Work: A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28
About This Work
Benjamin Britten's decision to leave the United States in 1942 was not easily arrived at, but when he was finally on his way homeward-bound, his troubled conscience -- it was wartime, after all -- seems to have been more than just a little bit
soothed. Over the course of the long journey he began a series of choral works (two were finished during the voyage) that have remained among the most thoroughly popular of all his non-operatic compositions. The second of the two works completed on the ship is the now-famous Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28, for treble voices (properly a choir of boys, but more often sung by women's chorus) and harp. (The first piece was the Hymn to St. Cecilia.)
The 12 pieces of the Ceremony of Carols have, over the last half century, become a perennial part of the English-speaking world's Christmastime celebrations. The Ceremony is not Britten's first compilation of holiday music -- A Boy is Born, from almost a decade earlier, has that distinction. In A Boy is Born, Britten used the mixed choir in a very instrumental way. For the Ceremony, on the other hand, Britten adopts a mock-archaic manner that allows him to weave the modal and linear qualities of his sources into his own very different harmonic and structural language.
The Ceremony begins with an a cappella plainsong procession (the traditional Hodie Christus natus est, "Today, Christ is born") and ends with a recession on the same melody. Between these two pillars are nine carols and, between the sixth and seventh carols, a brilliantly evocative solo harp interlude.
The harp's ostinato introduction to the first carol, "Wolcum Yole!" (No. 2, as the procession is "officially" No. 1), sets up the unusual acoustic tone (unmistakably designed to make use of the amplifying powers of large English cathedrals) of the Ceremony. The delicate vocal homophony of No. 2 is maintained throughout the following "There is no Rose," while No. 4, "That younge child," affords the opportunity for one treble soloist to emerge from the semitone-inflected harp background. "Balulalow" (No. 5), which alternates soloist with ensemble, is more clearly tonal than No. 4, its F sharp minor context making frequent and, in the end, decisive digressions to the parallel major. "As dew in Aprille" (No. 6) develops the chromatic fluctuations provided in the previous number into an oscillation between E flat major and C major (with the dissonant E flat still riding along on top). The sixth carol, "This little Babe" (No. 7), is surely the most famous of the set. A hemiola-ridden accompaniment provides support for a curiously anxious interpretation of the melody that soon erupts into a driving, three-voice canon in which the voices seem to chase one another without ever actually making any progress in the pursuit. The harp positively shimmers with sonority and texture during its three-minute interlude, providing what is, to many listeners, the most appealing music of the entire Ceremony. "In Freezing Winter Night" (No. 9) sets up major second dissonances against shivering harp tremolos. Two treble soloists emerge, almost lifelessly, during the reprise of the opening. The last two carols, "Spring Carol" (No. 10) and "Adam lay i-bounden" (No. 11) are set up in thoroughly contrasting fashion, though, in fact, they form two parts of one larger musical blueprint. "Spring Carol" rides along a harp ostinato that hints at D major without ever giving us a real resolution, while "Adam lay i- bounden" takes off in motoric fashion after a pair of incisive "deo gratias" gestures.
-- Blair Johnston, All Music Guide
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