Britten, Ceremony of Carols: Notes on individual movements
The original request was:
A colleague of mine has been asked to give short descriptions or
introductions to each movement of Britten's Ceremony of Carols for a
perfomance at his church. Does anyone know of a resource or seen (or
written) anything like this before? These really are not intended to
be program notes but perhpas more "devotional" in nature.
Thanks for your contributions!
I have written an entire edition of PRELUDE last Christmas devoted to
entire work and its composition. I will be happy to send you a copy.
are not necessarily "devotional" in an overtly religious sense. More
the power of the larger story informs the individual movements.
Program Annotator & Editor, PRELUDE
Cathedral Choral Society
Washington National Cathedral
An excerpt from "A Ceremony of Carols: a Handbook of Texts and Program
Notes" by Christopher Titko and William Prante:
The Christmas story is not only angels, shepherds, wise men and a baby.
It's about the Slaughtering of the Innocents and about the weeping of
When listening to the lachrymose tear drops from the harp in "That yonge
child," think Krakow, Auschwitz, Terezin, Sumatra. Don't think of
clothes. Think Ramah. Think Rachel. Think Holocaust.
"That yonge child" is a 14th century poem written in medieval English,
yet, that unlaut suggests that Britten might have interpreted the same
poetry in terms of 20th century Germany. At sea in March of 1942,
to England from America, Britten completed "A Ceremony of Carols."
If this might be what you're interested in, I would be happy to send you
How about translating the Latin for the first one, and giving a reading
the poems in more modernised English. (Maybe not the whole poem). Some
that language is hard for people to understand. But so gorgeous! The
"mystical poets" had very personal relationships with the Divine, and
poetry shows it.
A good bookstore will probably have their Christmas stuff out already.
Madeleine L'Engle wrote a gorgeous take-off on "O COme, O COme Emmanuel,
which could be read---there are quite a few verses. Books esp. with
poems. Or there are some beautifullly written children's Christmas books
could be read before.
Good luck,---- what a great piece of music!
I have written some of this and cobbled from other sources -- I am using
same piece for our Lessons & Carols -- I will be modifying and adding
specifically to enhance the devotional aspect -- use as you see fit.
In May 1939, the young (25 year old) English composer Benjamin Britten
his close friend, tenor Peter Pears, set out for a three-month visit to
Canada and the United States. Before they could arrange their return to
England, World War II broke out and crossing the Atlantic became a very
dangerous prospect. Britten and Pears elected to stay in the USA,
in New York, earning a living by composing and performing. (One of
occupations was as the conductor of the Suffolk (Long Island) Friends of
Music Orchestra, an all-volunteer ensemble of "professional musicians,
amateurs and advanced students of high school age," similar in concept
our newly-formed Chautauqua Civic Orchestra.)
Finally, after almost three years, they decided to risk
England. It was March 16, 1942, that Britten and Pears boarded the
M.ÄS.ÄAxelÄJohnson in New York for a long, treacherous, journey that
reached England over a month later. Customs officials in New York,
about possible hidden messages in Britten's music, seized and impounded
composer's musical manuscripts until they could be examined for possible
threats to national security.
During the nearly five weeks he spent on board, Britten
reconstructed the work that had been seized by American officials, and
he started on a new project, described by Pears as a set of "Christmas
Carols for women's voices and harp." This has become one of the
and most widely performed of all of Britten's masterworks, "A Ceremony
Carols," written at the age of twenty-eight, on board the AxelÄJohnson
the middle of the North Atlantic, hiding from German U-boats.
The "Ceremony" was apparently composed to texts that Britten had
around in his memory. Of the ten texts he used, one is from a Gregorian
chant for Christmas Eve, four are anonymous Medieval poems, and the
remaining five are by poets of the Tudor period. Small inconsistencies
spelling, punctuation and capitalization suggest that Britten did not
printed copies of these texts on board ship to consult.
