn the architect, Sir Basil Spence, or the artists involved, only that their magnificent efforts were sadly in vain. They could not recreate in the language of modern art and architecture what had been destroyed by the bombs of the Luftwaffe.

On reflection, I suspect he was right. For all that the new Coventry Cathedral seeks to express a contemporary spirituality and the rebirth of a broken civic culture, it falls short. Its deliberate gesture of newness means that it must, to a degree, repudiate the traditional values it is trying to emulate. Besides, what is self-consciously new is soon not new. It cannot retain for long the frissance of the unexpected or the heroism of bold transgression. The result is something that slowly reveals its lack of roots in the deeper layers of human culture and experience. 

These were not concerns for medieval church-builders. For them, a cathedral expressed faith in the divine order. The old Coventry Cathedral had seemed to grow out of the rocks of the Earth and was intended to last for eternity. It was constructed as a bridge between the earthly and the heavenly realms. Now, its shattered shell reminds us of the psychic ruptures and violence of war, like a scar that will never heal. The past acts as a nagging conscience.

A similar juxtaposition exists in Liverpool itself, as the City’s two enormous cathedrals stare back at one another along the length of Hope Street. Oddly enough, the Philharmonic Hall sits between them like a reluctant mediator. The massive concrete edifice of the Catholic Cathedral (nicknamed ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’), consecrated in 1967, presents a modern inclusive and international vision of Catholicism. Opposite is the soaring neo-Gothic tower of the Anglican Cathedral, which stubbornly defies gravity and the City’s historical decline. Not far away, Liverpool even has its own bombed out church, St. Luke’s, which stands at the bottom of Leece Street. Libor Pešek knew all these buildings, although I do not know what he thought of them. I can imagine that he would have drawn similar conclusions about attempts to build modern cathedrals, whether they look forward or back.

Juxtapositions of old and new are inherently problematic, and the same challenge exists when ‘modern’ music is programmed alongside the classics in the concert hall. If, for instance, Messiaen is placed next to Dvořák, there is an immediate cognitive dissonance. Such works are obviously related as structures crafted from pitched tones, but they are certainly not the same. There is a clash of values, of aesthetics and historical perspective that cannot be denied by sleight of hand. 

Throughout his life, Benjamin Britten was caught in the crossfire of such tensions. His War Requiem harks back to the choral masterpieces of Verdi, Mozart and Bach but, by setting Wilfred Owen’s war poems alongside these pillars of tradition, he transformed the meaning of the well-worn sacred text. We are compelled to consider what the epic scale of suffering that accompanies mechanised warfare means for faith in a compassionate God and to acknowledge humanity’s capacity for moral catastrophe. Britten responded with a humane vision of conciliatory pacifism, bathed in the soothing balm of eternal sleep. Yet the Wilfred Owen poems undermine the grand religious gestures, exposing instead a sense of grim futility.

Looking back now, that hour spent in Coventry Cathedral thirty years ago with Libor Pešek encapsulated so many of the significant issues of our times. Have we truly begun to recognise the consequences of the psychic and social uprooting caused by two brutal world wars? Was it simply naïve to believe that we could create a radically different ‘modern’ culture? Libor Pešek himself knew the dangers of Utopian delusions and empty ideology. He lived for many years in a country under Soviet domination. I remember his genuine joy when his country was liberated after the bloodless Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was a brief period of hope when we all felt able to believe in the dawn of a new age.

Today, the Russian menace threatens Europe once again. Hope has been turned into defiance, as hi-tech warfare threatens unprecedented upheaval and destruction. In this context, Coventry’s Cathedrals reveal with brutal honesty the existence of a fracture in the collective psyche that has never really been healed. They continue to pose questions as yet unanswered, not even by the formidable Libor Pešek.