Listening to Britten – Men of Goodwill

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Men of Goodwill – Variations on a Christmas Carol (‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’) for orchestra (pre 18 December 1947, Britten aged 34)

Dedication unknown
Duration 8′

Background and Critical Reception

John Bridcut writes that Britten’s last incidental music for the BBC was for an international sequence of festive messages, consisting of orchestral variations on God rest ye merry, gentlemen.

Other than that there is no documentation on this work, which suggests it has rather fallen by the wayside, and indeed in concert performance it is rarely heard – possibly down to its ‘small overture’ scale.


Britten clearly loved Christmas, but although enjoyable this set of variations is not one of his more magical scores of the season. There is quite a crude presentation of the theme on brass, with a foursquare string counterpoint, but he has fun passing the distinctive melody around the orchestra, with bustling strings and trills from the woodwind.

Eventually the theme gets jumbled up in itself, and is effectively fragmented towards the middle of the set of variations, before everything comes together for the crowd pleasing finish. It could almost be a Christmas cousin of The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra!

This is not a subtle piece, though, and compared to the following composition A Charm of Lullabies it is positively flabby. Thankfully the tune is strong enough to sustain all the different treatments it gets!

Recordings used

Minnesota Orchestra / Sir Neville Marriner (EMI)
South West German Radio Kaiserslautern Orchestra / Paul Goodwin (Hänssler Classic)

There are two recordings of Men of Goodwill. Marriner secures the bold performance that the piece needs, while the South West German Radio Kaiserslautern Orchestra under Paul Goodwin are a little more relaxed but still warmly seasonal.


Neville Marriner conducts the Minnesota Orchestra here, while Paul Goodwin conducts the SWR Orchestra here.

Also written in 1947: Ives – Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord)

Next up: A Charm of Lullabies, Op.41

This entry was posted in Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Orchestral, Radio score, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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