When Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) composed his magical A Ceremony of Carols in 1942 on a long sea voyage from New York to Liverpool, he little realised that he was penning what would become one of his best-loved and most performed works. The charm of this short work lies in its utter simplicity: a choir of boys’ voices process to their places singing an unaccompanied Latin plainsong; next they perform a number of medieval carols written in Middle English (accompanied by a harp) before processing out to the same plainsong melody. The sense of innocence, joy and optimism which characterises this work together with a strong sense of occasion have made this a perennial favourite with the public and it is regularly performed in Christmas concerts.
The nostalgia in the music springs from Britten’s own homesickness at the time of its composition. A pacifist with left-leaning political views, Britten had left the stifling political and cultural climate of Europe in 1939 on the eve of the war for an uncertain period of self-imposed exile in America. In the preceding years there had been a haemorrhaging of artistic talent from Europe by those escaping persecution and repression; not only was America seen as a melting pot but it was also a source of potentially lucrative commissions or teaching positions. (The author Thomas Mann was quite blunt, writing “For the duration of the present European dark age the centre of Western culture will shift to America”). Britten was already established in England as a rising young talent with several acclaimed works under his belt (such as the masterly Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge) but he felt underappreciated and was disappointed by the lukewarm reception to his Piano Concerto. There had been talk of commissions for Britten to write film music for Hollywood so when he was invited to join his friend and collaborator W.H. Auden (who had earlier gone over with Christopher Isherwood) he threw caution to the wind and accepted, travelling with his close friend, the tenor Peter Pears.
Britten would later claim that America had “all the faults of Europe and none of the attractions” but he was initially enthusiastic. For a while, he and Pears lived in a four-storey terraced house in Brooklyn with other artists including Auden, the novelist Carson McCullers, the writers Paul and Jane Bowles (and, at one point, the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee). Leonard Bernstein thought the place a madhouse, another writer said “…all that was new in America in music, painting or choreography emanated from that house”.
While Britten might have had mixed feelings about his time in America, in many ways it was decisive for it was there that he consolidated his own distinctive voice. He wrote several large scale works such as the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Violin Concerto, the Diversions for piano and orchestra (commissioned by the one-armed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein), Les Illuminations and his first but unsuccessful opera Paul Bunyan to texts by Auden. Importantly, the period marked the beginning of one of the greatest partnerships in 20th century music, that of Britten and Pears themselves. They became life-long lovers in America and the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo of 1940, written for Pears, contain some of Britten’s most impassioned lyrical writing.
Thanks to Auden, Britten read for the first time in America the work of the 18th century poet George Crabbe. Its poignant evocation of the Suffolk coast in England filled him with such longing that he resolved to return – but not before obtaining a commission from the conductor Serge Koussevitsky to write an opera based on the poem Peter Grimes, the opera that would make Britten a household name and seal his international reputation.
Britten and Pears travelled back to England in March 1942 on an old Swedish cargo ship, the Axel Johnson. The Atlantic crossing took 12 days and was not without its dangers as hostile German submarines prowled the waters. However, the entire journey took a month due to the tedious passage from New York – Boston – Halifax (Nova Scotia) and the need to make repairs on the ageing ship. Fearing that his manuscripts contained secret codes, customs officials in New York confiscated his sketches for the Hymn to St. Cecilia which he promptly rewrote from memory en route. While the Axel Johnson was docked in Halifax, Britten came across a collection of poetry The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett. From this collection he selected several poems which form the basis for A Ceremony of Carols, a work he largely wrote during the voyage, in spite of working in an uncomfortable cabin and the unwelcome disturbances from the ‘loud-mouthed crew’.
A Ceremony of Carols was first performed in Norwich Castle by the Fleet Street Choir on 5 December 1942 with women’s voices. The published version for boys’ choir was given its first performance in 1943 at the Wigmore Hall in London, with Britten conducting the Morriston Boy’s Choir. “I think the little boys were enchanting”, he wrote after one performance, “the occasional roughness was easily overweighed by their freshness and naivety – something very special”.
A Ceremony of Carols is not strictly speaking a ceremony nor are all the movements carols (for instance, the ‘Spring Carol’ is a celebration of nature). But Britten’s mastery and inventiveness is nevertheless on full display from the jubilant ‘Deo Gracias’, the pastoral ‘Balulalow’ to the imitation of bells in ‘Wolcome Yole’ and ‘Adam lay i-bounden’, and the dreamy harp interlude at the centre of the work with sounds inspired by a Balinese gamelan orchestra that Britten had heard in America.
Britten continued throughout his career to write music for children or with child performers in mind, such as the operas The Little Sweep and Noye’s Fludde to the educational work The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a regular staple in concert performances. But it is his master stroke in using boys’ voices to celebrate the nativity in A Ceremony of Carols which gives the work its unmistakable charm and enduring power.
Published 7 December 2015 on primephonic.