Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
While Britten and Auden were living in the United States Auden wrote the text for a Christmas Oratorio which he later re-titled For the Time Being. It was always intended that Britten would set the poem to music. In the end, however, Britten returned to the UK and only set two brief portions of the text when asked to contribute to a BBC radio program called "A Poet’s Christmas." Britten then set the Shepherd’s Carol and Chorale after an Old French Carol. Auden had remarked that the text for The Shepherd’s Carol should be set as either ‘jazz or Folk-song’. Britten’s rather lovely easygoing setting seems to show that he had listened to Auden’s advice.
The format of this beautifully simple carol is a repeated refrain sung by the choir (‘O lift your little pinkie, and touch the winter sky...’) interspersed by a verse each for the four soloists. It is one of Britten’s most touchingly direct settings. It seems odd that he chose to withdraw it after its first performance.