FROM THE MINISTER OF MUSIC
A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten is an oft performed work consisting of several modern settings of medieval carols. And, much like Britten 'borrowed' these old texts as his inspiration for this work, I have 'borrowed' a set of excellent program notes written for a performance in San Francisco in 2008. I hope that these well-written notes will aid in your understanding and appreciation.
Perhaps the most enchanting and haunting feature of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols is its simplicity. What could be more sublimely austere than medieval carols in middle English, sung by robed choirboys, accompanied by the plucked strains of a lone harp? The picture and the sound evoke the hopeful, watchful sense of the days leading up to Christmas.
All of this goes a long way to understanding A Ceremony of Carols' enduring popularity, and the piece is indeed all of these things that it appears to be. But as is often the case with much-loved music -- particularly when much is known about the composer's life and times -- there is more to the story. Britten wrote Ceremony in 1942 while crossing the Atlantic aboard a Swedish cargo ship -- a dangerous proposition at any time, but much more so during wartime while German submarines prowled the ocean. (Britten actually intended to use the month-long voyage to complete what would become his well-known Hymn to St. Cecilia, but these early sketches were confiscated by customs authorities who feared that the music was in fact a secret code.) Britten had departed his native England at the outset of the war in 1939 and headed for the United States, where his fame was growing quickly, and where, it must be noted, he was unlikely to be conscripted into the British army. After several years abroad, he found it time to return home, and embarked on this voyage not knowing if Britten's return home would be greeted by admiration for his boldness, anger at his flight, mere indifference, or -- as it turned out -- a mixture of the three.
Shortly before departing the U.S., Britten had received a commission to compose a harp concerto, and in the meantime he had begun to familiarize himself with the instrument. This provided the basis and probably the inspiration for his choice of harp to accompany the vocal parts in Ceremony. Although the first published edition of the work recommended that boy sopranos -- not an uncommon lot in Britain -- sing the three treble lines that comprise the chorus, Britten's early manuscripts show that he originally conceived of them as women's parts. Some years later, Britten authorized an arrangement of the piece for four-part mixed voices (possibly at the suggestion of his publisher). To be sure, Britten's notion of exactly who should sing the piece was not as concrete as contemporary practice has borne out.
A Ceremony of Carols consists of eight polyphonic settings of mostly anonymous 15th- and 16th- century poems, which Britten had discovered in a handbook called The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems that he found in Nova Scotia while the ship was in port. These eight carols are bookended by statements of the Gregorian chant “Hodie Christus Natus Est” ("Christ is born today"), and midway through the set is an astounding interlude for harp solo that features this same plainchant tune. The carols themselves show a remarkable diversity of styles, from the jubilant exultations of “Wolcume Yule” and “Deo Gracias”, to the pastoral solos of “That yongë child” and “Balulalow,” to the to the martial urgency of “This Little Babe's” expanding canon -- and whose vivid "holy war" between the infant and Satan must surely have been inspired by the real-life world war.