A Ceremony of Carols, Op.28 – for treble voices and harp (March – October 1942, Britten aged 28)
Dedication Ursula Nettleship
Text W.H. Auden
2 Wolcum yole! (Anon)
3 There is no rose
4a That yongë child
4b Balulalow (James, John and Robert Wedderburn)
5 As dew in Aprille (Anon)
6 This little babe (Robert Southwell)
7 Interlude (for solo harp)
8 In freezing winter night (Robert Southwell)
9 Spring carol (William Cornish)
10 Deo gracias (Anon)
Clips from the recordings made by the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, conducted by the composer, alternate with some from the work’s most recent recording, made by Trinty College Cambridge and conducted by Stephen Layton. With thanks to Decca and Hyperion.
2 Wolcum yole!
3 There is no rose
4a That yongë child
5 As dew in Aprille
6 This little babe
8 In freezing winter night
9 Spring carol
10 Deo gracias
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s return to church music with A Ceremony of Carols was conceived as he and Pears traveled up the Eastern coast of North America on the MS Axel Johnson. As the ship stopped at Halifax, Nova Scotia, for repairs, Britten – ever on the lookout for a text – found in a shop The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett.
With that as his inspiration he wrote the majority of his eleven Middle English carol settings as the boat crossed the Atlantic to Liverpool. The work was finished a few months after docking, its first performance an incomplete account at Norwich Castle on December 5, 1942. It was dedicated to Ursula Nettleship, a choir mistress and singing teacher who later took charge of St Nicolas for Britten.
Initially Britten opted to use women’s voices with harp accompaniment, but over time he felt trebles were better suited, and this was confirmed to him when he recorded the carols for Decca with the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir in 1953.
The use of the harp is highlighted by Stephen Arthur Allen in his examination of the piece in The Cambridge Companion to Britten. He sees it as signifying ‘the dilemma between beauty and temptation’, with ‘child-like’ ostinato patterns and dance-like rhythms that enhance the quality of innocence and nostalgia for lost childhood’.
A lot is made of Britten’s attempts to recover his childhood in this piece, perhaps at the extent of recognising its musical accomplishment and subtle innovation.
The simple act of the choir singing the chant Hodie Christus natus est as they process in and out at the start and finish of A Ceremony of Carols gives a wonderful spatial effect, either in performance or on headphones, making the listener stop in their tracks almost immediately.
Meanwhile the crystal clear treble voices evoke the sharp, cold days of winter and the starry nights, too. The excitement of the season is keenly felt in This little babe, a stunningly constructed triple canon that seems to chase its tail across the sky, while In freezing winter night makes the listener shiver, especially on Britten’s own recording, through its tremoloes on the harp.
Britten uses a wide spectrum of colour in his writing for the instrument, following perhaps in the footsteps of Holst, who wrote very effectively for choir and harps in his Rig Veda Hymns. In the Ceremony’s Interlude, however, Britten brings all the themes together, with a grand sweep at the centre.
Interestingly the overall key structure takes as its two main centres E flat major and A major, working in a very similar way to Les illuminations, which couldn’t be further removed where subject matter is concerned! There are echoes of Mahler here, too, the child’s vision of heaven in the Symphony no.4 explored further – with the harp prominent here as it is in the finale of that piece.
But after all that thought, how much fun must it be to sing in a performance of this piece? You suspect that was Britten’s main aim all along, to make a piece for choir that they would enjoy singing, and that would bring some of the mystery and wonder of the Christmas season to life and to audiences. He succeeded handsomely, and continues to do so now, as A Ceremony of Carols remains one of the most performed and best-loved of all seasonal pieces.
Of the many versions available, the following were used:
Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, Enid Simon (harp) / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Sally Pryce (harp) / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Osian Ellis (harp) / David Willcocks (EMI)
Choir of New College Oxford, Frances Kelly (harp) / Edward Higginbottom (Novum)
The Sixteen, Sioned Williams (harp) / Harry Christophers (Coro)
Finzi Singers, Susan Drake (harp) / Paul Spicer (Chandos)
New London Children’s Choir, Skaila Kanga (harp) / Ronald Corp (Naxos)
In picking a single recording of A Ceremony of Carols it helps first to decide if you prefer it sung by a mixture of women and treble voices, or by treble voices alone. My personal preference is for trebles, because of the greater clarity, the result being not just clearer but colder, too, which is ideal for a Christmassy feel!
Britten’s own version is markedly different from all the others, taken at quicker speeds, using more vibrato and with a harp interlude that somehow brings out parallels with the far East, indicating that some of his Bali influence may have ended up here also. Of the ‘English’ versions with trebles, both the Choir of King’s College and the Trinity College Choir excel, with strong character, colour and discipline. Edward Higginbottom also secures a highly characterful version on a new collection of Britten’s sacred works, while Ronald Corp curiously opts to use the harp in the Processional with the New London Children’s Choir. This doesn’t work because it means the choir are already in front of the listener, rather than walking in.
The womens’ voices convey less of a sense of wonder, but the version by The Sixteen is extremely well sung, holding a slight edge over the Finzi Singers on Chandos.
The following playlist groups together the versions made by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers, the New London Children’s Choir under Ronald Corp and Britten’s own recording with the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, made in 1953.
Also written in 1942: Walton – Christopher Columbus
Next up: The foggy, foggy dew