by Deborah Greenman
In its 142-year history, The Boston Cecilia has performed much of the choral canon of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps we have a special connection to Britten, given that he was born on Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day, November 22nd, in 1913. It is thought that Britten’s close friend and collaborator, W.H. Auden, had this in mind when he wrote the text for his and Britten’s final collaboration, Hymn to Saint Cecilia—a piece which Cecilia has performed multiple times. Cecilia also had the privilege of giving the American premiere of Phaedra, Britten’s last vocal work, composed in 1975. Now, in its upcoming Christmas concerts, Cecilia has the opportunity to share a work that is infrequently encountered: Christ’s Nativity, a Christmas suite for chorus. To the best of our knowledge, the complete suite has never been performed in its entirety in Boston.
Britten composed Christ’s Nativity in 1931, when he was just 17 years old. The suite was originally called A King’s Birthday, and shows a young composer engaging with thought-provoking texts in a variety of styles, moods, colors, and textures. Books on Britten tend to give short shrift to the rarely performed piece, noting that musical ideas begun in Christ’s Nativity are elaborated and improved upon in A Boy Was Born (1932-1933). Musicologist Paul Kildea has suggested that the “unsettling” nature of the suite reflects a tension in Britten caused by his instruction with his new teacher, John Ireland, at the Royal Conservatory of Music and his previous study with Frank Bridge. Others have wondered about the influence of Mahler’s lyrical fourth symphony on the piece, since Britten is known to have heard the symphony around the time he composed Christ’s Nativity. Whether the young Britten was himself unsettled or intended to unsettle his listener, it is certainly challenging for the singer to adapt to the markedly different styles and moods of the five pieces.
The texts are primarily taken from an anthology of poems about Christmas given to Britten by his older sister. Gifting anthologies of poems spanning the centuries and deemed suitable to the Christmas season was a tradition that had developed in Victorian England. The text of the first movement is from a poem by 17th century poet Henry Vaughan. The opening command to “Awake” and “get up and sing” surely inspired the young Britten and the chorus is inspired to do the same. Then, just as singers and audience are fully aroused, they are lulled back in the second movement, “Sweet was the Song”, to the beautiful and mesmerizing scene of the infant in his mother’s arms. In movement three, there is excited preparation for the prince’s arrival. The frenzied excitement is followed in the fourth movement by a slow and moving contemplation of the sadness of the son who is delivered up for the salvation of all. Here Britten juxtaposes Biblical texts with text by the 16th century martyr, Robert Southwell. Finally, rousing us from the “pity” of it all, is a carol of joyous celebration of “Nowell” taken from a text by Victorian poet C.W. Stubbs about King Cnut, the Dane who became King of England. So perhaps, A King’s Birthday really was a more appropriate title for this collection of musings on birth and on kings, both spiritual and secular.
In his essay, Britten and the World of the Child, Robin Holloway writes of Britten, his style “has the power to connect the avant-garde with the lost paradise of tonality,” and perhaps what musicologists have noted about the tension in Britten’s early Christmas suite is the beginning of what Holloway is alluding to. It may have been a developing Britten who wrote what would become Christ’s Nativity, but Boston Cecilia is excited to introduce you to this beautiful suite of joyous contradiction.