Tony Jones introduces Viva Voce’s concert featuring of some of Britten’s Christmas Choral Music with A Boy Was Born as its centrepiece on 7 December
This concert presents a selection of Britten’s choral music for Christmastide, a season much enjoyed by the composer throughout his life and one that he celebrated in an extraordinarily diverse manner in works as different as A Ceremony of Carols and the Christmas scene from Paul Bunyan.
More specifically, the concert charts the developmental journey of a prodigiously talented young man through his schooldays, a college scholarship, his experiences in America and his longing to return home. The Journey begins....
1930 Two early, and subsequently revised, companion carols from his school days: the deceptively simple carol setting A Hymn to the Virgin for two unequal groups, and his ‘choral song’ I saw three ships, published in 1968 as The Sycamore Tree.
1931 Selected movements from Christ’s Nativity (originally Thy King’s Birthday) - a fascinating scholarship student choral work from his early days at the Royal College of Music. Here is a young musical mind discovering the potential of a sequence of texts with a common poetic theme, and the colour, contrast, drama and textural variety produced by an unaccompanied choir.
1934 Britten brilliantly applies these discoveries in his early masterpiece A Boy Was Born Op. 3 – Choral variations for Mixed Voices and Boys Choir, written for the BBC ‘Wireless’ singers and the boys of St Mark’s Audley Street, conducted by Leslie Woodgate.
This virtuosic music makes fierce technical and musical demands on its vocal performers with a score that is orchestral in its complexity. It was a conscious tour de force by a nineteen-year-old composer! anxious both to demonstrate his skill at the handling of words and, having assimilated contemporary European influences, wanting to throw down the gauntlet to the English pastoralists.
A summary of the work’s seven movements...
Theme and variations with a four note motif; hypnotic lullaby (Mother and Son); an intimidating male voice Bartokian Scherzo (Herod’s brutality); choral homophony juxtaposed with beautiful pentatonic melisma (a processional journey) through three key areas (the Magi); the melding of two distinct texts – chilling female choir In the bleak midwinter and the folk-like Corpus Christi Carol for boys’ voices; the Finale – Noel: an elaborate rondo with additional carol interpolations recalling fragments of earlier variations.
1944 Two carols resulting from Britten’s collaboration with W.H. Auden. After returning homesick to England in 1942 Britten set Chorale after an old French Carol – based on the hymn Picardy, and A Shepherd’s Carol using two short poems from Auden’s text originally planned for ‘A Christmas Oratorio’. Auden suggested that this ‘should be either jazz or Folk-Song (Guitar – concertina – bagpipe or what-have-you)’. This easy, laid-back setting is redolent of American popular music of the time.
Four carols commissioned for King’s College Cambridge
King’s commissions started in 1983 and were part of a drive to nurture new music within a quintessentially English tradition: The Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols – Christmas Eve… Britten’s beloved wireless is on... drinks and canapés at the ready… all the preparations… and last minute present wrapping while listening to the BBC!
In wintertime, by Britten’s contemporary and would-be lover Lennox Berkeley; What Sweeter Music from the ever-popular John Rutter; an exquisite musical version of an illuminated Celtic manuscript crafted by Judith Weir (Illuminare, Jerusalem); and a subversively tongue-in-cheek, rosary-rattling ‘Hail Mary’ (Bogoroditse Djevo) from Arvo Pärt.
...Which was the Son of....
Pärt charts the genealogical lineage of Jesus taken from St Matthew with foot-tapping call and response, shades of the blues and mesmeric dance rhythms.
Works not mentioned as getting performances are A New Year Carol (Levy Dew, 1934), This Little Babe (from A Ceremony of Carols), Carol (from Sacred and Profane, 1975), I Wonder As I Wander (1934) and The Holly and the Ivy (revised version 1957), the latter two designated as folk song arrangements.
The two movements from Christ’s Nativity are the first and last. The Sycamore Tree was originally written as I Saw Three Ships in the early 1930s.
The concert, at Upper Chapel, begins at 7.30pm and is preceded by a one-man dramatisation drawn from the daily journal Britten kept during his formative years. Details here