Benjamin Britten and the “Ceremony of Carols”

This is another paper I had to write, but this one was for my Choir instructor because I missed two concerts from being sick. Please enjoy!

 

Ceremony of Carols, everyone knows about them or at least heard of them, but how much do we know about their creator. We don’t often think about the life of the composers, taking the time to listen to the music and that is all. Benjamin Britten was an interesting figure whose childhood did not suggest his genius and school experiences that bothered him. With this paper I hope to explore his life and then compare and contrast two choirs performing the Ceremony of Carols.

Benjamin Britten was born in 1913 and was the youngest of four children. His parents were a dentist and a singer/pianist. His controlled his life until she died in 1937. Britten composed numerous songs before he was ten, though his school days were standard for the time period. It appeared that he was not bullied in school because “he was a keen cricketer” (Benjamin Britten, Brett, Phillip). He passed the Associated Board Grade eight when he was thirteen after beginning viola lessons at the age of ten. His teacher, Edith Alston, encouraged concert attendance in Norwich.

He had one hundred opus numbers under his belt by the age of fourteen, but his mother failed to bring his accomplishments to a wider audience. His teacher had two beliefs the first of which was “that you should find yourself and be true to what you found. The other was his scrupulous attention to good technique” (Britten, Sunday Telegraph, 17 Nov 1963). He entered a public school in north Norfolk during the month of September during 1928. He was known to be outraged by the bullying the other boys went through. His music master also “disparaged his composition” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). He coped with several mechanisms including letters to his mothers, suicide talks in his diaries, and psychosomaticism. This would follow him into the rest of his life.

He attended the RCM with a scholarship due to The Birds, A Wealden Trio and several more pieces. Britten was dismayed “at the ‘amateurish and folksy’ atmosphere he encountered” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip) while at school. He was taught piano by Arthur Benjamin and composition lessons from John Ireland, but seemed to cause defensiveness in Ireland and the lessons were “portrayed as a dismal failure” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). Though later he admitted “Ireland nursed me very gently through a very, very difficult musical adolescence” (Letters from a Life, A1991, p.147). Britten did manage to increase his knowledge of repertory while he was in London. He won the Cobbett Chamber Music Prize in his second year with Phantasy in F minor for a string quintet. In 1932 it was performed professionally for the first time at a Macnaghten-Lemare concert along with “two-part songs on poems of de la Mare” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip) which was his first published work. After Phantasy and Sinfonietta he wrote Soirees Musicales and Rossini among others. Soon he heads off to North America.

He left to head to Northa American in 1939 to try his hand. Britten had several reason to go abroad such as the fascism that was growing over Europe and the war that “seemed inevitable” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip) as well as two people leaving in January and the pace of the career he was trying to determine his direction. He visited Canada, New York, and Catskills where they visited Copland. They also visited Elizabeth Mayer on Long Island and she became a surrogate mother for Mr. Britten. Young Apollo reflected Britten’s emotional issues while he was in America. He also wrote several pieces that showed the confusion he was feeling about his homosexuality.

A year later he wrote Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo which he dedicated to Pears and “can be taken as a further gesture towards this reclamation of the physical” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip) and “the official inception of their partnership” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). The Musical Times said that it had “no thematic connection” to the other songs (Benjamin Britten; Mason, Collins). During the time in 1939 Britten finished the Violin Concerto while Britain went to war. The work has a ominous feeling in the beginning and ends in nostalgia which was “so different from the ebullient Piano Concerto of little more than a year earlier” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). Britten completed many works by the end of 1942 and he matured as a person as well as an artist. He also found a “certain level of acceptance among others and, more important, in himself about his sexual orientation” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip).

In April of 1942 Britten returned to England only to realize that he had to contribute something that was not only new, but powerful to Brittan’s musical culture. His choice was to use opera. The opera was used “to locate the problem as one of society’s vicious treatment of difference” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). However his return was anticlimactic, though it could have been worse. He was called up for non-combatant duties, though he was set free because of appeal, possibly because of “Britten’s continuing work for the BBC” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip).

Because he had a case of the measles Britten did not have as many compositions made, nor published around this time. After abandoning some projects and being off work he composed the Serenade for tenor as well as horn and strings. He kind of invented his own form of pastoralism with a bit of the “darker side of medieval experience” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). Serenade was a solo vocal piece. In Peter Grimes “lies a chilling choral recitative rehearsing the theme of opressioon” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). Because of the success of Peter Grimes he wrote The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which was “another cycle written for Pears” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). This piece was for tenor and piano, but since it was unprinted when The Musical Times Mason said that he “forbear to criticize on the mere strength of the dim memory of an unfavourable impression of one performance” (Benjamin Britten (Continued); Mason, Colin). It is also a rather dark piece that was written while Britten was ill.

Britten worked on a variety of operatic work where he even conducted his own. By doing so he created a family or a clique that “was often, and sometimes brutally, disturbed when members were suspected of giving less than their best” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). This family became a very positive music force in Britain that “encouraged Britten’s work immensely” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). After quite a few works, some of which were well received, Britten worked with Cozier on Let’s Make an Opera that had a grand total of “four audience songs” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip) in 1949.