The work begins with a "Procession," which can hardly be said to
"composed" by Britten at all. With extremely slight alteration, Britten
borrowed the chant "Hodie Christus natus est" from the liturgy for
Day, where it is sung before every verse of the Magnificat. The composer
provide an optional harp accompaniment "to be played only when an actual
procession is impossible." He also added a set of "extra" Alleluias at
end which are to be "repeated when the duration of procession
The same music is used at the close of the "Ceremony" for a Recession.
The first carol of the "Ceremony" is "Wolcum Yole." This is an
text which calls out the saints, martyrs, and innocents to proclaim the
Year, filled with a naive and cheerful innocence, a child-like
the arrival of the season. This movement is a miniature of the
calendar of the Christmas season. The heavenly child is welcomed as
important feast days of the season are referenced. Steven, John and
each have a feast day in this season. Dece,ber 28 is known as Holy
Innocents Day, in remembrance of the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod.
The new year and epiphany (twelfth day) are mentioned, as well as saints
have left and were dear to us. Candelmesse refers to February 2, which
remembers Marys purification at the temple, and Jesus presentation to
Simeon. He is remembered for saying Let now thy servant depart In
countries the creche is left out until Candelmesse signifies the end of
"There is no rose of such vertu" is, by contrast, filled with
at the mysteries of the Nativity. The message here is that Mary was
unparalleled. For the first time, heaven and earth were in the same
within her womb. Because of her, we learn the mystery of the Trinity.
Latin phrases come from the liturgy for the time and typically they
inserted within a carol to borrow a sense of grandeur from their
with the solemnity of the church. Though most of us do not understand
one can assume that medieval Christians knew the meaning of the inserted
phrases: Res miranda ("marvelous thing"), Pares forma ("of equal form"),
Gaudeamus ("let us rejoice"), Transeamus ("let us go over"). In a
wonderfully simple way, Britten captured the contrast between the common
language and the language of the angels--he used a technique known to
musicians since the Middle Ages and based on the following logic: "God
Perfection; God is Triune (Father, Son, Holy Spirit); therefore,
is Triple; Mankind is Imperfect; Mankind is Duple (male/female, arms,
ears, legs); therefore, Duple is Imperfection." The movement is set in
"imperfect," human time [2/2] and the harp insistently maintains that
pulse throughout, but the Latin phrases are set as triplets, as
"perfections," against the imperfect accompaniment. It sounds very
complicated, and it is not the easiest thing to accomplish well, but the
effect is worth it.
The next two pieces are intended as a unit. "That yonge child"
"Balulalow" refer to Mary's lullaby for the infant Jesus. In the former,
Britten sets a mood of starkness (the crèche scene as witnessed from a
distance) with a mournful three-note motive [D-flat, C-sharp (the same
note), and C-natural] in the harp. This motive continues without
throughout the movement, but its "meaning" changes as the vocal melody
undulates around it. What seemed stark and barren at the outset (from a
distance) is discovered to contain a surprising "inner warmth" as the
listener is drawn toward Mary's lullaby. "Balulalow" is Mary's song
For his text, Britten chose two verses of Martin Luther's Christmas
"Vom Himmel hoch," Luther wrote for his son Hans, as translated into
in 1567 by the Wedderburn brothers. The beauty of the piece lies in its
transparent simplicity, with the melody lying over a gentle rocking
Each of these two movements is lovely, but their effect together is
"As dew in Aprille" is an anonymous fifteenth century lyric
mystery of God becoming Man. By using many metaphors, we here are
of a traditional tale that Marys labor was painless. Britten's devise
again a simple one: Every phrase relating to God's descent to earth has
falling melodic line. Britten went on to blur the melody, to create a
focus" by repeating each line canonically in other voices. So doing, he
achieves a musical portrayal of the dew falling on the grass.
"This little Babe" is the antithesis of the dew-fall. The poem is by
Southwell, a Jesuit who was executed for treason by Queen Elizabeth. The
text details the preparations God made, through the birth of the Babe,
battle with Satan's forces. The metaphors oddly juxtapose infant images
weapons and battles. Again Britten uses canon, but this time it has the
opposite effect. Britten inverts the gesture he used in the previous
movement and drives every line upward. In each verse he adds another
to the canon, compressing the music into a "stretto" and creating an
of the cacophony of battle. Finally, in a dramatic turn, Britten
the movement in a flourish of triumph.
