Britten, This Little Babe
What a outcropping of support and responses! Below are
the responses I received -- several people replied
just to offer sympathy or support, but many also
offered facts and directions for further help.
Responses are listed below. Thanks again, so much, for
all your help!
Director of Middle School Choral Activities
Hayfield Secondary School
Margie - Just stand firm. The text most eloquently
speaks of how the
will protect us from the "foe" - it's a lesson of
faith and hope,
your critics obviously missed. Whatever - that's
beside the point.
music is classic and a part of the Western heritage of
The parents might as well object to their kids
the violence and witchcraft, sleeping around and other
inappropriate. Britten picked up a book of poems in a
shop in Halifax,
got inspired and set some of them to music (the short
side of the
Ultimately, the final result was Ceremony. If you are
teaching that to
middle school girls and they are doing it well, you
are way ahead of
curve. Do NOT allow parents to get involved in your
Congratulations on having a chorus capable of tackling
such a piece!
If I recall previous discussions correctly, Britten
while returning to England from America on board a
ship during World
II. Possibly 1942. The North Atlantic was a very
dangerous place to
that time, and while I wouldn't suggest that he was
to the war, he was certainly in the midst of it, with,
I suspect, daily
lifeboat drills and the constant threat of being sunk
Some of this might help you to put the piece in
context, and of course
one piece has to be seen in the context of the other
movements as well.
John & Susie Howell
Virginia Tech Department of Music
Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. 24061-0240
Vox (540) 231-8411 Fax (540) 231-5034
A good question. I would guess that the text dates
back to a time when
theological focus was more on the role of Christ as
Satan's foil. A
John Donne's stuff points to conquering sin and
foiling Satan; even
Herbert once in a while points to that focus. Today,
of course, "God
love" is much more popular, except with the more
Perhaps that is why others might equate texts which
deal with Satan as
conservative theologically and not broad enough in
I would acknowledge that it is a tough text, but
its mood. Why Britten chose it? I would guess that
it added just
that strain of theological history in England that he
After all, it itself acts as a foil to much of the
rest of "Ceremony."
If you are pulling it out of context, then it is
harder to justify.
explain its place within the "Ceremony" and then extol
its virtues as a
musical tour de force (because it sure does sound like
I would be quite interested to hear how your meeting
goes. Please post
First: yes the text is "violent," but it is not
personal or racial
violence. Its roots are in the Christian belief that
"we wrestle not
against flesh and blood, but against ... cosmic powers
darkness." In OUR day, the best Christian responses
is not to blame peoples or religions, but to recognize
that there is a
reality to evil -- over which the Jesus whose birth we
was, and will be victorious.
Second: the text appears violent, but look at what it
names as the
"weapons" of this little babe! If we fought our
political and personal
battles with these arms (weak, unarmed, tears, cries,
cold and need,
feeble flesh ...) I mean, have these people actually
READ the text?
"If thou wilt foil thy foes with JOY ..."
Third: I am willing to guess that your students
already consider this
their favorite piece for the season. What a thrill
for them (as it is
for my adult choir) to make the sounds that Britten
created, with its
clashing bustle and joyfully triumphant [not
boastfully triumphant, as
truly violent text would be] conclusion.
I hope you will emerge from this concert with more
supporters than you
knew you had. My very best wishes to you!
And, I'm sorry I don't have historical context for you
College Church in Wheaton
By all means research the life of the author, Robert
You could use his story of heroic protest as a source
inspiration for those uninterested in the religeous
and the constant threat of imprisonment (or worse)
endured can help explain the violence of the imagery.
I love his poetry, and have even set to music another
poem of his, "The Burning Babe." You might like to
one too. By all means, go to war against the tendency
from anything that might offend, which leads only to
Go to war!
St. Luke Lutheran Church
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Benjamin Britten wrote the Ceremony of Carols during
WWII. The text of
This Little Babe was written by Robert Southwell. He
eventually executed by I believe Queen Elizabeth I.
The text uses
allegory as a literary device to describe this babe's
Do a search on Britten and Southwell and you'll come
up with all sorts
of good historical information, including when and why
it was written.
