The Cantala Women’s Choir is excited to perform next month their favourite seasonal work, the gorgeous, masterful choral piece, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Besides all the wonderful music contained in this work, I love that Britten found the text that would inspire the work in a bookshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Never was a time, that apple taken been…..
The journey of A Ceremony of Carols started in 1939, when Britten set out for America. This was the time when WW2 had just broken out in Europe, the Manhattan project launched and would accumulate 6 years later in the world’s first atomic bomb, Lou Gerhig was diagnosed with amyotropic lateral scleroses (ALS), and bread cost 8 cents a loaf.
Britten was tired of the musical scene in England but loved the work of American poet W H Auden. So off he went to America. Auden and Britten shared many interests, including politics, moral philosophy and the role of artist-in-society. But Britten found America to have “all the faults of Europe and none of the attractions” and so, in 1942, he set sail to return back to England, but only after a short stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he found and purchased a book of medieval poetry that would later be integral to the Ceremony of Carols.
There are 11 movements which provide many opportunities for sensitive, full voiced and chant-like singing. Britten retains the unique sound of the medieval text by writing the words in old English. The piece in its entirety shows Britten’s mastery of choral music, with each movement in contrast with the next.
1. Procession (“Hodie Christus natus est” based on liturgical Gregorian chant, sung in Latin, and rejoicing in the birth of Christ). The choir will come into the Cathedral singing and the sound of their voices will increase in volume and presence. It is a beautiful beginning to the work.
2. Wolcum Yole! (based on ancient text to welcome the Yule season). Lots of dissonance and imitation of Christmas bells.
3. There is no rose (In this carol, the rose is a reference to Mary; text alternates between Latin and English). Contains meditative, sublime stillness.
4. Fourth movement:
a. That yongë child (a solo recitative with harp accompaniment usually grouped with Balulalow). A solo depicting the love for her child.
b. Balulalow (a lullaby). The gentle swaying of the cradle is depicted in the lilting 6/8 meter and rise and fall of crescendo and diminuendo.
5. As dew in Aprille (based on an anonymous fifteenth century poem, praising Mary). A piece that always gets the conductor in a tizzy with all the changing entries. It also challenges the choir to listen carefully and enter gently; always matching the part that came before it. The ultimate “dove tailing” choral piece.
6. This little Babe (based on a poem by the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, 1561-1595). Try saying “haystalks his stakes” five times fast. Now, again, but faster. That’s the fun of this piece.
7. Interlude (instrumental harp solo)
8. In Freezing Winter Night (based on Southwell). I have never heard music imitate shivering so successfully as Britten does here in the harp. So stunning.
9. Spring Carol (Cornish, a duet). Such a fresh, lovely duet capturing the essence of Spring -young and sprightly.
10. Deo gracias (based on medieval text). Lovely use of echo in this piece.
11. Recession (a repeat of the opening "Hodie Christus natus est" liturgical chant.). The choir will gradually leave the Cathedral and leave the atmosphere of awe and mystery behind for all to behold. This is the genius of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols.
The Cantala Women’s Choir is presenting A Ceremony of Carols in concert on Saturday Dec. 8, 2018 in Toronto. Tickets available online: