We’re only a couple of weeks away from Christmas, so its time to start listening to Christmas music! This is not, however, what most people think of when they think of Christmas music. In fact, it’s not even the usual set of popular Christmas carols that cycle through the radio stations this time of year. Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten is nonetheless a true Christmas masterpiece.
Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, wrote Ceremony of Carols in 1942 when he was only 29 years old. It is written for three-part choir, solo voices, and harp and incorporates 11 Middle-English Christmas carols. Britten composed it while on board a ship from New York to London. When the ship stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten purchased a book of medieval poetry that happened to include a number of 14th and 15th century English carols. Before he stepped off the ship in London, he had written Ceremony of Carols.
This piece is unique in several ways. First, note the use of a single instrument – a harp – as the accompaniment for the choir. Most choral works are accompanied by a small orchestra, but Britten uses only the harp. Second, note the way the choir is a sort of call-and-response partner with the solo voices. This creates a lovely echoing effect. Third and finally, listen for the simple, roaming unison lines that individual voices sometimes present. This is Britten’s imitation of Gregorian chant, a kind of choral singing that was popular in the 9th and 10th centuries.