Listening to Britten – A Wealden Trio (Christmas Song of the Women)


Gresham’s School, Holt

A Wealden Trio (Christmas Song of the Women) – song for two sopranos and mezzo-soprano (28 April – 12 August 1929, Britten aged 15)

Dedication Rosamund (1967 revision)
Text Ford Maddox Ford
Language English
Duration 2’30”

Background and Critical Reception

Another song from Gresham’s, Holt, that Britten used as part of a portfolio submitted with an application to join the Royal College of Music. A Wealden Trio is essentially a carol, although the prose, from Ford Maddox Ford, is described by Paul Kildea as a ‘bleak picture of working-class Yuletide poverty’.

The mood softens as the carol progresses, moving from complaints of how ‘it’s hard work a-Christmassing’ to ‘singin’ songs about the Babe what’s born’. Michael Kennedy observes rather well the softening of the ‘initial asperities as the spirit of Christmas overcomes the pangs of hunger and cold. Britten returned to the carol in 1967 to revise it.

Thoughts

This is the first time we encounter Britten the choral composer – though this song is flexible enough to be sung by unison choir of for solo voices. Ford’s verse would certainly strike a chord today, as Christmas has more potential than ever to be a drain on the finances, the message of the festival getting lost in the clamour to buy the best presents and the most food.

Britten taps in to this feeling, removing tenor and bass registers and using a plaintive, folk-based melody. The sparse clarity of the setting is affecting, moving as it does from raucous complaints of the season’s wrongs to a soft wonderment when Christmas finally arrives. The last moments, the three lines closing in on each other towards the final cadence, softens the heart and mind.

Recordings used
The Wilbye Consort / Sir Peter Pears (Eloquence)
New London Children’s Choir / Ronald Corp (Naxos)

Two very different versions. The Wilbye Consort are more forthright and use much more vibrato; theirs is a much heavier approach initially that gradually softens. The New London Children’s Choir is more emotionally affecting, the purity of the voices and the greater resonance of the recording heightening the impact of the verse.

Spotify
The version by the New London Children’s Choir and Ronald Corp can be found here

Also written in 1929: Shostakovich – Symphony no.3 (The First of May)

Next up: The Birds

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