Hyperion Records

A Ceremony of Carols, Op 28
1942; for upper voices and harp
author of text
Some texts by James, John and Robert Wedderburn (No 4b), Robert Southwell (Nos 6 & 8) and William Cornysh (No 9)

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No 01: Procession  Hodie Christus natus est
No 02: Wolcum Yole!
No 03: There is no rose
No 04a: That yongŽ child
No 04b: Balulalow  O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit
No 05: As dew in Aprille  I sing of a maiden
No 06: This little babe
No 07: Interlude
No 08: In freezing winter night  Behold, a silly tender babe
No 09: Spring Carol  Pleasure it is
No 10: Deo gracias
No 11: Recession  Hodie Christus natus est

A Ceremony of Carols, Op 28
As someone with a lifelong enthusiasm for word-games and musical puns, Britten might have appreciated the irony in a customs official’s decision to confiscate some of his manuscripts before he and Peter Pears sailed home from the United States in March 1942, after a transatlantic stay of nearly three years—even though the documents did not in fact contain any coded messages in musical notation. Once on the transatlantic voyage, Britten was compelled (with Mozartian facility) to write out from memory the music of the Hymn to St Cecilia on which he had been working before being deprived of the manuscript, though he did not attempt to complete the Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman of which the sketches had also been confiscated. Pears wrote to Elizabeth Mayer, their adoptive mother-figure in New York, on 19 April to report that Britten had finished reconstructing the Hymn (‘very lovely!’), and that while on the ship he had also written ‘7 Christmas carols for women’s voices & Harp! Very sweet and chockfull of charm!’. Britten had purchased a poetry anthology in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as he set out on the voyage, and this provided the source for most of the carols’ texts. When the two men arrived back in the United Kingdom, Britten’s freshly written manuscripts were also (temporarily) confiscated, this time by a British official.

Given Britten’s later fondness for boys’ voices, it comes as something of a surprise to note that A Ceremony of Carols was initially conceived for a female choir. By September 1942, Britten was referring to the carols in correspondence as being for ‘children’s voices’. But it was by a women’s choir that the first performance of the initial set of seven was given, on 5 December in the Library of Norwich Castle: the Fleet Street Choir, with Margaret Ritchie (soprano solo), was accompanied on this occasion by Gwendolen Mason (harp) and conducted by T B Lawrence. These same forces gave the set its first broadcast, on the BBC Home Service on 25 January 1943 (along with Hymn to St Cecilia). Later in the year, Britten conceived the idea of framing the piece with a ‘Procession’ and ‘Recession’ (a symmetrical dramatic device encountered in many of his later works), and based these passages on the Magnificat antiphon for the second Vespers of the Nativity, which Alec Robertson (an expert on Gregorian chant) had sent him. Britten added a pastiche plainsong ‘Alleluia’ to the authentic chant ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, and many years later, in the autumn of 1971, he transformed this additional idea into a short three-part canon in honour of Robertson’s eightieth birthday.

In the summer of 1943, Britten added a further carol to the set (‘That yongë child’), along with a new Interlude for solo harp, and his preference for boys’ voices was now strengthened by several memorable performances of the work in the run-up to Christmas. Britten wrote to Elizabeth Mayer on 8 December:

[the carols] have had a series of thrilling shows by a choir of little Welsh boys (from a school in the poorest part of Swansea) and a great Russian harpist, Maria Korchinska. This has meant many journeys to Wales to rehearse, & then they all (35!) came up to town & sang the piece many times, & to record it […] People seem to love the piece, & altho’ it has been only printed about a month, the 1st edition is just on sold out.

The ‘little Welsh boys’ came from the Morriston School (which is now a comprehensive), and they gave the revised version of the score its first performance on 4 December at Wigmore Hall in London, under Britten’s direction; the Russian harpist mentioned here had already worked with Britten at the GPO Film Unit when he was composing scores for documentaries prior to his American sojourn, and her playing features on the soundtrack to the celebrated film Night Mail (1936), with its well-known script by W H Auden. The Morriston Boys’ recording of A Ceremony of Carols was issued by Decca in 1944. In a letter to Mary Behrend written on 9 December 1943, Britten commented: ‘I think the little boys were enchanting—the occasional roughness was easily overweighed by their freshness & naivety—something very special.’ These were qualities that the composer was later to appreciate in the Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir and the trebles of Westminster Cathedral Choir, with whom he frequently collaborated in the 1960s, though he also enjoyed working with more polished groups such as the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir (with whom he recorded A Ceremony of Carols in 1953) and the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

A Ceremony of Carols was dedicated to Ursula Nettleship, a singing teacher and choral trainer who was later responsible for assembling the choir that took part in the first performance of Britten’s Saint Nicolas in 1948.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2012

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