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A Ceremony of Carols : Work information

(Edward) Benjamin Britten ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Frances Kelly (Harp), Choir of New College Oxford, Edward Higginbottom (Conductor)

This work

Work name
A Ceremony of Carols
Work number
Op. 28
1942-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

John Hadden
John Hadden
Recording date
1991-12-18 00:00:00

The Composers

(Edward) Benjamin Britten

Born in Lowestoft to a middle-class family, Benjamin Britten composed prolifically from an early age.  Although his mother was an amateur singer, Britten's writing seemed borne out of no more than an obsessive love for the activity, the fruits of which won him the tutelage of Frank Bridge .  At the time, Bridge's own artistic values were developing in an increasingly avant-garde direction.  Although instilling technique and discipline in Britten, his main aim was to encourage him to question whether what he had written precisely matched his intent.

After a miserable public school education, Britten entered the Royal College of Music in 1930.  He found tutors such as Harold Samuel and Arthur Benjamin far less adventurous than Bridge, and he began to look for other avenues of learning.  Plans to study with Alban Berg  came to nothing, but a comission to score a documentary about the General Post Office led both to a new source of income and a meeting with poet W.H. Auden, with whom Britten was to have close personal and artistic ties.

Britten set many of Auden's texts and followed him to America in 1939.  Travelling with him was Peter Pears, a young tenor who became Britten's lover, muse and foremost performer.  After writing successful works such as the Sinfonia da Requiem abroad, Britten returned to his home country and rediscovered his heritage, both through English poetry and through the works of composers such as Henry Purcell , whose work was the basis for his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.  His first operatic success was also English to the core; Peter Grimes was the first of many Britten operas spearheading a revival of the country's vocal tradition.

Gravitating to the nearby town of Aldeburgh, Britten led the instigation of an annual music festival of which his works were the star attraction.  When not engaged in the organisation of the festival he travelled widely; the Gamelan music of Bali influenced the composition of works like the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas and the Noh theatre of Japan informed Curlew River.  A visit to Russia led to a lifelong friendship with cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who he composed for and invited to perform at Aldeburgh.

A gentle person by nature, most of Britten's works eschew the bombast of the Romantic composers.  He was scathing of Beethoven and Brahms, and the restraint of his music has caused many to label him as repressed.  Certainly there are dark undercurrents in much of his work, especially in the malevolent psychological themes of some of his operas, but much of his work is informed more by wry wit and pacifism.  In his later years, Britten was shocked, as he had shocked his predecessors in his day, by the works of Birtwistle, and by comparison his music is accessible.  However, there is always more to it than the surface impressionism one might expect at first listening.

Track listing

  • Procession: Hodie Christus natus est 1:36 min
  • Wolcum Yole! 1:30 min
  • There is no rose 2:30 min
  • That yonge child 1:55 min
  • Balulalow 1:25 min
  • As dew in Aprille 1:09 min
  • This little Babe 1:33 min
  • Interlude 4:00 min
  • In freezing winter night 3:33 min
  • Spring carol 1:12 min
  • Deo gracis 1:25 min
  • Recession: Hodie Christus natus est 1:48 min


Written at sea on board MS Axel Johnson in spring 1942, A Ceremony of Carols was Britten's first work to use boys' voices, a resource that would be used to great effect years later in the War Requiem. The composer was returning back to England after three years in America and having bought a book of medieval carols at a stopover in Halifax, Nova Scotia, decided to set them.

With its harp accompaniment and 'angelic' boys voices, A Ceremony of Carols evokes the innocence of the Christmas story in a new and unconventional way, yet its style places it firmly in the tradition of English choral music. The use of the antiphon 'Hodie' from the Vespers of the Nativity in the opening and closing processional and the harp interlude also makes this work the first of Britten's to use plainsong.

Following a first performance in December 1942 at Norwhich castle, Britten revised the work, adding new movements and correcting texts. The revised version of A Ceremony of Carols was given for the first time at London's Wigmore Hall on December 4 1943 with the composer himself conducting. It was an immediate success with the public and has remained one of Britten's most popular works, especially at Christmas time.