Perhaps using a historical approach can be used as an
Ceremony of Carols is also one of the most significant
works in the
treble choir literature. It would be a shame to
deprive the students
the opportunity. Perhaps study this movement in light
of the whole
work. These carols are not necessarily seasonal
are simply carols. Do the students enjoy it? This
alone is a good
argument. I hope I've been a little helpful.
Seems like you have quite a dilemma there. I don't
have any suggestions for you however I would like to
give you some options for your concert next year.
Donna Rhodenizer has composed two pieces that might
work well for you that are none denominational. We
also have some other pieces that would suit your choir
for other concerts. Would you be interested in
receiving perusal copies free of charge? We will need
an address to send them to. Could you please give us a
bit of an idea of your choir voicing? That will give
us an idea of what pieces would best suit your choir.
Good luck resolving your query.
Best of the season to you and your family.
Red Castle Publishing
First, when Britten set this poem in 1942, he omitted
of Robert Southwell's original 16th-century poem,
Newe Warre," and went straight to the heart of the
image. That image,
the _Christus militans_ or Christ militant, was a very
and had been for several centuries. The poetic habit
of drawing an
extended analogy between essentially unlike things (in
illustrate certain aspects of of the topic) is a
technique used especially by the metaphysical poets
Southwell, like John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George
Herbert, et al. One
cannot, as 20th-century readers tend do do, read such
*literally*---the idea is to take the extended analogy
and consider the
aspects of the topic that are drawn out to an extreme
by the unlikely
comparison (or "metaphysical conceit" as they would
have called it).
Southwell, who was a jesuit recusant tortured and
finally executed for
his beliefs under Elizabeth I, wrote a lot of poetry,
most of it much
more violent and unusual (to us) than this. "The
Burning Babe" is
probably his best-known poem, and it features a
bloody baby-Christ flying through the air---now, in
preople understood that this was POETRY, not to be
taken literally, and
that poetry is supposed to make you think and feel!
Sort of like music,
eh? It is hard to get people to try new ways of
admit. But they have to consider historical
distance---things were not
always the way they are now, and it's important to
take literary works
in context. Or at least *I* think so!
If you'd like any more info on this, pleae feel free
to write. I'm a
professor of British Literature but this year I'm on
fellowship at the
Library of Congress. I also happen to be giving a
talk on Britten's _Ceremony of Carols_, preceding its
in the Great Hall by the LC Chorale on Thursday Dec
12, at 12:30---it
should be a great concert! Come on up! Hope this
A. E. B. Coldiron
Kluge Fellow, Library of Congress
Asst. Prof., English; faculty, Comparative Literature
Louisiana State University
This is about ART. Art allows us to interpret life.
Life is not all
pretty, as we all know, and art which uses violent
imagery has a very
proper place. It is cathartic, allowing violent
tendencies IN ALL
be expressed in a way which is not harmful. Witness
all the violence
great, classic works of literature and theatre, from
The poetry of "This Little Babe" is about spiritual
physical battle. EVERY PERSON ON THIS EARTH has to
fight her/his own
battle with the challenges of life, and the poetry
here uses this very
potent physical battle imagery to symbolize the
spiritual battles we
must fight. The fact the The Babe does this naked,
cold and in need,
it all the more potent, and give us all hope that
life's battles can be
won, and challenges overcome.
Enlist the aid of your school's best English teacher
to help bring
points home to your parents. They need educating in
the worst way.
Good luck, and fight the good fight (God, that's a
great piece, and
but a CANON - holy cow).
But the holiday season DOES include Christmas, after
all!! And the
hopefulness of one rising to bring peace to the world
of so many is surely timeless.
Charles Q. Sullivan
The powerful imagery in "This Little Babe" is, if
paints the baby Jesus as a warrior, yes, but if one
reads closely, it
that he doesn't use weapons, etc. but love and peace
to fight evil.
of the trench, he has his crib. Instead of stakes,
he has no army of soldiers, he makes his "muster" of
I have performed the work several times at high school
level and the
of this text never ceases to amaze me. What weapons
and bloodshed can
to accomplish, grace and love can do just as well and
As for the religious aspects, that's a tough fight for
all of us. I've
never had to go through it here, so I hope that you
will hear from
Good luck and happy holidays--
Lincoln-Way Central High School
New Lenox, IL 60451
Britten used the words of eight ancient, anonymous,
Medieval carols and also included settings of poetry
by Robert Wedderburn, Robert Southwell, and William
Cornish. Talk about integrating arts and academics.
