Inch of the Day 2 October 2015: Singing: A Ceremony of Carols: Benjamin Britten

In addition to Handel’s Four Coronation Anthems (see yesterday’s post) I also received yesterday the music for Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. I need to learn to sing both for a Christmas concert.  Eek.

Britten was a pacifist. He and his lifelong partner and singer Peter Pears went to the US in 1937. When war broke out Britten became a conscientious objector and was subjected to hostility from various sources, but became so homesick for England that they returned in 1942. He wrote seven of the eleven carols on the long sea voyage back to the UK from the US. Ceremony was written for treble voices and harp and this version premiered in the Library of Norwich Castle, the December of 1942, sung by the women’s voices of the Fleet Street Choir. Gwendolyn Mason played the harp and it was conducted by T B Lawrence. 

I’m taking the information about Ceremony from the Introduction by Philip Reed (1994) to the book of sheet music, published by Boosey & Hawkes.

Reed goes on to explain that Britten returned to the UK on the Swedish merchant vessel Axel Johnson, crossing a U-boat infested Atlantic. The ship, before undertaking the crossing, called in at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Britten chanced upon a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, which appeared to have sparked the idea of the carol sequence. Five of the poems in Galaxy became carols 3, 5, 6, 8 and 10.

In 1943, Britten added carols 4 and 7 and made provision for the work to be performed to piano, instead of harp accompaniment, where necessary. This, final, version, was first sung, at the Wigmore Hall, London, by the Morriston Boys’ Choir, to the accompaniment (harp) of Maria Korchinska. It was conducted by Britten. The choir with Korchinska, went on to make the first recording, for Decca.

This is the SATB (choral) version of the work, arranged by composer Julius Harrison in 1955.


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