Christ’s Nativity (also known as Thy King’s Birthday) – for soprano, contralto and double choir (13 January – 26 March 1931, Britten aged 17)
1 Christ’s nativity (Henry Vaughan)
2 Sweet was the song (William Ballet’s lute book)
3 Preparations (Churst Church ms.)
4 New prince, new pomp (Scriptures and Robert Southwell)
5 Carol of King Cnut (C.W. Stubbs)
Dedication not known
Text Various, as above
Background and Critical Reception
Christ’s Nativity appears to be something of a trial run for a form that Britten perfected with A Boy Was Born. It is a suite of five carols, two of which became separated from the overall work. These were revived at Aldeburgh – New Prince, New Pomp in 1955 and Sweet was the Song in 1966, but the complete five movement work was not first performed until 1991.
Also known as Thy King’s Birthday, the suite was written while the young composer was in the midst of strict counterpoint instruction from his new teacher John Ireland, and there are clear attempts to impress with a number of fugues and some very intricate part writing.
Paul Kildea sees the result of this as an ‘unsettling hybrid of Britten’s own harmonic language, which had been evolving under Bridge’s supervision’, observing that Britten ‘got everything right’ in A Boy Was Born.
Christopher Mark, in his consistently fine chapter for A Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, notes the possible influence of Mahler, whose Fourth Symphony Britten had recently heard for the first time at a Queen’s Hall Prom. He also raises the possibility of an attempt to distance himself from the teachings of Bridge, possibly for college gain. ‘The most straightforward explanation’, says Mark, ‘is the work’s relationship to the conservative English choral tradition…or Britten might simply have been able to see greater potential for structural control and depth, and hence expressive power, in a fundamental diatonicism’ – that being a stricter adherence to writing tonally.
Finally John Bridcut makes the point that the words cannot always be clearly heard, with ‘dense choral textures’ that ‘often obscure the words, which just race by, too plentiful and indistinct’.
Some critical thoughts there – but when one stands back to consider the achievement of the 17-year old composer, the impression is largely one of deep respect. There are passages where the writing is too intricate and congested, for sure, as Britten puts some of his contrapuntal learning in to practice, but there are also moments of great simplicity.
Few passages in early Britten are more beautiful than the mezzo-soprano solo that begins Sweet Was The Song, and the finish to Carol of King Cnut is one of strong affirmation.
Britten’s vocal colours are bright, using the higher voices rather than the low ones to create a sense of wonder at the Christmas message. If the piece were longer this might be a bit wearing, but the soloists help to introduce some variation. The fugues are very intricate, but impressive, and the harmonies are rich.
Holst Singers / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Both choirs overcome the mass of text commendably, and the words can almost always be heard. Bedford’s soloists are not credited on the Naxos website, but Catherine Wyn-Rogers gives a beautiful account of the start of Sweet Was The Song, her vibrato relatively wide but very impressively controlled. The recording quality from Hyperion is outstanding, the sound as clear as can be imagined. Bedford’s account is slightly more rounded, and the speeds vary more too – a whole minute quicker in New Prince, New Pomp.
Stephen Layton’s version is not available, but Steuart Bedford, conducting the BBC singers, can be heard here from track 11 onwards.
Also written in 1931: Vaughan Williams – Piano Concerto
Next up: Twelve Variations on a theme for piano