Christmas Music Matters: Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

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In the Anglican and some other Christian Traditions, there is a pre-Christmas event called a “Ceremony of Lessons and Carols.”

In 1942, the pivotal British Composer Benjamin Britten wrote a Cantata, “A Ceremony of Carols,” while on a voyage from Britain to America. A modern piece, it is tied to more ancient music through Britten’s genius, “with text from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett.” Parts are sung in Latin, Middle English, Elizabethan English, and Modern English.

The libretto includes two poems by Robert Southwell, S.J., one of the British Jesuit Martyrs. That in itself makes this work a marvel of the reconciliation of Anglicans and Catholics in Britain, and as Britten was Gay, a delightful gift for an LGBT pioneer.

At the Novitiate in Santa Barbara, the great soul, Fr. Tom McCormick had our choir of Novices learn some of these pieces for a Christmas concert at the local parish, including the stunning but fiendishly difficult-to-sing “This Little Babe,” where the choir sings as if it were a harp.

Listening to Britten’s Cantata is an initiatic experience. I welcome you to enter into the Mystery:

Here is the text to follow along.

Merry Christmas!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

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