Your students are studying British Literature well
before their freshman year in college.
But I didn't choose for my 7th8th grade choir to sing
the piece solely for it' s liturature value. I chose
if because it is musically sound, within their reach,
and just a little beyond their singing level so they
would grow musically while they were learing it.
Get those parents to focus in on the music. You are a
music educator, and yes, every now and then, some of
the words of the songs you choose lean a little
towards the negative, but not nearly to the extent of
the violence the kids see and hear on TV and read in
the daily newspapers. The overall message is one of
hope. Get them to see the big picture! Talk music
talk. Educate those parents about the musical reasons
that you chose for your student to sing "A Ceremony.."
They'll buy into it eventually.
Good luck with your performance!
Jolene Brubaker Quince Orchard High School,
Westminster Choir College - Master of Music, 1990
You've probably learned the poem is by Robert
Southwell (1651? -
1695). The whiners are clearly poetry-impaired, since
the point of
the poem is that Christ fights with love, not weapons,
kind of like
putting flowers into National Guardsmen's rifles. If
it has any
applicability to today, its message would be that we
should win over
Saddam with love. Obviously you'll have to be tactful
It's definitely a sacred text. You're on solid legal
program such works, although diplomacy might suggest
can find many resources regarding sacred music in
public schools here:
choralnet.org > Education > Education Issues >
Religious music in
Allen H Simon
VP for Website Development
Britten wrote the 'Ceremony of Carols' in the spring
of '42 while on
back to war-torn Britain following a three- year
absence in the U.S.
The entire ceremony reveals his fascination with the
that, the texts are simple stories told in dancing
carols rather than
The piano (or harp) in 'This Little Babe' (my singers
have always loved
singing it) reinforces the idea of whizzing
bow-and-arrow warfare in
hilly countryside, further expressed by the echo-like
renderings of the
musical phrases. This piece is then followed by that
stillness in the 'Interlude'.
The entire ceremony consists of medieval carols
written by anonymous
(or nearly so) of long ago.
You may remind the parents that the composition was
written by a
conscienteous objector to war; that it reveals a major
concern of his
a moral striving to honor the innocence of childhood
(particularly in a
world that was becoming more complex with each passing
I hope this helps. I included the entire Ceremony in
last year (with an accomplished women's choir) and it
was the highlight
I wish you well.
First, explain the history of the text itself -- that
it is an
English poem from the middle ages using Middle
English, otherwise know
the English language in the time before writers like
middle ages were times of great uncertainty and
violence, to be sure,
much like the times we live in. To the unknown writer
of this text,
paradox (use this term in explaining the piece -- it's
a good "teacher"
word...) is that the Prince of Peace will use his
shivering in the cold, etc.) to conquer the evil of
sin and death.
As a Christian, this is a profound concept, that
something so weak and
earthy can confront all evil. In the last verses, the
encouraged to seek safety within this frailty, and
thus find eternal
That's pretty deep.
Within the secular understanding, you have a very good
this piece. We read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which
thought of the same time, and do not feel
uncomfortable. This poem
within that body of literature, and should be
explained as such. Keep
mind that it was probably written by a layperson (i.e.
believer who was
employed by the church) and was most likely performed
music, no doubt) in a secular location, not within a
Therefore, within a historical context, it is a work
reference, but not necessarily for religious
Britten composed this piece to be part of a set of
other carols, also
anonymous middle English texts. It was premiered, I
believe, at King's
College Cambridge in the 1950's, thusly within a
What is important to emphasize is the superior
in it, the historical oddity of the text, and the idea
that Peace comes
ways we seldom imagine -- not through violence, but
in joy and love. The baby is not fighting in the
tools of destruction are NOT being used, but are
replaced with the
of humbleness and simplicity. I see a big "It takes a
working its way in that would make lots of secular
No wonder reading comprehension scores are so
low...most parents can't
understand what they read...
K-12 Music and British Literature Teacher
Escondido Adventist Academy
pacifist and ironically was on a ship to American
leaving the war in
when he wrote ceremony of carols. I look at This
Little Babe as the
ultimate of good versus evil. This little baby can
tackle someone as
as the devil. I just got doing the whole Ceremony of
the opportunity to do such a landmark piece should
make it ok. Stick
your guns girls! Best of luck!
