Christmas Music (2)–Best Benjamin Britten A Ceremony of Carols

There are lots of versions of this, but my favorite remains the one I bought in 1964 (which I still have, amazingly enough) by the Robert Shaw Chorale–in this case, just the women’s chorale. One of the first classical recordings I ever bought, in fact. It’s the loveliest version of one of the loveliest pieces of 20th century music that I know of. The only problem (if one can call it that) is that the other pieces on the album, also by Britten, aren’t Christmas music at all. One is the Te Deum, Britten loud and brassy, and the other is Rejoice in the Lamb, which is Britten’s setting to music a bunch of the poetry of Christopher Smart, who spent the last 20 years or so of his 18th century life in the madhouse, writing wonderful poetry. These days we’d just give him some lithium and he’d work for an ad agency. It’s a shame that this edition is only obtainable on vinyl—hey, RCA, let’s get this version back out in circulation! The newer Robert Shaw edition, to be found on Angels on High, also includes a female choir, and it’s lovely too—but the earlier one has a certain austerity that I think captures Britten’s intent wonderfully.

Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols during the Second World War. He was returning to England from America by ship, and during a stop in Nova Scotia found a volume of medieval poetry. Actually, he didn’t really write it so much as assemble it, in that sense, but much of the music was original to him, and other parts were based on English folk carols passed down through the centuries. It’s actually a very dark piece, with a triumphal ending, and somehow was a perfect piece for the English during the dark days of the war.

It was first performed in 1942, when things weren’t actually going too well for the English–America had only recently joined the war, even though England had been having the crap bombed out of it for nearly three years at that point (whenever Americans discuss “the special relationship with England”, the English always remember this). Since most children at that point had been shipped out of London to the countryside, the first performance was given by a women’s choir, and I still think it’s lovelier that way.

The English actor David Hemmings, who died several years ago at 62, was a fine actor, making his mark in Blow-Up, but doing fantastic jobs in a bunch of other movies as well (including the great Charley Muffin). Little known is that he was England’s finest boy tenor when he was young, and premiered two of Britten’s works, one of which Britten wrote especially for Hemmings. Britten may have had a crush on him, in fact, but it was unreciprocated.

Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, settled in a little fishing village named Aldeburgh shortly after the war, and Britten spent most of the last years of his life there. He also established a music festival there, which has proved to be one of the major European music festivals. But, you know, England will always be England. The locals still don’t quite know what to make of these interlopers, and it probably took them decades to figure out that they were gay, and they still haven’t quite forgiven them for that. For years there was a subscription campaign in the town to erect a memorial Britten, and no one ever gave money until some London benefactor came along and underwrote the thing. However, when the cute little dog belonging to the town police chief died, the locals wasted no time at all in raising funds for a statue of him. Or her. Or it. The Britten memorial, which sits out on the beach because the town didn’t actually want it in the town, is basically a giant clamshell, and was bound to be vandalized at some point. Sure enough, a couple of years ago it was.

Just waiting to be vandalized again.

Just waiting to be vandalized again.

We finally got to some concerts at Aldeburgh this year, after years of meaning to go. The concert hall is in a performing arts complex called Snape Maltings, which was formerly a building used for the malting of barley. The facilities are first rate, with particularly fine acoustics in the concert hall. But, of course, since this is England, you can’t possibly build a concert hall without the required uncomfortable seats, and in this regard Aldeburgh certainly did not disappoint. What is it with the English and their crappy seating? We’ve been to a number of theatres in London that had just undergone significant restorations, particularly the Almeida, which puts on some fine productions—why can’t anyone ever be bothered to provide decent seating?

For singers, Britten is just great. He’s one of those composers–the American composer Randall Thompson comes to mind as well–who fills his music with all sorts of markings for the singers, and he means every single one of them. His music is a joy to sing. I have fond memories of doing the short but elegant bass solo in Rejoice in the Lamb a number of years ago. And that’s not even the best solo in the piece–the Alto solo is. In fact, I think it’s one of the great solos in all choral literature–Britten had an uncanny ability to read Smart perfectly, and create something almost perfect. Singers who don’t like singing Britten shouldn’t be

So what other good versions of A Ceremony of Carols are available? Well, lots, really—but I’m particularly fond of the version by The Sixteen, which also happens to include a startling carol by Britten, The Shepherd’s Carol, which is actually rarely performed. The Sixteen, perhaps Britain’s finest choral group, is doing a whole series of Britten CDs—virtually all the choral music. Hallelujia.

3 replies »

  1. Ah. “The Shepherd’s Carol.” Used it as part of a musical setting of “The Second Shepherd’s Play” I did some years ago, Bob. From a fragment by W.H. Auden. I think the audience found it a little freaky….

    Oh, and Dr. Johnson once said of Christopher Smart when he was being threatened with imprisonment in Bedlam for his religious mania which led him to fall upon his knees randomly in Hyde Park and begin praying loudly: “I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any man.” 🙂

  2. Heh, two good pieces of info I wasn’t aware of. Thanks! Will try to work some individual carols in, but this will mostly be genres. Strange genres, I admit.

    By the way, the new Alan Bennett play which s just opening in London is about Britten and Auden–we’re seeing it in January. Will do a review!

  3. Thank you for visiting us in Aldeburgh!
    I hate to be picky but we don’t have police chiefs in our little town, where, in any case, the crime rate until recently was almost zero… The dog statue was a tribute to the local doctors, a married couple, who looked after the townsfolk for over 30 years, including during the war. It was stolen a few years ago and another one was made to replace it, ironically just about the time that the furore began about the Britten sculpture. That might say something about local taste or it might say something about loyalty. For sure, I’m not sure.
    On to Art… There was already an existing memorial to Britten, offered by the town and other admirers, in the church (Britten and Pears are buried in the church yard). It’s a striking stained glass window, designed by John Piper (1903-1992).
    The artist Maggi Hambling (born in Suffolk) created the Britten sculpture. It was fashioned, with some pride, by the town’s forge, and actually had a lot of local support. It was the ‘incomers’ (well-heeled city dwellers) who protested most loudly that it spoiled walking the dog in the morning.