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A Ceremony of Carols

Queen's College Choir Oxford, Owen Rees (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2019
The Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: October 2020
Total duration: 62 minutes 41 seconds

‘An undoubted jewel in Britain’s choral scene’ (BBC Music Magazine), the Choir of The Queen’s College Oxford presents Britten's seminal Ceremony of Carols as the centrepiece of a glorious collection of Christmas music spanning over 900 years.

In 1942 Benjamin Britten sailed from America—where he had lived since 1939—back to war-torn England. Before tackling the journey across the Atlantic, the ship stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and while there Britten bought a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett. As he noted in correspondence, Britten used the twelve-day voyage to Liverpool to complete his Hymn to St Cecilia ‘as well as 7 Christmas Carols—one had to alleviate the boredom’. These seven carols, written for women’s voices and harp, were to form the core of his A Ceremony of Carols, Op 28. The first performances in 1942 were by the women’s voices of the Fleet Street Choir, but by the time of publication the following year the work had become a piece ‘for treble voices’. Of the seven carols composed during the voyage, the texts of five were taken from the anthology which Britten had purchased in Halifax. Indeed, the idea of a Christmas sequence might well have germinated as he leafed through the first few pages of the book: the third, fourth, and fifth poems in the volume are Adam lay ibounden, There is no rose of such vertu, and I sing of a maiden. The first of these became the final carol in the Ceremony (there entitled ‘Deo Gracias’, the poem’s closing words, which Britten used as a refrain), preceding the plainsong Recession, while I sing of a maiden was given the title ‘As dew in Aprille’ (a striking simile that recurs in the middle three stanzas) in the Ceremony. The next group of Christmas poems in Bullett’s anthology are four by the Elizabethan poet and Catholic missionary priest Robert Southwell, from which Britten selected Behold, a silly tender babe (entitled ‘In Freezing Winter Night’ in the Ceremony) and This little Babe. Britten also wrote out onto blank pages of the book two verses from a sixteenth-century Scots carol, beginning ‘O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit’, entitled ‘Balulalow’ (the name of the tune to which it was originally sung) in the Ceremony. Among the other manuscript additions to the book are two lines from the well-known Latin carol Resonet in laudibus, which Britten clearly wrote down from memory, given the mistakes which he made in the Latin.

Britten’s Ceremony of Carols thus encapsulates, as a project, the intersection of old and new which has been a pervasive feature of Christmas music since the nineteenth century. But more specifically it has—since the 1940s—been viewed simultaneously as a signal of Britten’s turn back towards English musical and cultural traditions and as a distinctly modern composition. Edward Sackville-West (who provided the liner notes for the first recording of the work) wrote in 1943 about how Britten here eschewed all sentimentality, creating fresh, vivid, and taut expressions of clear-cut (if sometimes rapidly shifting) emotions: ‘This is not a nineteenth-century Christmas … the picture is edged with a mysterious brightness—the figure of Innocence undertowed by a distant sadness.’ The delicious mixture of the viscerally direct and the mysterious—and of joy and melancholy—is achieved often through the quick alternation of major and minor, as in the portrayal of the song of the nightingale in ‘That yongë child’, and throughout ‘Balulalow’, while both ‘This little Babe’ and ‘Deo Gracias’—which are predominantly in the minor—end in major-mode exultation. The intersection and integration of old and new in the ‘7 Christmas carols’ composed at sea was made still more explicit in musical terms in some of the items which Britten added to complete the Ceremony after his return to England. At the centre of the whole work—and the longest movement within it—stands the powerful and poignant harp Interlude. Most obviously, this is based upon the plainsong ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ which Britten added as the framing Procession and Recession of the cycle; but the four-note ostinato motive which accompanies that plainsong and which binds the whole movement together (including the extraordinary concluding passage where the music gradually dissipates into silence) is another fragment of plainchant, and indeed the most famous chant motive of the middle ages and the early-modern period: the opening of the Salve regina. (The motif is thus not, as sometimes claimed, simply an evocation of bells.) Britten thus brings Mary and Christ together musically at the centre of the Ceremony by combining two plainchants, the juxtaposition evoking the endless representations of the Mother and Child in medieval and Renaissance art. In this movement and in the addition of the plainchant Procession and Recession to frame the work and to evoke ritual, we can see connections between A Ceremony of Carols and the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic liturgical revivals and broader neo-medievalist movements.