Belle Voci Women's Vocal Ensemble
In response to the text: Britten was a devote
passivist. Reference his War Requiem to anyone in
(I recommend reading "The Music of Benjamin Britten"
by Peter Evans published by Oxford)
This Little Babe is the most powerful anti-violence
poem I have ever encountered.
Instead of all the weapons of warfare created by
humankind (arrows, battering shot soldiers, trenches)
this child brings as weapons; shivering cold, babish
cries, poverty, nakedness, and his mighty fortress is
a crib filled with hay. The poet's answer: "foil thy
foes with joy," quite the opposite of violence!
Every reference to human violence is answered with a
divine opposite. The parents have missed the point of
This "child," whether the Christ, a great prophet, or
a good story speaks directly to the power of good over
evil, kindness over hate and right over might.
Ceremony of Carols was written April of 1942 as
Britten and Pears were on a ship from America to
England. They had evidence of the cost of human
warfare before them in Europe.
I am performing this work this very weekend with the
Washington Women's Chorus BECAUSE of the times we are
If the parents want "non-sacred" music only, I suggest
not doing any sort of December concert. Many friends
in public schools now do just this.
Jingle Bells is great, but the great art music of
Christmas, which the students should know as part of a
rounded education, will be reflective of Christian
Donald P. Richardson, Artistic Director
Washington Women's Chorus & Winchester Music Viva
3010 Wisconsin Avenue, NW E-1
Washington, DC 20016
Here are two websites that may be helpful to you. If
for no other
you can show how 'professional' you are and impress
others that you
About 'Ceremony of Carols'
Britten was in the United States and decided to go
back to England by
during World War II at the risk of his life. On the
ship, he composed
Ceremony. His choice of poetry is paralleling the
sentiments of the
Magnificat. If you look at the words of the
Magnificat, you will see
there is nothing Christmasey about it. The mighty
will be thrown down;
hungry shall be fed, etc. The Magnificat shows a
world turned upside
In medieval liturgy, the antiphon for the Magnificat
is "Hodie Christus
natus est," the chant used in the Ceremony.
All his life, Britten wrote music for children
involving war. See his
Requiem and The Children's Crusade (written for
concerning children orphaned and homeless during World
War II. I can't
think of a better time for this music being relevant
than right now! I
suspect that your parents do not realize that Benjamin
Britten is one
great 20th century composers and that Ceremony is
considered one of the
century choral masterpieces.
If you will e-mail your address, I would be happy to
send you the
booklet that I and Christopher Titko wrote. I would
send it Express
that you could get it within a day or two.
It's a GREAT WORK of art and you are to be commended
for teaching it.
a believer in not only directing choruses, but to
teach the humanities
along with the music we study. Even musicians can
contribute to our
I hope this helps somewhat.
1216 Newton Street
Gretna, Louisiana 70053
I'm always tackling these issues of appropriateness
with the same
lately. I had two students who felt opposed to
singing Orff's Carmina
Burana because they "didnt personally identify, and
'celebration' of themes such as drinking and unmarried
sex". I then
them if they had ever been in a musical before to
which one of them
"Guys and Dolls". I then asked them if they
personally identified with
notion of being gangsters and robbing and murdering.
They argued that
was a play, and I countered that Ive presented them
with a musical
no blocking, no props, and a story to communicate
regardless of their
personal identification. Nowhere in any script has
there been a
that the actor must assume the philosophies portrayed,
nor am I asking
you in choral rehearsal.
They were both up there for Carmina.
Not particularly handy perhaps, but someone's
"solution" to this
never-ending issue anyway.
As far as the text goes (the only of Britten's
settings in the whole
that is in modern english instead of middle english)
I dont think Im
understanding exactly what they imagine is so violent.
metaphorical. Its actually saying that His power is
the equal to any
violent weapon man can dream up. (All hell doth at
his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake) its always
juxtaposing a violent
with a peaceful and simple one to intensify the power.
All parents see
big words like War and marshall ensigns. Sad to have
to fight this all
time isnt it.
Director of Choral Activities
===="the heart is like an instrument whose strings steal nobler music from life's many frets." -- gerald massey
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