A Ceremony of Carols
Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols will be heard next to Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass at the Janáček Philharmonic’s Christmas Concert on 20 December 2019.
A Ceremony of Carols Op. 28 (1942)
After three very successful years in America, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears boarded a Swedish cargo vessel, the Axel Johnson, on the 16th March 1942 for their return to Britain. It was a long and boring journey that took nearly a month. U-boat activity was at its height so it was probably rather frightening too. At this time Britten had started ‘Hymn to St. Cecilia’ and a piece for Benny Goodman. He intended to finish these on board but customs officials confiscated the manuscripts on the doubtful proposition that they could be a secret code. (Britten managed to restart and finish ‘Hymn’ but as far as I know, the Goodman Piece was lost forever). During the voyage, they berthed at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Britten came across a book of medieval poems and some of these he set during the voyage as the ‘Ceremony of Carols’. It is an unusual setting for boys choir and harp. Britten had intended to write a harp concerto and so had been studying the instrument. Humphrey Carpenter * regards the work’s title as rather odd as it is neither a ceremony nor is it a narration of the Christmas story. I find this view unsubstantiated.
The work opens and ends with the choir processing to plainsong. Britten may have got this idea from Holst’s ‘Hymn to Jesus’, written about 20 years earlier, where, after a short orchestral opening, alternating boys and adult choirs enter to ‘Vexilla Regis prodeunt’ (The banners of the King advance on their way) and ‘Pange lingua gloriosi’ (Tell, my tongue, the glorious battle of the struggle). Britten was to use the processional idea again in ‘Saint Nicholas’, ‘Noyes Fludde’ and ‘Curlew River’. The Ceremony then has an opening procession and a closing recession to ‘Hodie Christus natus est’. My copy of the score offers no translation but I presume that it translates to ‘Halleluja, Christ is born, Halleluja the Savior appears’ This seems to me to be a carol. The procession is unaccompanied although Britten has indicated an accompaniment should an actual procession prove impossible.
The first song is ‘Wokum Yole’ (Welcome be thou, a heavenly king born in one morning – for whom we sing). The choir sings a strident welcome accompanied by plucked chords on the harp. This is followed by ‘There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bare Jesu‘ and later ‘There be one God in persons three‘ and ‘Angels sungen to shepherds to‘. This then leaves me in no doubt that these really are carols telling the Christmas story.
After the cool beauty of ‘There is no rose‘ we hear a boy soprano soloist in ‘That Yonge child when it gan weep – with the song she lulled him asleep‘. This is a gentle lullaby with the soloist then leading us into ‘Balulalow‘; Mary’s love song to the infant Jesus – ‘I shall rock thee to my heart, and never mair from there thee depart.’ The tempo increases; allegro for ‘As dew in Aprille‘ and presto for ‘This little babe‘, both for full boys choir. ‘As dew in Aprille‘ likens Christ at Mary’s breast to the dew in April falling on the flowers. ‘This little babe‘ celebrates Christs coming ‘to rifle satans fold – all hell doth at his presence quake‘. This song develops more and more vigorously ending the first section of the work on ‘If thou wilt foils thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly boy‘.
There follows an interlude for solo harp leading into a second-half which has undergone a distinct change of mood – concern rather than celebration:’Behold a silly tender babe, in freezing winter night, in homely manger trembling lies, alas a piteous sight‘. The boys sing plaintively and I am sure that Michael Kennedy+ is correct when he writes “the music shivering with cold as the phrygian intenais collide cononically“, but, as is sometimes said, “I could not possibly comment !”.
Things warm up again for the ‘Spring Carol‘ ‘Pleasure it is to hear iwis the birdes sing- deer in the dale- the sheep in the vale – the corn springing’. No longer are we downcast but joyful and ready to thank God in the final song ‘Deo gracias’ which details the Fall of Adam – ‘all for an apple – but if he had not taken the apple there would have been no need for Our Lady to be the heavenly Queen – so blessed was the time the apple was taken and we thank God for it’. The boys shout an excited ‘Deo Gracias‘ over a harp ‘glissando rapido’ and then the boys quietly leave with ‘Hodie Christus‘.
All that remains is the sound of snow falling almost silently – and for me to wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.
1) Procession ‘Hodie Christmas’ Anon
2) ‘Wokum yole’ Anon
3) ‘There is no Rose’ Anon
4a) ‘That yonge Child’ Anon
4b) ‘Balulalow’ James, John, and Robert Wedderburn
5) ‘As dew in Aprille’ Anon
6) ‘This little Babe’ Robert Southwell
7) Interlude (Harp)
8) ‘In freezing winter night’ Robert Southwell
9) Spring Carol William Cornish
10) ‘Deo Gracias’ Anon
11) Recession ‘Hodie Christmas’ Anon