Usually choral goers associate Benjamin Britten with performances of A Ceremony of Carols and rightly so as it is an awesome choral score. Stepping off the popular track, I've recently discovered a lesser-known work by Britten, A Boy is Born; a very demanding unaccompanied choral work for mixed choir. But lucky for us, the 5th movement, In the Bleak Midwinter, is only for treble voices. It is a stunningly gorgeous work that took my breath away the first time I heard it and I have been waiting patiently for the upcoming opportunity to perform it in concert with Cantala on December 9th, 2017 in Toronto.
Benjamin Britten composed the larger work A Boy is Born between 1932 and 1933 when the world was witnessing the rise of dictators, including Hitler and Stalin, the appearance of the first concentration camps and feeling the worst of the great depression. It was a dark and gloomy time for many and for Britten, who was a student at the Royal College of music in London at the time, it transpired into a dissonant musical score.
In the Bleak midwinter, which is scored for women’s choir and boy’s chorus, is set to Christina’s Rossetti’s poem of the same name. Britten composes unrelenting vocal parts clashing in minor seconds that vividly suggest the bitter, desolate cold. He contrasts this with gentle descending lines which depict falling snow. How chilling it is that this reflects the state of the world at the time Britten composed it. It was a world in the deepest clutches of the great depression and on the brink of a second world war.
Like a single beam of sun breaking through dark grey clouds, Britten artfully weaves a 16th century English hymn, Corpus Christie, above the women’s chorus parts. Not much is known about this carol. The author is anonymous and the melody is found in the English folk tradition by another name. It has been suggested the carol is referring to the legend of the Holy Grail because it refers to a Knight who is wounded (the Fisher King, a Knight, protects the Holy Grail and is perpetually wounded because of doing so) and has let his kingdom turn into a wasteland because he is unable to care for it due to his injuries (in the poem the reference is to an “orchard brown”). This text fascinatingly contrasts with the music that lays beneath it. Below a musical soundscape of dissonance and scarcity and above a melody referring to the legend of the Holy Grail-a vessel that has miraculous powers and provides happiness, eternal youth, and sustenance in infinite abundance. It seems intuitive that this message of hope might have been a message pertinent to the people living at that time in history.
In The Bleak Midwinter is not only a blissfully gorgeous piece of music but also a stunning example of how art can mimic life, both then and now. Our world today continues to be fraught with economic hardship and political turmoil. This choral piece is still relevant today even though it was written over 80 years ago but that’s the magic of art, music, and Benjamin Britten. Come and hear us bring this and other works to you on Saturday, December 9th, 2017, 7 pm, at St. Martin in-the-fields, Toronto.