Benjamin Britten is the contemporary composer who placed himself outside the contours of history by using exclusively traditional means to write entertaining, touching, probing and affective music. This accounts for his huge success as a composer, because he chose to ignore the achievements of avant-garde music (which he knows quite well!), he deliberately avoided all depth and recklessly used all the musical means he had access to. He seems to compose effortlessly thanks to composing capacities, his command of the old music and an obvious but genuine eclecticism. Born in Lowestoft on November 22nd 1913, he was taught by Frank Bridge, John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin. He is not adverse from any genre, which explains why his oeuvre and its qualities are so diverse:

operas ("Peter Grimes" is the most widely known and in "The Turn of the Screw" he proves to be a master in the 20th century buffo genre), vocal music (piano songs, orchestral songs , orchestral work with vocal soli, choir music), orchestral music ("Simple Symphony", "Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge"), film music, "A Young Person's Guide to the orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell"), school music ("Let's make an Opera"), religious music ("Noye's Fludde", "War Requiem"), chamber music etc.

Furthermore, Britten is famous as an editor of historical music, particularly of Henry Purcell's, as a director of his own music and others', and last but not least as a pianist accompanying a.o. tenor Peter Pears, with whom he performs duets regularly.

He died in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4th 1976.

An interview with Benjamin Britten

Listening to ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ one would think you composed this piece of music at the piano at home in a few winter nights in December. Am I right?

On the contrary! During my return voyage from America I finished ‘Hymn to Saint Cecilia’ , and composed ‘Seven Christmas Carols’… to kill the time! (haha!!) Those carols are the first version of ‘A Ceremony of Carols’, for high voices and harp, performed for the first time in December 1942.

Hardly ideal circumstances.

Indeed! I worked in a cabin that Peter Pears describes as 'miserable, hot and dusty, with an unbearable smell; the crew was inexperienced, loud-mouthed and acted like fools.’ Furthermore, there was the omnipresent threat of being attacked by a German U-boot. Not the most inspiring circumstances, and yet... What else can a composer, stuck for days on end on a cargo, with little more than some old texts and a hand harp, do more than some composing?

Where did you get your inspiration?

Before crossing the Atlantic, the MS Axel Johnson, the Swedish freight ship Peter Pears and I managed to board, docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There I bought a copy of ‘The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems’. The figurative meaning of ‘galaxy’ is ‘shining collection’. From this book I used five poems for 'A Ceremony of Carols': 3, 5, 6, 8 en 10.

And the other carols?

One other of the seven I composed on the voyage, is a setting of what is known now as 'Wolcum Yole’ (no.2), with the Latin text 'Hodie Christus natus est’. After I got home I replaced the original e ‘Hodie’ with the Gregorian ‘Procession’/’Recession’ (no.1 and no.11), but I used the music of the discarded song for a new carol, ‘Wolcum Yole’. Around that time I added one more: ‘Spring Carol’ (no.9).

And the final version?

Prior to the publication of the carols, I added ‘That yongë child’ (no.4a) and ‘Interlude’, the harp intermezzo (no.7) in 1943. I directed the final version myself, sung by the Morriston Boys' Choir and accompanied by harp by Maria Korchinska, at Wigmore Hall in London on December 4th 1943.

An indecent question: is it because of your inclination that you composed 'A Ceremony of Carols' for a boys' choir?

Forget it man…. Actually, it wasn't written for soprano boys, but female sopranos. It was performed for the first time by The Fleet Street Choir, a female choir, in December 1942. After the première I changed my mind. The adapted version was sung by the Morriston Boy's Choir the following Christmas.

And why did you change your mind?


What does the word 'ceremony’ refer to?

Well, there is a gregorian ‘Procession’ (no.1) and a ‘Recession’ (no.11)… and that’s all !!!!

You say you have used carefully selected texts, but on the theme of Christmas, of course.

No, not quite. ‘Spring Carol’ (no.9) sings merrily about 'the deer in the valley, the sheep in the valley and the wheat that germinates.'

Beautiful, but not in a festive mood... How did this carol end up in 'A Ceremony of Carols?

I added this merry carol to celebrate my return to England after a tiring voyage.

How did it turn into a piece of music for four voices?

The immense popularity of ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ inspired musical editors Boosey & Hawkes to invite Julius Harrison, composer, to write a soprano-alto-tenor-basso arrangement for it. This version was published in 1955.

What would be your final definition of this piece of music?

A mixture of anonymous medieval texts and later poems, set to music. (smiling) ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ is a near Christmas piece of music, eventually written for soprano boys!

Other interviews with Britten can be found on the BBC website. You need Realplayer to listen to the sound files.

‘A Birthday Hansel' is a song cycle composed by Britten for Queen Elizabeth II for her mother's 75th birthday, (Elizabeth, wife of King George VI), on Augustus 4th 1975.

Britten also composed so called ‘canticles’, for which he used longer texts, and in which he tried to apply unity of form, so that he actually composed short cantatas. He composed fifth canticle, ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus' (1974-1975) on the lyrics by Thomas Stearns Eliot, the British-American poet and essayist (1888-1965).