The "Interlude" is a pastoral movement for harp alone and, at
appears to be nothing more; but the melody of the movement is an
of the triumphal chant "Hodie Christus natus est" that begins and ends
Ceremony. By setting this movement here, Britten accomplished a mixture
victory and serenity that seems central to his view of the Christian
The "Spring Carol" re-awakens some of the child-like innocence
opening "Wolcum Yole." This is a duet to thank God after winter. One
interpret that Spring (the birth of Christ) comes after Winter (four
thousand years of sin since Adam). Especially in the harp part, Britten
labored to create an aura of ease and improvization. At the first, the
women's voices sing with the delightful simplicity of a nursery rhyme
the end, they close with a sublime serenity.
"Deo gracias!" is the final carol. It is a medieval text giving
Adam's Fall, because that was the ultimate cause of the coming of
Humanity was bound by sin for four thousand winters (years) until Christ
born. (Note: We are to assume that time began around 4000 BC, as
finden.) We are also to be glad because without Adams sin, Mary would
have never been Queen of Heaven. Here again, Britten evokes the Middle
Ages, this time with a low-voiced, rhythmic recitation of the text
reminiscent of Orff's "Carmina Burana." To finish the carol, Britten
up entrances of the "Deo gracias" theme in another "stretto" until it
appears that all the world has joined in the song.
The "Ceremony" ends as it began, with the triumph of "Hodie
Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church
1902 Perry Street
Durham, NC 27705
from Carl Stam:
A Ceremony of Carols (op. 28) was written by Benjamin Britten in March
1942, while at sea aboard the M.S. Axel Johnson. Written for treble
and harp, the piece in its final form was first performed by the
Boys Chorus, at the direction of the
The majority of the text is taken from The English Galaxy of Shorter
and is in old English. Because of this, a "translation" is provided as
as the following notes.
The opening plainchant is the antiphon for vespers on Christmas Day.
chooses to begin the Ceremony with a bit of unadorned melody on an
Hodie Christus natus est:
Hodie Salvator apparuit;
Hodie in terra canunt angeli;
Hodie exsultant justi dicentes;
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Alleluia!
Today Christ is born;
Today the Savior has appeared;
Today the angels sing,
The archangels rejoice;
Today the righteous rejoice, saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, Alleluia!"
2. Wolcum Yole
This movement is a miniature of the liturgical calendar of the Christmas
season. The heavenly child is welcomed as important feast days of the
are referenced. Steven, John and Thomas each have a feast day in this
December 28 is known as Holy Innocents Day, in remembrance of the
the Innocents by Herod. The new year and epiphany (twelfth day) are
mentioned, as well as saints who have left and were dear to us.
refers to Feb. 2, which remembers Marys purification at the temple, and
Jesus presentation to Simeon. He is remembered for saying "Let thy
now depart. . ." In some countries the creche is left out until
signifies the end of the season.
Wolcum be thou heavenè king,
Wolcume, born in one morning,
Welcome, for whom we sall sing!
Wolcum be ye, Stevene and Jon,
Wolcum, Innocentes every one,
Wolcum, Thomas marter one,
Wolcum be ye, good New Yere,
Wolcum Twelfth Day both in fere,
Wolcum seintes lefe and dere.
Candelmesse, Queene of Bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.
Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum alle and make good cheer.
Wolcum alle another yere.
Anonymous 14th century
3. There is no rose
The message here is that Mary was unparalled. For the first time, heaven
earth were in the same space: within her womb. Because of her, we learn
mystery of the Trinity. In each verse, the final Latin phrase comments
message of the preceding lines.
There is no rose of such vertu
As is the rose that bare Jesu.
For in this rose conteinèd was
Heaven and earth in litel space
Res miranda. (Miraculous thing)
By that rose we may well see
There be one God in persons three,
Pares forma. (Created in the parents image)
The aungels sungen the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gaudeamus. (We rejoice)
Leave we all this werdly mirth,
And follow we this joyful mirth.
