Ceremony of Carols is a piece of Christmas music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) for a chamber choir and a harp. Two versions exist, one (Opus 28) for a treble choir (i.e. boy sopranos), and one for the usual Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass setup of mixed choirs. This writeup will concern itself chiefly with the former, but the later is not too different.

The version for treble voices was composed first, in 1942, and had its première in 1943 at the Wigmore Hall. It was written on board the cargo ship Axel Johnson en voyage to Britain from the US. Britten's accommodations were beside noisy refrigeration plant. The Atlantic was a dangerous place for shipping in those days- U-Boat activity was at its peak.

Many inspirations contributed to the composition- a book of medieval poems picked up during the ship's stopover in Nova Scotia, the English tradition of church music, and Balinese gamelan percussion.

Many of the texts are concerned with the mysterious aspects of the Christmas story. They are all twinged with the medieval understanding of God, the world and mankind. Mariolatry features strongly, for example. The nativity scenes they depict is a freezing English winter- rather than a balmy Bethlehem; and original sin is seen as good thing as it allowed Mary to come to the fore. As such the piece is as much about medieval European Christianity than about the biblical Christmas story. However, the piece was written for, and is usually performed in churches and cathedrals, and takes account of their acoustic features. The texts themselves evoke a world alien from our (and Britten's) lives and times, and his music features unfamiliar harmonies and weird melodies. This is not a Victorian, Dickensian, Oh-come-all-ye-faithful Christmas. The harp does not usually feature strongly in choral music, and certainly not in church music- however it forms a very fitting partnership with the high, clear voices of a treble choir. Its scoring is sometimes informed by the Balinese percussion orchestras that Colin McPhee introduced Britten to during his years in the States.

The 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.

The text and a description of the music follow. Where the text is in archaic English, I've pipe-linked unfamiliar words and concepts to their modern equivalents. The opening Latin movement appears with a full translation.

I. Procession

This movement is sung as the choir walk from the back to the front of the venue. It is unaccompanied, and sung entirely in unison. It is a chance to show off the clarity and precision of the treble voice. The melody is taken from the ancient plainsong of the Christmas Vespers. The audience's supposed familiarity with this tune (I'd never heard it before Ceremony) is eventually shattered by two tricks Britten incorporates. The first is a little kink in the melody of the last "Hodie"- it shifts out of its established key for a few notes, and then twists back into place. The second is a rhythmic device in the first "Alleluia", so that it is sung "Allelu: uia", which somehow suits the feel of a procession.

Hodie Christus natus est,               Today Christ is born
Hodie Salvator apparuit,                Today the Saviour appears
Hodie in terra canunt angeli;           Today the angels sing on earth;
Lætantur archangeli,                    The archangels rejoice.
Hodie exsultant justi dicentes:         Today the righteous exult, saying:

Gloria in excelsis Deo.                 Glory to God in the highest.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!           Halleluia! Halleluia! Halleluia!

The movement is a statement of intent- to be inspired by the ancient views of Christmas, but to present them in fresh terms.

II. 'Wolcum yole' - Anon

Once the singers are gathered, the harp briskly sets up the next movement. The choir begin together in harmony with a see-sawing line, broken by rapid descents on "hevenè", "morning" and "wesall". In the next two verses, each voice is offset from the others, before stridently coming together again on the final "Wolcum Yole", which is repeated several times to an almost percussive harp. These words are repeated again, this time more legato, and gently trailing away.

Wolcum be thou hevenè king,
Wolcum Yole!
Wolcum, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom wesall sing!

Wolcum be ye, Stevene and Jon,
Wolcum, Innocentes every one,
Wolcum, Thomas marter one,

Wolcum be ye, good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe Day both in fere,
Wolcum, seintes lefe and dere,
Wolcum Yole.

The harp begins a jumpy, twinkling and quiet line, bubbling away like a distant stream. In contrast, the choir sings the next verse over this to long notes, their harmony giving way to unison by "more and lesse". The see-sawing motif is then restored by the harp, and we are momentarily back on familiar ground for the final verse. This is similar to the first, but crescendos to a long gathering note on Yole with a nice scrunchy harmony, before an loud, final, unison "Wolcum!".

Candelmesse, Quene of bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.

Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum, wolcum, make good cheer,
Wolcum alle another yere,
Wolcum Yole!

III. 'There is no Rose' - Anon

The text of this movement is a consideration of the Virgin Mary's role in Christ's incarnation. The "rose" refers to her womb.

The first three verses are scored similarly- with a complex, dissonance-filled harmony, and the concluding Latin line in a very low-pitched unison. The harp begins each verse with simple repeated fourth intervals, and has a more complex lilting part as the choir voices are in unison.

