By Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely
Because my school and college were both all-female, I have sung A Ceremony of Carols many times. Benjamin Britten originally imagined it as sung by women, but upon publication it was scored for boy trebles, with two soloists and harp. It works both ways. Learning these carols as a young teenager in high school was a challenge. I’d never encountered the shifting rhythms, clusters of dissonance, and other techniques Britten uses for expressive effect, let alone 5/4 meter! These have all become idiomatic in the language of 20th century music, but to me back then they were astonishing.
In college too, along with the musical values, we worked hard on the piece’s spiritual core as the poetry delved inwardly. In “There is no Rose of such Vertu,” the many thirds with their consonance give a sense of serenity and innocence before the soaring line of “Transeamus” (Let us go forth), and then draw back to a gently chanting low C at the end. As for the “Balulalow” lullaby, I remember myself then, newly in love, being transported by its caressing triple rhythms and flow between major and minor, as the Virgin rocks her child in the cradle. Now, a grandmother, I am happy to leave this exquisite lullaby to a younger soprano.
As Donald Teeters wrote for Cecilia’s own CD made in 2002 (thanks to Barbara Bruns for bringing this to my attention), Britten composed this masterpiece in 1942, when he was 28 years old. He was aboard ship returning to England from the United States, where he spent the early World War II years as a conscientious objector. The voyage lasted five long weeks in treacherous wartime waters. His state of mind was no less fraught for the critical reception he feared back in England. Some of the insistent rhythm and angry energy in “This Little Babe” reflect this. The conflict between good and evil, the Babe and Satan, divides in the music into canon, Don wrote, creating “a vivid picture of apocalyptic conflict—a picture replete with contemporary references for Britten.” We may think of that with our own conflicts today.
In adulthood I have sung the carols independently in many different church services and, with Don, the whole piece twice. I know others sang it with Don before I joined. Barbara Bruns, who will conduct the piece for our holiday concert, asked us all to find something new this Christmas. The task was an easy one.
The poetry, mostly medieval – Britten was a genius at choosing texts for his vocal compositions – offers something fresh and beautiful, subtle or brilliant, every time I look. Amplified like a prism by the harp, light shimmers and shines, water glistens in dewdrops and icicles. Look at the poetry and listen. The last carol pounds and bursts into joy. Had not Adam and Eve taken the apple, the anonymous poet writes, never would our Lady have been heavenly queen. Harp and three-part-chorus ring out like bells pealing at the end of “Deo Gracias!” And then the ceremony subsides, enclosed, or rather embraced, by the plainsong antiphon with which it opened, the Hodie proper to the Vespers for Christmas Eve.
I hope to sing A Ceremony of Carols yet again.