On this album we frame Britten’s Ceremony with a broader juxtaposition and exploration of old and new in Christmas music. The programme alternates between the early seventeenth century—works by that most prolific composer and arranger of Lutheran Christmas music, Michael Praetorius—and the present: music by Judith Weir (1984), David Blackwell (2011), Jonathan Dove (2000), Dobrinka Tabakova (2018), Toby Young (2017), and Cecilia McDowall (2007). At one point we interrupt the pattern of alternation to look back half a millennium further than Praetorius, with Hildegard of Bingen’s O virga ac diadema. Praetorius’s settings themselves highlight the longevity of much Christmas music: the texts and melodies of Resonet in laudibus, In dulci jubilo, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, and Puer natus in Bethlehem, for example, already had long histories at the time that Praetorius published his settings—many of them in the then fashionable dramatic double-choir style—and they enjoy a strong presence in modern Christmas repertories through various settings and arrangements. We draw attention to such continuities by means of one specific pairing of old and new: Praetorius’s famous setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen and David Blackwell’s treatment of the same tune and text, in the English version Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.

Within a relatively short publishing career, from 1605 to his death in 1621, Praetorius disseminated through print an astonishingly rich array of music for Lutheran liturgical use, focusing particularly on settings of traditional melodies (especially chorales). Writing for double choir predominates in the early volumes of his monumental series Musæ Sioniæ, which includes (in the second volume, 1607) the settings of In dulci jubilo and Puer natus in Bethlehem presented here. Both represent the prominence of macaronic texts—mixing elements in Latin and the vernacular—in the Christmas repertory of the middle ages and beyond, and more generally the juxtaposition of Latin and German which was quite common practice in Lutheran churches. The opening stanza of In dulci jubilo (which is all that Praetorius sets in this version) switches constantly between Latin and German, while in Puer natus in Bethlehem the first verse of the medieval Latin hymn is then repeated in German translation (‘Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem’), whereafter the Christmas scene is presented in German, with a return to a mixture of Latin and German stanzas for the concluding offering of praise. This particular German translation of the Latin hymn, and the associated melody, date from the mid sixteenth century. The resplendent eight-voice textures and chiming dialogues between the two choirs produce vivid evocations of communal rejoicing in In dulci jubilo, and the whole work is an exuberant exercise in reworking and varying the melodic phrases of the traditional melody. In the lengthy Puer natus in Bethlehem Praetorius keeps the listeners’ attention partly through the varied and witty manner in which he treats the ‘alleluia’ which ends every verse, and also through switches between triple and duple metre, a device which is still more prominent in his six-voice setting of Resonet in laudibus, published in Eulogodia Sionia in 1611. The close echoing of the top two voices at the opening here is a nice play on the first word, ‘resonet’, and Praetorius’s gift for textural drama is to the fore in the high-spirited repetitions of ‘eia, eia’ for high voices, low voices, and the full ensemble.

Praetorius’s published collections demonstrate his commitment to providing settings of chorales and other traditional melodies in a broad spectrum of styles from grand and complex to simple four-part chordal harmonisations. The latter end of the spectrum is represented in the sixth volume of his Musæ Sioniæ series (1609), which includes two hymns recorded here: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen and Philipp Nicolai’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (known to English-speaking audiences as ‘How brightly shines the morning star’). Likewise simple in texture is the dance-like Geborn ist Gottes Söhnelein, which Praetorius published as part of a series of Christmas texts inserted after the verses of a Magnificat setting in his Megalynodia Sionia (1611). Praetorius here engineers a delightful musical crescendo by setting the three stanzas of the text for two, three, and four voices respectively. His treatment of the hymn melody (which he adapted from that of the Latin hymn Puer nobis nascitur, and which is familiar now through its use for ‘Come, thou Redeemer of the earth’) is playfully elusive: in the opening duet it acts as the lower ‘supporting’ voice until the last phrase, when it suddenly shifts to the top voice an octave higher, and these two voices continue to take turns in singing phrases of the melody in the other two verses.

