Based on medieval carols, the circumstances surrounding Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols were difficult, both personally and professionally. The composer had fled to the United States at the outbreak of war in 1939 and during the three years he spent living in Brooklyn he met a cast of America’s most influential artists, writers and performers including Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, Edward Hopper and Salvador Dali, and W.H. Auden.
But by 1942, the mood in New York had changed and a homesick Britten felt the time was right to return home and he undertook the perilous journey across an Atlantic Ocean infested with U-boats. Despite the obvious dangers, Britten was able to spend the journey composing. He completed his Hymn to Saint Cecilia and began to arrange Christmas carols found in a book of poetry he had picked up in Nova Scotia before boarding the Swedish cargo ship, MS Axel Johnson, for the fraught passage home. The result was A Ceremony of Carols, a turning point for Britten, marking a return to his English musical roots and the development of a more populist and obviously melodic style of writing.
Originally written for harp and treble voices, A Ceremony of Carols begins with an unaccompanied procession, ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, before the harp joins with the choir for a series of carols telling the traditional story of the birth of Christ. Originally the carols themselves were intended as a series of unrelated songs, but just before the original performance in 1943, Britten added a final carol along with the harp interlude.
The text, structured in eleven movements, is taken from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett. It is principally in Middle English, with some Latin and Early Modern English. It was first performed by the women of the Fleet Street Choir, but Britten quickly decided that the sound of boy’s treble voices were better at reflecting the child-like innocence he wanted to achieve through his setting. On 4 December 1943, the final version was performed by the Morriston Boy’s Choir at Wigmore Hall in London, conducted by Britten himself, and it was this same group which also made the first recording. Later in 1943, Britten published a version for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass mixed chorus – the version that the Chancel Choir will perform.
There is an excellent recording of the mixed voices arrangement of the piece conducted by Harry Christophers with The Sixteen and harpist Sioned Williams, available on Spotify and Apple Music.
Notes by Matthew Webb, sourced from the publisher Boosey & Hawkes website.
A Ceremony of Carols featuring The Chancel Choir with Merynda Adams on Harp.