A canticle is a song of praise. Canticles are religious songs that are part of church liturgy; their lyrics are borrowed from the bible, though not from the book 'Psalms'. Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32) are canticles from the New Testament. Origines, Christian theologian from Alexandria (ca.185 - ca. 254) frequently discusses canticles in his writings, but he doesn't refer to liturgical use. A traditional and widely used canticle in liturgy is the one about Moses (Exodus 15:21 ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted’), which according to bishop Zeno of Verona (-ca.372) was sung at the baptism at Easter night. A complete series of canticles can be found in the Codex Alexandrinus, dating form the fifth century. Also in the Western world several writers seem to believe series like these were used for liturgical purposes, such as Pelagius, a British monk (ca.350-ca.400/425), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a Christian philosopher, and Ambrose, bishop of Milan (ca.339-397). The relationship between East and West in those days gives us grounds to assume that that series of canticles was collected in the East and adopted by the West. In the sixth-century Greek-Latin Psalter of Verona, (a collection of psalms) a series of canticles was added to the psalms; its use was certainly liturgical. That series was composed as follows: Exodus 15:1-21; Deutoronomy 32:1-44 and 31:3; the first book of Kings 2:1-10; Isaiah 5:1-9; Jonah 2:3-10; Habakuk 3:2-19, Luke 1:46-55 (Magnificat); Daniel 3:51-90.

The anthem ‘Venite Exultemus Domino’ was found among Britten's unpublished music after his death. It was obviously composed in the same period as his ‘Jubilate Deo’, in 1961, commissioned by the Duke of Edinburgh for St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.

The term anthem is an English corruption of the Greek 'anti-hymn' or perhaps of Old-English ‘antefn’, derived from the Greek ‘antiphoona’. In medieval spoken language it meant the same. It is a type of choral song that developed, as did the cantata, from the motet in the Lutheran church. It is polyphonic, often interspersed with soli, and accompanied by organ and other instruments. It has roots in the Latin motet of the Roman Catholic church. Latin motets, in which the Latin lyrics were replaced with English ones developed into anthems, proving the close link between the Latin motet and the English anthem. Examples are ‘O Sacrum Convivium’ by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) ‘I Call and Cry’. Since its first appearance during the English Reformation, which started in 1534, the anthem developed independently. According to a liturgical ordnance, published for the first time as a liturgical book called ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ in 1662, this setting of non-liturgical English words is used in anglican services during morning and evening prayer, where it found its right place after the third collecta. In this book the anthems are explicitly mentioned for the first time, as follows: ‘In Quires (= choirs) and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem’. In the second half of the sixteenth century the so called ‘full anthem’, written for choir exclusively, is the most widespread. The composers of the Restoration era (in England from 1660 until ca.1714) developed an elaborate type of anthem, with passages for accompanied solo voices and instrumental interludes. In this type, also known as the ‘verse anthem’, each part, sung by one or more solo voices, was technically speaking a 'verse' or 'a stanza'. In the seventeenth century anthems, by John Blow (1649-1708) and Henry Purcell (1658-1695) in particular, became more elaborate, strongly resembling the German church cantatas. Purcell often included interludes for strings in his anthems. In the twentieth century, composers, among whom Benjamin Britten, tried to achieve the old purity with modern means.

1. PROCESSION: a gregorian antiphon forms the beginning and the end of this fairly playful piece; the arrival of Christ, our Saviour, is praised.
2. WOLCUM YOLE!: the main idea of the antiphon is picked up again in an exuberant mood: ‘Welcome You are, Joel, heavenly child.’
3. THERE IS NO ROSE: this philosophical passage describes God's trinity.
4a; 4b. THAT YONGË CHILD en BALULALOW: both are delicate lullabies; the rhythm of the harp symbolises the rocking movement of the cradle.
5. AS DEW IN APRILLE: one most the most widely known medieval poems brings Maria's message: the exuberant beginning and end is in strong contrast with the surprising harmonies of the middle part, in which Jesus' arrival is described again.
6. THIS LITTLE BABE: the child is evoked as a general in a warlike canon.
7. INTERLUDIUM: harp solo.
8. IN FREEZING WINTER: the severe cold is expressed by repeated dissonants.
9. SPRING CAROL: a merry spring carol.
10. DEO GRACIAS: the fall is described in a positive way.

A carol originally was a dancing-song. In medieval English it referred to any song with a chorus, whether it was used for religious functions or not. According to this definition, ‘Agincourt Song’ is a carol: it is one of the most beautiful medieval carols, written in honour of king Henry V (reigning from 1413 until 1422) and his memorable victory. It says, ‘Owre Kynge went forth to Normandy / With grace and myght of chyvalry / Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly; / Wherefore Englonde may call and cry / Deo gratias’. Agincourt, also written Azincourt, is a village in the French department Pas-de-Calais, famous for its battle in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). A small English army led by Henry V landed along the Seine in France and occupied Honfleur (at the mouth of the Seine, close to Le Havre); the army moved north in an attempt to embark in Calais again, but it encountered a French army of knights, which it defeated gloriously on October 25th 1415.

In the middle of the 15th century the carol was associated with the Christmas celebration and gradually lost its link with dancing. The habit of composing or arranging carols for two or more voices dates from the fifteenth century. As a popular English song it has been associated, as far as lyrics are concerned, with the Christmas story since the sixteenth century, linking it with the French ‘Noël’ and the German‘Weihnachtslied’. Gradually Christmas carols replaced all other types of carols. Now the term nearly exclusively refers to Christmas carols.

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