The links between old and new among the modern works on the recording are at their strongest in the opening work, Judith Weir’s setting of the Advent Prose Drop down, ye heavens, from above. Weir’s setting is a treatment of the plainsong melody; she includes the opening antiphon and the fourth verse (‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people …’) in which the promise of salvation is given, and then (as occurs in liturgical performance) repeats the antiphon. The texture for most of the piece—including the hushed opening and closing sections—is evocative of simple medieval techniques for harmonising chant: here, the sopranos and basses sing the chant in octaves, with one or more of the inner voices providing harmonic colour. This simplicity and reserve makes all the more dramatic the outburst of incandescence at ‘Fear not, for I will save thee; For I am the Lord thy God’, where the chant—though still present—is surrounded by an aureole of up to seven-part writing.

The most telling moment in David Blackwell’s arrangement of Lo, how a rose e’er blooming (in origin, the German Es ist ein Ros entsprungen as set by Praetorius) is likewise achieved by transformation of the familiar melody. At the beginning of the third verse, to evoke the ‘radiance’ and ‘glorious splendour’, dispelling the darkness, Blackwell transports the melody to a higher key and pitch, floating magically above the sustained key-note of the piece and evoking the meeting of heaven and earth at the Incarnation.

Dorothy L Sayers’s striking reimagining of the story of the Magi, ‘The Three Kings’, was published in her first book of poetry in 1916, in the midst of the Great War. Sayers portrays the kings as, successively, ‘very young’, ‘a man in prime’, and ‘very old’, and the gifts they bear are presented in the reverse of the conventional biblical order: the young king brings myrrh, the second incense, and the third gold. This inversion puts the emphasis—in Sayers’ poem and Dove’s setting—on the traditional foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion and death in the kings’ gifts: myrrh represents the embalming oil for burial, and Sayers draws a connection also with the bitter gall offered to Christ on the Cross: the young king ‘came bearing a branch of myrrh than which no gall is bitterer’. Reference forward to the Passion was common in medieval carols, and the specific language here in Sayers’ text also recalls a verse of The holly and the ivy: ‘The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall’, where ‘the bark’ stands for the Cross. The ‘ballads’ sung by the young king are therefore ‘doleful’, and Dove’s music evokes this with the sombre ostinatos of the lullaby music which begins the piece and punctuates it as a refrain. The assigning of the most bitter gift to the ‘very young’ king adds poignancy, inflected perhaps by what was occurring on the Western Front. But the mood shifts decisively for the third king: Dove provides ebullient music of sparkling vivacity to portray the golden gifts—‘gauds’, ‘glittering toys’, and ‘baubles’—given for the baby boy’s delight.

The text of Now may we singen likewise represents the focus in many late-medieval English carols on Christ’s suffering and sacrifice as propitiation for our sin. Cecilia McDowall’s setting of this macaronic text (the refrain of which ends with the Latin ‘quod puer natus est nobis’) draws overtly on aspects of familiar medieval soundscapes, with its use of drones in the verses, voices moving in parallel fourths, bare fifths at cadences, and alternation of metres. Similar metrical devices characterise Dobrinka Tabakova’s Good-will to men, and peace on Earth, and the composer likewise achieves a ‘playful element’ (in her words): the traditions of conviviality associated with carols (again traceable to their medieval origins) are here reinforced by the use of clapping as another component in the texture. Toby Young looks partly to another tradition—that of folk music—in The Owl, but in so doing he evokes similar conviviality and indeed uses a similar pattern of alternating metres to that of McDowall’s and Tabakova’s works.

Owen Rees © 2020

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