Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
During his early career, Britten undertook occasional commissions from the BBC in order to supplement his longer-term concert and operatic work. In the autumn of 1944 he contributed music to a radio program entitled A Poet’s Christmas, which also featured music, by Michael Tippett. Britten’s contribution was his A Shepherd’s Carol and Chorale after an old French Carol with a text by his close friend and frequent collaborator W H Auden. The Chorale’s text was part of an unachieved Christmas Oratorio on which Britten and Auden intended to collaborate. Britten’s setting is based on the hymn tune ‘Picardy’, know in France as ‘Romancero’. It was unperformed for many years, but was resurrected in 1961 by Imogen Holst.
The choral writing is expansive and dense, giving Auden’s weighty text a poignant gravity. In the central section, as John Bridcut notes, “the parts move at different speeds, producing a kaleidoscope of glistening sound.”