Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Harpist's handsToday’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols.

Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it.

At about the same time, he decided to return to England, which required a sea voyage made especially dangerous by German submarine warfare. He composed music, including A Ceremony of Carols, on the voyage, finished the opera Peter Grimes once back in England, became internationally famous, and composed The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra shortly thereafter.

Composing A Ceremony of Carols

The voyage back to England was unpleasant for more than the treat of being sunk by German U-Boots. He traveled on a freighter. His cabin was hot and smelly. The crew was inexperienced and obnoxious. What else could he do to pass the time except compose something?

He could hardly work on his opera under those conditions. When the ship stopped at Halifax, Nova Scotia, he purchased a book of medieval poems, The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, by Gerald Bullett. By the time he arrived in England, he had composed five Christmas carols from the book, two other carols, and Hymn to St. Cecilia.

He set the carols for 3-part woman’s chorus and harp. Why harp? He had a hand harp with him. He had been studying the instrument with the intention of composing a concerto for it.

At first, he had only seven carols. He combined one of them, “Wolcum Yole,” with a setting of the words to the Gregorian chant for Christmas day, “Hodie Christus natus est.” The set was not yet a finished composition.

Once he got home, he decided to replace his setting of the “Hodie” with the original chant melody and use it as both a processional and recessional. He recycled the music with a new piece, “Spring carol.” The text has nothing to do with Christmas, but it expressed his elation with being home. I

In this form, Britten conducted the first performance of A Ceremony of Carols, by The Fleet Street Choir, in December 1942. After that performance, he composed a new solo piece, “That yongë child,” and the harp interlude and decided that he would prefer the sound of a boys choir. The following Christmas, he introduced the final version with the Morriston Boy’s Choir.

  1. Procession
  2. Wolcum Yole!
  3. There is no Rose
  4. a) That yongë child – b) Balulalow
  5. As dew in Aprille
  6. This little Babe
  7. Interlude (harp solo)
  8. In freezing winter night
  9. Spring Carol
  10. Deo gracias
  11. Recession

I found a video of a wonderful performance of the beginning of the piece by the boys of the Westminster Cathedral Choir.

Performing A Ceremony of Carols

The piece became so popular that the publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, asked another composer, Julius Hairston, to provide a four-part arrangement for mixed choir. Apparently the four-part arrangement is performed somewhat more than the original treble version, but the treble version is recorded much more often. I know of at least one good recording of the four-part version though: the choir I sang in as an undergraduate recorded it.

The first performance choice, then, is which version to sing. For the average choir, there is no point in presenting the treble version unless they can find some music of comparable rehearsal difficulty for the men to sing on the same program.

To my ear, the male voices add extra richness to some of the movements, especially “Balulalow.” Unfortunately they completely destroy the rapid cannon at unison in “This little Babe.”

It is not average choirs, though, that issue the recordings. In general, the treble version is superior and gives the audience a better musical experience.

In terms of melody, rhythm, and harmony, A Ceremony of Carols is no more difficult than any other music of the season. The chief trouble comes from the texts. Only a few were written as late as Shakespeare’s time. Even more than in Shakespeare, some of the words are obsolete. Medieval English pronunciation was much different from that in Shakespeare’s time, let alone in ours.

Britten himself provided a pronunciation guide. His chief concern was that choirs sing so that the audience can understand the text. In the case of words no one in the audience knows, that is impossible no matter how the choir pronounces them.

When I performed the piece, the director found what seemed to him to be the way the texts were pronounced at the time they were written. That has the effect of pronouncing very ordinary English words strangely. It hardly helps the audience understand.

On the other hand, words that used to rhyme don’t any more. If both words are still current vocabulary, preserving the rhyme scheme makes the structure of the poem more apparent. Probably no two conductors come up with the same pronunciations.

Christmas with the Robert Shaw Chorale, with Ceremony of Carols
I love the version recorded by the Robert Shaw Chorale. It is now available only as part of a 2-CD set of the group’s Christmas records—all excellent.
Christmas With The Robert Shaw Chorale


Britten Ceremony of Carols / Trinity College, Cambridge

If you would prefer a single disc, here is a highly recommended recording paired with Britten’s Saint Nicholas.

Britten: A Ceremony Of Carols – Choir Of Trinity College, Cambridge, Holst Singers, Temple Church Ch


Backgrounds: Benjamin Britten / Van Eyck Ensemble, which includes an interview with Britten.
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols / CAMRA, Inc.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by James Jordan.

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