Listening to Britten – Corpus Christi Carol

Detail of window at Wimborne Priory. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Corpus Christi Carol – arrangement of Variation 5 from A boy was born for voice and piano (19 January 1961, Britten aged 47)

Dedication for John Hahessy
Text Anon, 15th century
Language English
Duration 2’20”

Background and Critical Reception

This is something of an outtake from Britten’s first big choral work, A Boy Was Born, where he set the Corpus Christi Carol as the fifth variation – in which In the bleak midwinter is also sung. The original text and melody originate from the fifteenth century.

This arrangement for treble voice and piano was made for and recorded by the treble John Hahessy, with Britten at the piano.


Hahessy has an unusual voice for a treble, quite full and capable of a sonorous lower range. This would almost certainly have influenced Britten’s key choice, and the melody is quite low, sung over a softly flowing piano part.

It is rather beautiful in isolation, provided the listening conditions are appropriately hushed. It is also a further illustration of Britten’s enduring love of Christmas, which followed him through his career.

Recordings used

John Hahessy (treble), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)

Hahessy sings with commendable surety of tone and pitch, and Britten accompanies beautifully.


John Hahessy can be heard performing the Corpus Christi Carol with Britten here.

Also written in 1961: Elliott Carter – Double Concerto

Next up: Jubilate in C major

This entry was posted in Arrangements and editions, Folksong arrangements, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Corpus Christi Carol

  1. Joe Bryce says:

    This is make-you-weak-at-the-knees beautiful. But how can you not mention Jeff Buckley’s recording? Is it possible you have not heard it? Britten as breakthrough crossover artist. I absolutely adore Buckley’s track, on the ‘Grace’ album.

  2. Gareth says:

    I love those recordings with John Hahessy. I think it’s probably more accurate to call him a boy alto than a treble. You can tell his voice is on the point of breaking, plus he has that strange strength you mention in his lower register, that you wouldn’t hear in a younger boy. It’s an eerie sound, perfect for this carol.

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