There is no rose of such vertu
As is the rose that bare Jesu.
Alleluia, alleluia.

For in this rose conteinèd was
Heaven and earth in litel space,
Res miranda, res miranda.

By that rose we may well see
There be one God in persons three,
Pares forma, pares forma,

The forth verse has been approached by a gradual crescendo. The harp part is more prominent, and the singing is more declamatory. It also breaks with the structure of the preceding ones, by having four lines. The harp accompaniment of the two middle lines features broken chords, and the intervals clash noticeably with the choir. The next line and the subsequent verse restore the order of the start of the movement. The "Transeamus" of this verse are sung an octave higher than previously, and conclude with a descending sequence of broken chords from the harp.

The angels sungen the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis,
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gaudeamus, gaudeamus.

Leave we all this werldly mirth,
And follow we this joyful birth.
Transeamus, transeamus, transeamus.

Alleluia, res miranda, pares forma, gaudeamus,
Transeamus, transeamus, transeamus.

The final verse decrescendos down to silence. It is all sung to a single pitch- a simple conclusion to a meditative movement.

IV.a. 'That Yongë Child' - Anon

This movement is an awe-inspiring solo, with a haunting weird harmony, spiced with quarter tones. The harp plays a striking two-note motif, and supporting chords at the beginning of each line. It plays along with the final line of each verse directly. The effect is to transport the listener.

That yongë child when it gan weep
With song she lulled him asleep:
That was so sweet a melody
It passèd alle minstrelsy.

The nightingalë sang also:
Her song is hoarse and nought thereto:
Whoso attendeth to her song
And leaveth the first then doth he wrong.

IV.b. 'Balulalow' - James, John and Robert Wedderburn

The soloist has a major role in this movement too, which is on the same theme- a lullaby for the infant Jesus. The harp introduces a simple 3/4 tune, whose harmonies alternate between major and minor chords in each bar. The soloist sings a simple tune for the first verse. The next verse features the full choir, repeating the tune, and continuing the harmonic ideas from the first verse. The final line is repeated by overlapping voices several times. They come together for the concluding "Balulalow", which itself is harmonised with a major, then minor, then major chord.

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.

V. 'As dew in Aprille' - Anon

This movement begins with a soaring tune and an arpeggio-based accompaniment. In contrast to the gentle conclusion of the preceding movement, it is quite loud and strong. As the first verse draws to a conclusion, the harp begins the rapid sparkling that will accompany the next three verses. These are sung in two parts, one leading off, and the other following a few beats behind.

I sing of a maiden
That is makèles:
King of all kings
To her son she ches

He came also stille
There his moder was,
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the grass.

He came also stille
To his moder's 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 may such a lady
Goddes moder be.

The penultimate verse ends with a falling glissando from the harp, and the tune of the final verse is to a similar tune to first. The second line is made more insistent by use of staccato.

VI. 'This little Babe' - Robert Southwell (1561-1595)

The harp establishes a rhythmic pattern that is to underpin much of the movement. The choir sing the first movement in unison. The melody has a pattern of three rising phrases and one falling phrase that is used twice over the first four lines; the last two lines bring us gradually back to the same neighbourhood we started in. We expect the next verse to be similar.

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

The next verse begins identically, but this time the choir splits, and after "fights" the second half starts again, forming a two-part canon. The delayed voices just have time to conclude each line, before the starting voices take up the next. The harp stays doggedly to its rhythm, which suits the new development equaly well. The two sections fall back into line for "warrior's steed", so as in the first verse we conclude on comfortable ground.

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 warrior's steed.

In the third verse, the choir splits in three, and each part leads off in turn- a three part canon. This time the most delayed voices are still in full voice as the other two finish their lines, so the listener is given no handy reference point. Some measure of control is retained by the harp, which is more pronounced here.

His camp is pitched 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.

In the concluding verse, the choir sticks together in time, but remain split in three to give a close harmony. The pitch is much higher, and tune different, but the same basic shape remains. The harp is given a more melodic line, but sticks to its 6/8 rhythm- for the first 4 lines. For the remainder of the movement we are cast into an unexpected and slower time signature, the choir fall back into unison, and their line rises gradually in pitch and volume, bursting into joyful harmony on "heavenly Boy". The harp underpins this with driving syncopated chords, rather than the commanding rhythm of before.

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.

VII. Interlude (Harp)

Here the harpist is given the opportunity to show off a little. The movement is based again on the Hodie antiphon from the traditional Christmas Vespers. The theme is introduced and supported by a simple, sparse counterpoint, which chimes through natural pauses in the melody. It starts extremely quietly, and slowly builds in harmonic complexity and volume to a rapid broken chord. There follows a straightforward statement of the theme, the counterpoint an octave lower, the harmonies harsh and cold, and the melody's pauses rent open into jagged edges. Truly this is a piece written with winter in mind. But, as with a frozen landscape, the music soon melts into warmer and softer arrangements of a conformable harmony. As the volume decreases to silence, the counterpoint takes over and the melody disintegrates into flowing, shifting arpeggios and glissandos.

