Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

In 1939, Benjamin Britten was tired of the musical scene in England and in Europe. Though successful, he was not accepted as a foremost English composer as he deserved. Following on from Edward Elgar, there was a flowering of British composers working in a pastoral, neo-nationalist style: Bliss, Delius, Finzi, and of course, the giant Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Britten’s style was altogether different; sparse and angular, influenced by the work of Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, composers considered most unsuitable for a young English composer to admire.

Inspired by the work of the poet W H Auden, he set off for America. But Britten found America to have “all the faults of Europe and none of the attractions” and so, in 1942, he set sail to return to England. Britten actually intended to use the month long voyage to complete what would become his well-known Hymn to St. Cecilia, but these early sketches were confiscated by customs authorities who feared that the music was in fact a secret code. En route, he stopped in Nova Scotia, where he came upon The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, a collection of medieval texts. These later became the collection we know as A Ceremony of Carols.

Shortly before departing the U.S., Britten had received a commission to compose a harp concerto, and in the meantime he had begun to familiarize himself with the instrument. This provided the basis and probably the inspiration for his choice of harp to accompany the vocal parts in A Ceremony of Carols. Although the first published edition of the work recommended that boy sopranos sing the three treble lines that comprise the chorus, Britten's early manuscripts show that he originally conceived of them as women's parts. Some years later, Britten authorized an arrangement of the piece for four-part mixed voices (possibly at the suggestion of his publisher).

A Ceremony of Carols consists of eight polyphonic settings of mostly anonymous 15th- and 16th century poems, which Britten had discovered in a handbook called The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems that he found in Nova Scotia while the ship was in port. These eight carols are bookended by statements of the Gregorian chant “Hodie Christus Natus Est” and midway through the set is an astounding interlude for harp solo that features this same plainchant tune. The carols themselves show a remarkable diversity of styles, from the jubilant exultations of “Wolcume Yule” and “Deo Gracias”, to the pastoral solos of “That yongë child” and “Balulalow,” to the to the martial urgency of “This Little Babe's” expanding canon – and whose vivid "holy war" between the infant and Satan must surely have been inspired by the real-life world war.

Edited by Ryan Turner

Back to Other Notes & Translations