Listening to Britten – A Shepherd’s Carol

Culross Abbey window detail ((c) Ben Hogwood)

A Shepherd’s Carol for chorus (SATB unaccompanied) (8 – 11 November 1944, Britten aged 30)

Dedication Not known
Text W.H. Auden
Language English
Duration 4’00”

Background and Critical Reception

A Shepherd’s Carol is one of two remnants from a much bigger Christmas project Britten, and in particular Auden, had planned. Initially titled A Christmas Oratorio, it eventually adopted the title For The Time Being, but only this and the Chorale after an old French Carol were set to music by Britten.

Britten’s thriftiness as a composer is clear here, for he used the two settings as part of a radio feature programme, Poet’s Christmas, produced for the BBC by Edward Sackville-West. Auden suggested to Britten that the setting ‘should be either Jazz or Folk-song’.


Very much an American carol rather than an English one, with a sense of the blues from afar, A Shepherd’s Carol could be seen as a small piece that preserves the legacy and feeling of Paul Bunyan. It has a remoteness, though, that perhaps gives away the fact Britten was writing something along the lines of an American spiritual from his new base in Suffolk. There is not a sense of ‘belonging’ in the twang or lilt of the verses.

Further to that, Auden’s verse is distinctly melancholy. ‘O lift your little pinkie, and touch the winter sky, Love’s all over the mountains, where the beautiful go to die’ are the opening lines, and the carol stays rather sombre from then on. A different slant on Christmas, certainly, but one that looks at the ‘bleak midwinter’ rather than the ‘joyful and triumphant’!

Recordings used

Wilbye Consort / Peter Pears (Eloquence)
Holst Singers / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)
London Sinfonietta Chorus / Terry Edwards (EMI)
Elizabethan Singers / Louis Halsey (Eloquence)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)

A key element of this performance seems to be how much vibrato is applied to the performance. To my ears at least A Shepherd’s Carol works best when there is little vibrato in the choral refrains and more in the shepherds’ solos. For that reason the Holst Singers and Stephen Layton work very well, especially as the soloists are allowed a bit more rhythmic freedom.

Terry Edwards also goes for a more expansive approach, and his soloists are strong too, with much more vibrato from the choir. The Elizabethan Singers and Wilbye Consort are good too, their older recorded sound standing up well.


This playlist contains three versions mentioned above, those conducted by Louis Halsey, Harry Christophers and Terry Edwards. A fourth version, with Simon Preston conducting the Westminster Abbey Choir as part of an anthology of carols for Deutsche Grammophon, is also included.

Also written in 1944: Shostakovich: String Quartet no.2 in A major, Op.68

Next up: Chorale after an old French Carol

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