The effect of all this is just spellbinding- as a listener you lean forward enraptured, straining to hear the subtleties. For me, this is one of the highlights of the piece.

VIII. 'In freezing winter night' - Robert Southwell (1561-1595)

This movement is rather slow. Each verse starts quietly and builds slowly, with apparently independent lines colliding into accented dissonant chords. These are sustained over rapid playing on the harp that seems to simulate shivering with cold.

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.

At this point the melody switches into a major mode, and over the next two verses, the volume rises to a clear forte on the word "Prince". Then over the last line it subsides again to extreme quiet. The final verse is sung by a soloist, the harp is silent, and the choir mimics its earlier shivering.

This stable is a Prince's court,
This crib his chair of State;
The beasts are parcel of his pomp,
the wooden dish his plate.

The persons in that poor attire
His royal liveries wear;
The Prince himself is come from heaven;
This pomp is prized there.

With joy approach, 0 Christian wight,
Do homage to thy King,
And highly praise his humble pomp,
Which he from Heaven doth bring.

IX. Spring Carol - William Cornish

Two soloists sing this without the rest of the choir. The winter has ended, and spring has followed. First, the harp sets up a complex, darting tune that rushes up glissandi and twinkles around, gambolling like a lamb. The first singer performs the first three lines and holds the word "sing" while the other sings the next three to a repeated tune- a skipping rhythm added on the word "springing". The whole verse is then repeated, with the "sing" and everything subsequent to it sung much higher. The harp tumbles and eddies throughout.

Pleasure it is
To hear iwis,
The Birdes sing,
The deer in the dale,
The sheep in the vale,
the corn springing.

Now the two singers launch the next three lines in harmony to a glorious rising line. The harp leaps up higher and higher in this passage. The concluding lines are sung and accompanied as the first three were, and the last line is repeated by one soloist then the other- one holding and one moving as they fade out slowly.

God's purveyance
For sustenance,
It is for man.
Then we always
To give him praise,
And thank him than.

X. 'Deo Gracias' - Anon

This poem has been set to music by many composers over the years. It is sometimes known by the alternative spelling "Adam Lay ybounden". The strange opening words of the poem, "ibounden", "bond", etc., refer to Adam's (and therefore mankind's) bondage to sin and the 4000 year wait for the Messiah.

Britten's version starts with a clear, loud chord from the harp and the choir chime in with the opening "Deo gracias!", the word "Deo" twisted almost into a single syllable. The harp then begins the rapid syncopated phrasing that will support the rest of the movement. The choir sings each verse in harmony to a choppy syncopated rhythm- the third line of each leaps up and down a large interval. Between the verses the reprise "Deo gracias" is repeated as at the beginning.

Deo gracias!

Adam lay ibounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not to long.

Deo gracias!

And all was for an appil,
An appil that he tok,
As clerkes finden
Written in their book.

Deo gracias!

Ne had the appil take ben,
The appil take ben,
Ne hadde never our lady A ben hevene quene.

The volume has been slowly increasing since the soft beginning, and now reaches its peak. The final three line verse starts without a pause. It holds to the same staccato rhythm as the others. The final line jumps up and down the interval as before, but the final phrase is repeated thrice, and then the final "singen" is repeated thrice, driving us on with increasing urgency.

Blessed be the time
That appil take was.
Therefore we moun singen:

Deo gracias!

The final exultant calls of Deo gracias! are preceded by a single chime from the harp. They follow one on top of each other, the time between each one shortening and each supported by a falling emphatic glissando from the harp. The final call is together, and in the harmonic style of the rest of the piece.

XI. Recession 'Hodie Christmas' - Anon

Text as movement I.

As the choir entered with the sober and subtly updated plainsong, so now they depart, their repeated Alleluia! soaring to the rafters and receding into the distance.

  • The 1982 recording made by Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford and its cover notes.
  • My own involvement in a 1999 performance with Imperial College Chamber Choir.
  • http://www.musicweb.uk.net/britten.htm
  • http://www.boychoirs.org/california/britten003.html (includes wma clips)
  • http://www.spectrumsingers.org/archives/1996-97/dec96_words.html (for the translations)
  • http://www.rtpnet.org/chccc/dec99program/Ceremony.html
  • Adam lay ybounden - wertperch

Copyright (c) 2002 KENNETH KILFEDDER

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the page "GNU Free Documentation License".

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