A Ceremony of Carols
ChoralSong will open its first Christmas concert (Dec 17, 2023) with Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Britten wrote this masterwork in 1942 when he was only 29 years old and aboard a ship on his way back to England after spending 3 profitable years in the United States. Though he had met with such musical greats as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, these Carols, however, don’t reflect any overt American influence. What they do represent is Britten’s genius for vocal writing, and his ability to write in a more populist and obviously melodic style.
This brilliant work features a collection of Christmas poems from the Medieval and Renaissance which Britten wove, along with a traditional Gregorian chant, into a beautiful, 11-movement tapestry for chorus and harp. The result masterfully captures a wide range of emotions, from the tenderness of the manger scene to the ecstatic utterance of the heavenly angels.
The rather fierce and oft-performed 7th movement is of special interest, given the circumstances of its composition. Its lyrics begin as follows: “This little Babe, so few days old, has come to rifle Satan’s fold; All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake.” Given the fear Britten was experiencing while sailing across the Atlantic on an unarmed and unaccompanied merchant ship under the threat of Hitler’s U-boats, one can’t help wondering if this setting was Britten’s attempt to shore up his own sense of courage!
A Ceremony of Carols presents itself both as a single, dramatic concert work, and a collection of distinct and delightful Christmas carols bookended by a processional and recessional. Even if listeners aren’t familiar with the piece, its tone is immediately recognizable as belonging to the holiday season, and its artistic brilliance is accessible to listeners of all ages and backgrounds. It is certainly the perfect piece for ChoralSong’s first Christmas!