On 17 April, 1942, the Axel Johnson docked in Liverpool after just over a month at sea. The English port city was the Swedish cargo ship’s final destination on a voyage that had begun in New York, then headed northwards up the North American coast before crossing the Atlantic. With attack by German U-Boat a constant possibility, it was a journey fraught with danger, but one that two of the boat’s passengers knew they had to make. For composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, it was time to come home.


When Britten and Pears had travelled in the other direction in May 1939, the two had by no means planned their Stateside stay to be an extended one. Britain’s declaration of war on Germany five months later, however, had brought a change of mind.

Though a prison sentence for refusing to serve was by no means a certainty, their life as pacifists would not be made easy should they return to Britain, while in the US, there were countless opportunities to be explored and friendships to make and renew, not least with Britten’s close collaborator, the poet WH Auden. Pears, in fact, was soon declaring that ‘we couldn’t be happier’.

That, though, was surely a case of the royal ‘we’. From the outset, Britten gave indications that not all was well. When, in early 1940, the composer suffered a bout of flu that saw his temperature rise to 107 degrees, Auden reckoned it was symptomatic of a longing to be back home.

And in April of that year, Britten himself wrote in a letter that ‘I’m gradually realising that I’m English – and as a composer I suppose I want more definite roots than some people.’ Constant reminders of home – letters from Britain, a road sign with the name ‘Suffolk’ on it and the discovery of a book of poems by George Crabbe describing the East Anglian coastline – intensified those feelings.

‘God, how slow and boring,’ was Pears’s description of life on the Axel Johnson as it made its laborious departure from the US in March 1942. His and Britten’s quarters were hot and stuffy, he complained, while the crew consisted of ‘callow, foul-mouthed and witless recruits’ whose constant whistling made concentrating on anything near-impossible.

His partner, however, did find something to occupy his mind. Britten had hoped to bring the scores of two works-in-progress with him onto the ship – a commission from clarinettist Benny Goodman and a Hymn to St Cecilia setting words by Auden – but both had been confiscated by port authorities for fear that they may contain coded material. Undeterred, he remembered as best he could what he had completed so far of the Hymn, and carried on from there. The result was one of his most sparklingly imaginative choral works.

Even more remarkable, given these most unlikely of circumstances, was the other piece he conjured up on board. Inspired by a book called The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems that he picked up during a brief stop-off in Nova Scotia and equipped with a couple of harp manuals initially bought to facilitate a now-abandoned concerto, Britten wrote a uniquely scored festive sequence for voices and harp. Topping and tailing it on his return to England, he would go on to name it A Ceremony of Carols.

Most of the Ceremony’s texts were, unsurprisingly, of a wintry, yuletide nature. Among them, though, was a ‘Spring Carol’ whose words – ‘the deer in the dale, the sheep in the vale’ and all – instead told of the turn of the seasons, a little hint of the pleasures that would be awaiting Britten and Pears at journey’s end. ‘We shall be arriving at such a heavenly time,’ enthused Pears. ‘April is such a marvellous month – think of seeing real spring again.’

Britten was one of the best English composers of all time


Main image © Getty Images