Transeamus. (We cross over)
Anonymous 14th century
4a. That Yongë Child
When the baby Jesus began to cry, Mary sang a lullaby. The nightingale
also, but Marys song was superior.
That yongë child when it gan weep
With song she lulled him asleep
That was so sweet a melody
It passéd alle minstrely.
The nightingale sang also:
Her song is hoarse and nought therto:
Whoso attendeth to her song
And leaveth the first then doth he wrong
Anonymous 14th century
Showing great humility, Mary sings a good and proper lullaby to the
O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.
But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my hert sall I bow
And sing that richt Balulalow!
James, John and Robert Wedderbum, (1548, 1561)
5. As dew in Aprille
By using many metaphors, we are reminded of a traditional that Marys
was painless. The thought is punctuated at the end by saying that this
to Mary was only fitting for such a blessed lady.
I sing of a maiden that is makelès:
King of all kings to her son she ches.
He came al so stille there his moder was,
As dew in Aprille that falleth on the grass.
He came also stille to his moders bour,
As dew in Aprille that falleth on the flour.
He came also stille there his moder lay
As dew in Aprille that falleth on the spray.
Moder and mayden was never none but she:
Well such a lady Goddes moder be.
Anonymous, c. 1400
6. This little Babe
Traditional practice is to capitalize any word that refers to God,
possessives such as "His." It is interesting that in this movement this
not followed, but rather that any word that refers to the Baby in any
is. A list of metaphors depicts Christs battle with Satan. The
oddly juxtapose infant images with weapons and battles.
This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satans fold.
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes;
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
And feeble Flesh his warriors steed.
His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight,
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little Babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.
Robert Southwell (1561? - 1595)
7. Interlude (Harp Solo)
Interlude. This harp solo is among the classic literature for the
Written in the key of C-flat (eight flats ), it uses the key in which
harp sounds most resonant.
8. In Freezing Winter Night
This incredibly intense movement depicts the irony of the King being
such a humble setting. The meter is 5/4 and the harmonic language is
making use of blatant dissonances to highlight the juxtaposition of
court and the meekness of the stable.
Behold, a silly tender babe,
In freezing winter night,
In homely manger trembling lies
Alas, a piteous sight!
The inns are full; no man will yield
This little pilgrim bed.
But forced he is with silly beasts
In crib to shroud his head.
This stable is a Princes court,
This crib his chair of State;
The beasts are parcel of his pomp,
The wooded dish his plate.
The persons in that poor attire
His royal liveries wear;
The Prince himself is come from heavn;
This pomp is prizèd there.
With joy approach, O Christian wight,
Do homage to thy King,
And highly praise his humble pomp,
Which he from Heavn doth bring.
9. Spring carol
A duet to thank God after winter. One could interpret that Spring (the
of Christ) comes after Winter (four thousand years of sin since Adam).
leads us to the next movement . . .
Pleasure it is to hear iwis, the Birdès sing.
The deer in the dale, the sheep in the vale,
The corn springing.
Gods purvayance for sustenance,
It is for man. It is for man.
Then we always to give him praise,
And thank him than.
William Cornish (d. 1523)
10. Deo Gracias
This movement could be called "reverse psychology." The message is
was the time that Adam sinned, because now we have the joy of the
Humanity was bound by sin for Four Thousand winters (years) until Christ
born. We are to assume that time began around 4000BC. We are also to be
because without Adams sin, Mary would have never been a heavenly queen.
Deo Gracias! Deo Gracias! (Thanks be to God!)
Adam lay ibounden, bounden in a bond,
For thousand winter thought he not too long.
And all was for an appil, an appil that he tok,
As clerkès finden written in their book.
Ne had the appil takè ben,
The appil takè ben,
Ne haddè never our lady
A ben hevenè quene.
Blessed be the time
That appil takè was.
Therefore we moun singen,
Deo Gracias! Deo Gracias!
Anonymous, 15th century
Hodie Christus natus est . . .
Associate Professor of Music
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St. Paul, MN 55112