A seasonal masterpiece: Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols at Temple Church

Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, for three-part treble voices and harp, is one of the composer’s most joyful works, its expression direct, strong and true.  It was composed in the spring of 1942 on board the MS Axel Johnson which brought Britten and Peter Pears back to Britain after their three-year sojourn in the United States.  Upon arriving back in England, Pears wrote to Elizabeth Mayer (with whom Pears and Britten had stayed in New York) that, as well as completing ‘his St. Cecilia & Clarinet Concerto’ the manuscripts of which were ‘[taken] away from him at the N.Y. customs’, during the journey Britten had composed ‘7 Christmas carols for women’s voices & Harp!  Very sweet and chockfull of charm!’

Full of charm the seven carols certainly are, their 14th– and 15th-century texts as engaging as the inventive and responsive musical settings they inspired.  Though Britten continually disparaged his own efforts with words, so many of his compositions seem to have been prompted by an encounter with a literary work or idea.  Most of the texts that form Ceremony can be found in The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, the contents of which were selected and edited by Gerald Bullett in 1939, a copy of which Britten purchased in March 1942 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his boat docked on his journey home.

The first performance of the work took place in the Library of Norwich Castle on 5th December 1942 by the women’s voices of the Fleet Street Choir, conducted by T.B. Lawrence with harpist Gwendolen Mason.  So, although Britten made revisions for the Wigmore Hall premiere of the work in December 1942, it felt rather apt to hear it performed at Temple Church, reached by ducking down a narrow path leading south off Fleet Street, by the Choristers of Temple Church Choir, directed by Thomas Allery.

Their ritual entry and exit during the framing plainsong Procession and Recession, ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, made the occasion seem special, emphasising the spatial acoustic of the Church and the Gregorian purity of the chant – sung from memory by the choristers – which was heightened by the freshness and sweetness of the young voices.  That’s not to overlook, though, the astonishing maturity of these young singers, whose musical insight and engagement, and spot-on intonation, were notable.  The rhythms of the chant, with its flexible concluding Alleluia, were fluid and natural.  Here was stunning polish which immediately established a wonderful ambience.

The use of a harp accompaniment may have been prompted by an unfulfilled commission for a harp concerto for Edna Phillips: Britten had been sent two harp manuals by the harpist Carlos Salzedo.  Here the part was performed with intensity and percussive vigour by Keziah Thomas.  The ostinato patterns, crisp and sparkling like wintery dew-dops, of ‘Wolcum Yole!’ inspired the voices to match the harp’s vitality and there was exciting declamatory exuberance.  ‘There is no rose of such vertu’ was beautifully shaped, building towards the soaring sheen of the repeated cries, “Transeamus” (Let us go forth). The consonant thirds suggested serenity, while the unisons which convey the Latin text were perfectly pitched.

‘That yongë child’ had a plaintive tone; ‘Balulalo’ rocked liltingly, the solo part delivered with confident projection.  The imitative complexity of ‘As Dew in Aprille’ was exceeded in ‘This Little Babe’.  There is nothing sentimental here.  The text, by Robert Southwell, a Catholic priest who was hung, drawn, and quartered during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, tells of the battle that the ‘Babe of Bethlehem’ wages against Satan: “This little Babe so few days old,/ Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;/ All hell doth at his presence quake,/ Though he himself for cold do shake;/ For in his weak unarmed wise, the gates of hell he will surprise.”  Allery conjured a gripping rhythmic restlessness as the triple canon unfolded, impeccably delivered by the young voices.

Thomas’s Interlude – fluid and superbly structured – gave grandeur to the sequence.  And, the harp shivered atmospherically in ‘In Freezing Winter Night’ which again featured a strong solo in the final verse.  The rapid imitation of the ‘Spring Carol’ was enervating while ‘Deo Gracias’ offered the tingle of a taut, syncopated carillon, with the text punchily and brightly delivered.

Perhaps the work needs a larger body of young voices than the fifteen voices of the Temple Church choristers, but the acoustic of Temple Church added a bloom to the crystalline voices.  And, what may have sometimes been lacking in ‘oomph’ was more than made up for by the young singers’ confidence and assurance, coaxed taxingly but warmly as they were by Allery.

A seasonal masterpiece, masterfully performed.

Claire Seymour

Britten: A Ceremony of Carols Op. 28

The Choristers of Temple Church Choir, Keziah Thomas (harp), Thomas Allery (director)

Temple Church, London; Tuesday 19th December 2023.