A boy was born, Op.3 – Choral variations for unaccompanied men’s, women’s and boys’ voices (organ ad lib) (25 November 1932 – 11 May 1933, Britten aged 19)
1 Theme: A boy was born (anon. 16th century)
2 Variation 1: Lullay, Jesu (anon. before 1536)
3 Variation 2: Herod (anon. 15th century)
4 Variation 3: Jesu, as Thou art our saviour (anon. 15th century)
5 Variation 4: The three kings (anon. 15th century)
6 Variation 5: In the bleak mid-winter (Christina Rossetti; anon. 15th century)
7 (Finale) Noel! (anon. 15th century, Thomas Tusser, Francis Quarles)
Dedication ‘To my father’
Text Various, as above
1 Theme: A boy was born (Purcell Singers / Benjamin Britten)
2 Variation 1: Lullay, Jesu (anon. before 1536) (Holst Singers / Stephen Layton)
3 Variation 2: Herod (anon. 15th century) (Holst Singers / Stephen Layton)
4 Variation 3: Jesu, as Thou art our saviour (anon. 15th century) (Holst Singers / Stephen Layton)
5 Variation 4: The three kings (anon. 15th century) (Holst Singers / Stephen Layton)
6 Variation 5: In the bleak mid-winter (Christina Rossetti; anon. 15th century) (Holst Singers / Stephen Layton)
7 (Finale) Noel! (anon. 15th century, Thomas Tusser, Francis Quarles) (Holst Singers / Stephen Layton)
Background and Critical Reception
A boy was born perfects the idea of a Christmas suite that Britten began with Christ’s Nativity in 1931, yet the stylistic differences between the two are marked – and the praise from critics and scholars alike for this work is unanimous.
Its first radio broadcast was on the same day that Elgar died, a coincidence used by Michael Kennedy to begin his Britten biography. The immediate reception was rapturous, the Observer praising its ‘endless invention and facility…He rivets attention from the first note onwards: without knowing in the least what is coming, one feels instinctively that this is music it behoves one to listen to’.
Paul Kildea highlights that composition proceeded in spite of Britten’s father’s declining health – the composer eventually dedicating the piece to him. Kildea finds the piece ‘so inventive, so touching and difficult, it is hard to believe it was composed only 18 months or so after Christ’s Nativity’.
Britten’s publisher contact Hubert Foss declared it ‘one of the most remarkable choral works I have ever heard.
It proves fascinating to read conductor Paul Spicer’s thoughts on the piece, as part of a very interesting Britten Choral Guide for Boosey & Hawkes. Giving the piece maximum marks for difficulty, he talks about the challenges presented for tuning and rhythm.
A boy was born is Britten’s first masterpiece. In it he perfects the variation form explored in previous works, and builds on the obvious potential of the work’s prototype, Christ’s Nativity.
So thorough and accomplished are Britten’s workings that even careful analysis does not fully express his craft, so it is best left to the likes of Arnold Whittall, who does that with great clarity in The Music of Britten and Tippett.
On a listening level, this work has several ‘ear worms’, and the several days of listening to A boy was born have involved early mornings full of the ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Wassail’ motifs, both drawn from the very start of the work. Any more than four listens and these are lodged indelibly in the head – a characteristic of Britten’s melodic writing throughout his career.
The word painting here is also wonderfully responsive to the text. When ‘Herod slew with pride and sin’ in the second variation there is a real sense of dread, while water turns quickly to ice in the setting of In The Bleak Midwinter, its close interval singing a good deal less cosy than the versions we know by Holst and Darke. Meanwhile all the voices trip over each other in their excitement to welcome the new arrival in the setting of the fifteenth-century carol Welcome, be thou heaven-king, which forms part of the finale.
However the cold treble solo in the third variation, Jesu, as thou art our Saviour, steals the show as a moment of pure beauty, the melody suspended over held notes from the static choir as if imported from the 16th century. Britten considered it highly enough to choose it for the funeral of his own father the next year.
The finale brings all the individual strands together and builds still further, a remarkable collage of carols and melodies that is not at all indulgent, rather a shimmering tapestry through which Britten pays his own calculated but emotive homage to Christ. A wonderful and ultimately affirming piece of music.
Purcell Singers, Boys’ Voices of the English Opera Group / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Holst Singers / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
London Sinfonietta Chorus, Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral / Terry Edwards (Virgin)
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / Stephen Cleobury (Decca)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)
The technical challenges presented by A boy was born are met head on in each of these recordings, giving the work a formidable discography. There are differences to be found in the detail, however. Purity of expression and intonation is the achievement for both Polyphony under Stephen Layton, who give an athletic performance of the long finale, and the Choir of King’s College Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury.
Harry Christophers and the Sixteen are closer to the microphone, and their exceptional virtuosity comes with the caveat that vibrato is occasionally used, which changes the sound and can mar the purity of expression a little. The London Sinfonietta Chorus and Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral present a convincing blended sound, while the recording of The Purcell Singers, made under Britten himself in 1957, holds up remarkably well. However the version to which I continue to return is the Holst Singers, excellently recorded by Hyperion.
The playlist found here allows the listener to compare the recordings conducted by Benjamin Britten, Stephen Cleobury and Harry Christophers.
Also written in 1933: Shostakovich – Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor, Op.35
Next up: Two Two-Part Songs