Listening to Britten – The Holly and the Ivy

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

The Holly and the Ivy, arrangement for chorus (SATB unaccompanied) (pre July 1957, Britten aged 43)

Dedication June Gordon and the Haddo House Choral Society
Text Traditional
Language English
Duration 4’30”

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s second setting of the popular Christmas carol is for unaccompanied chorus; the previous one having fallen under the banner of his folksong arrangements for voice and piano. The source appears to be Cecil Sharp, who in this story behind the carol from Rupert Christiansen collected it in 1909, sung by Mary Clayton of Chipping Campden.

Perhaps surprisingly neither of Britten’s settings is heard very often, no doubt because of the formidable number of settings from which to choose. This particular one was completed for June Gordon and the Haddo House Choral Society to sing in their carol concerts.


This is a very traditional setting, with some subtle touches around the edges of the harmonies and a careful consideration of the choir’s constituents for each verse.

Britten alternates male and female soloists in the six verses, with some quite elaborate counterpoint winding around the traditional tune. The full choir unites again for the refrain, before the first verse is repeated at the end. This time the refrain is emphatic.

This setting has the language of much earlier Britten – from the time of Christ’s Nativity – and although there is the occasional warm glow at its centre, the more elaborate counterpoint Britten winds around the verses can make the response feel more removed.

Recordings used

Hazel Holt, Jennifer Barber, Kenneth Bowen, Christopher Keyte, The Elizabethan Singers / Louis Halsey
Choir of King’s College Cambridge / Sir David Willcocks (EMI)

Willcocks and the choir of King’s have much more of a warm glow in their version, with some lovely counterpoint from the trebles. I found this version much more satisfactory than the more ‘adult heavy’ Elizabethan Singers version.


Sir David Willcocks conducts the choir of King’s College Cambridge here

Also written in 1957: Vaughan Williams – Ten Blake songs for voice and oboe

Next up: Songs from the Chinese, Op.58

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