A guide to Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and its best recordings
Jeremy Pound takes a look at one of Britten's most popular festive works, A Ceremony of Carols
What is Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols?
A Ceremony of Carols is an 11-movement work by the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76). Its text consists of an eclectic mix of anonymous medieval texts and later poems rather than familiar carols. Not all of the texts are festive, or even about winter – one of the carols, the Spring Carol, sings of ‘The deer in the dale, the sheep in the vale, the corn springing.’
When did Britten write A Ceremony of Carols?
Britten composed it in March to April 1942, while crossing the Atlantic on the Axel Johnson, a Swedish cargo ship, in the thick of the Second World War. At the time, the composer and his partner Peter Pears were heading back to Britain after a three-year stay in the US. According to Pears, their cabins were hot and stuffy, and the company on board ‘callow, foul-mouthed and witless’. Plus, of course, there was always the danger of being attacked by German U-Boat.
Why is it called a ‘Ceremony’?
The work begins and ends with a plainchant Procession and Recession that the choir enter and leave the stalls or concert hall to. The eighth movement, meanwhile, is an Interlude for the harp alone.
And where do the texts for A Ceremony of Carols come from?
Shortly after the Axel Johnson left the US, it docked briefly in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was while browsing in a bookshop there that Britten found a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, compiled by Gerald Bullett. The poems in it fired his imagination to write a Christmas work.
What performers is it written for?
A Ceremony of Carols is for three lines of either boy trebles or female sopranos, plus a harp. Britten originally scored it for women’s voices, but then had second thoughts after the debut performance in December 1942. The revised, and published, version was first sung by the Morriston Boys’ Choir the following Christmas.
What are the best recordings of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols?
There are many good recordings. For a version with boys’ voices, try the 1990 recording by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (Argo)
For women’s voices, the recently released recording by Tenebrae (Signum) comes recommended
We named Britten's A Ceremony of Carols one of the best pieces of Christmas classical music
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.