Traveling by ship between the United States and England in March of 1942 was not the easiest or safest thing to do. Although the trip could have long bouts of monotony, with u-boat activity at its height, it could also have times of terror as well. But that is where composer Benjamin Britten found himself after having spent the previous three years in America, after following frequent collaborator, poet W.H. Auden, across the pond.
Britten, a well-known opera composer of the time, was working on two pieces as he entered a Swedish cargo vessel for the return home. One was a song for Benny Goodman, and the second was his last large-scale collaboration with Auden, Hymn of St. Cecilia. But, on the supposition that the music might contain secret codes, the works were confiscated by customs officials, leaving Britten with a little more time on his hands that he originally intended.
During a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten purchased a book of medieval poems. Using these poems as his inspiration, during the voyage Britten created a work entitled Ceremony of Carols. He also recreated the Hymn of St. Cecilia, although his work for Goodman has been lost.
His original piece consisted of seven carols based on five of the works printed in the book of poems, and another that was hand-written on the flyleaf and back cover. He added other movements based on other poems and songs, including a plainsong procession and recession using the medieval chant Hodie Christus natus est. The procession and recession may have been influenced by Gustav Holst’s earlier work Hymn to Jesus.
The work is not your typical “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” Christmas music, but instead is focused on the mystery of Christmas story and deeply influenced by medieval theology and practice. Although Britten evokes things that are familiar, such as the cold of an English Christmas, much of the world it suggests is very different from ours, or from Britten’s.
Some of this is accomplished through the use of complex and unusual melodies and harmonies Britten created, and other parts come from his unusual choice of accompanying instrument, the harp, an instrument not usually combined with choral music. Britten had been studying the instrument in order to write a concerto for harp, but instead incorporated that work into this arrangement. The piece was also originally scored for a boys' choir, who were the first to perform it, but composer Julius Harrison later created a score for an entire choir.
One commentator remarked, “This piece is incredibly atmospheric – it really is the sound of winter. When Britten wants you to feel cold, you feel freezing. When he wants you to feel enchanted, you do. For many choral singers, this is the piece of the Christmas repertoire.”
Now the purpose of all this background is to get you excited to hear the choir’s presentation of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols this Sunday. The choir has been working very hard, as they always do, and so I hope you will join us to hear them perform this work. And, unlike the past three years I have been here, there is no call, as of yet, for significant accumulation of snow for the Sunday they are presenting their cantata (although I wouldn’t put away your snow shovels quite yet).
Hope to see you all there!