Britten’s success as a composer drew the Arts Council to him, commissioning an opera from him. Billy Budd showed him exploring and toying with changing the output of his operas from a “focus on oppression” to an “exploration of authority” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). This authority and its issues was a point of “importance and also confusion to homosexual people” including his issues over parents who are just like society in the censorship of homoeroticism (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip).

Britten and Pears had an idea almost a year before the very first performance to turn A Midsummer Night’s Dream into an opera. They arranged the play “as a libretto” and used the play to pursue “his interests in the difficulties and dangers in human relationships” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). The play was unconventional in the casting and setting. Instead of Athens he chose Nocturne to set the play as well as many other changes.

During his 50th year on the earth he visited Moscow and conducted Sinfonia da Requiem as well as some others at a Prom concert in 19623. He was proclaimed as the “greatest composer alive” by Hans Keller in public as a tribute. He visited the kabuki theatre as well as attended the gagaku orchestra “whose sounds were to reverberate in Curlew River” (Benjamin Britten; Brett, Phillip). In 1959 he made a drama set in East Anglia. He wanted to remove harmonies from Western music in order to get back to its roots in Curlew River.

In 1964 Britten’s doctors ordered rest. He decided in 1969 that he would make a televised opera based on a lesser known James ghost story. In 1976 he received a life peerage and people have either felt that his acceptance was either ironic or puzzling. However he was ill and had to be visited by a bishop in order to take communion. In November he “took leave of his closest friends” and died in the night between the third and fourth of December in Peter Pears’ arms.

For the compare and contrast portion of this essay I have chosen to review Merbecke Choir and the Antioch Chamber Ensemble’s rendition of the Ceremony of Carols.

I shall start with Merbecke Choir, whose diction was appalling. They are a mix choir of men and women that stood in two lines across the stage. The only two songs from Ceremony I understood what they were singing in were “Wolcum Yule” and “This Little Babe.” The only reason I understood the lyrics of those two were because I have sung them before. I understood that they were in a setting similar to that of DuPont Chapel, but that is where diction is the most important. Also, not everybody pronounced “wolcum” the same. I heard one girl in the first row sing “volcome” instead of “volcume” as it should have been pronounced like the others. No one was off pitch, however, which was a good thing.

Next is the Antioch Chamber Ensemble’s performance. The Antioch Chamber Ensemble is an all female vocals choir with six members. I found that their diction was phenomenal. I could understand almost everything they sang. During “Wolcum Yule” I did notice someone go sharp.  There were other little pitch problems that, had I not been in choir I would not have noticed. I was glad that I could understand everything. It does make everything quite a bit easier to handle.

Over all they both did a good job at certain parts of Ceremony of Carols.  They were both beautiful to listen to; it was just the two main issues I had needed to be voiced.

Benjamin Britten was an amazing composer who did so much and had such a talent for “his harmony, which is often commonplace, but so brilliantly handled that it becomes original” (Benjamin Britten (Continued); Mason, Colin). The Ceremony of Carols is only one of the great man’s accomplishments to British music. If he had not died in 1976 he would be ninety-nine years old and would have been able to witness the Holiday Pops concert with pride.

 

 

Bibliography

 

1)      Philip Brett, et al. “Britten, Benjamin.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 28 Dec. 2011 <http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.fintel.roanoke.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/46435>.

2)      Benjamin Britten

Colin Mason

The Musical Times,

Vol. 89, No. 1261 (Mar., 1948), pp. 73-75

Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/936395

4, January, 2012

 

3)      Benjamin Britten (Concluded)

Colin Mason

The Musical Times
Vol. 89, No. 1263 (May, 1948), pp. 139-142

Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/935902

7, January 2012

4)      Benjamin Britten (Continued)

Colin Mason

The Musical Times
Vol. 89, No. 1262 (Apr., 1948), pp. 107-110

Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/933105

7, January 2012

5)      Ceremony of Carols, Sheet Music Plus. Copyright 1997-2012

7, January 2012

<http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/look_inside/4163142/image/200989>

 

6)      Photo by: Coster, Howard, 1930s-nitrate negative (NPG, London)

7, January 2012

<http://i12bent.tumblr.com/post/13174731810/benjamin-britten-b-nov-22-1913-d-1976-is>

7)      A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten) Part 1,

 Merbecke Choir, 15 December 2011; Youtube.

7 January 2012

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmCOEUf2mx8&feature=plcp&context=C371e74bUDOEgsToPDskJrt81NCNMwhmTylFg3RS35>

8)      A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten) Part 2,

Merbecke Choir, 15 December 2011; Youtube

7 January 2012

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlxVv8VWf9I&feature=context&context=C371e74bUDOEgsToPDskJrt81NCNMwhmTylFg3RS35>

9)      A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten) Part 3,

Merbecke Choir, 15 December 2011; YouTube

7 January 2012

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ep4rttX6pBc&feature=plcp&context=C371e74bUDOEgsToPDskJrt81NCNMwhmTylFg3RS35>

10)  The Antioch Chamber Ensemble- Ceremony of Carols, Part 1- Benjamin Britten

Antioch Chamber Ensemble, 10 February 2010; YouTube

7 January 2012

< http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CB2JOQkRBw>

11)  The Antioch Chamber Ensemble- Ceremony of Carols, Part 2-Benjamin Britten

Antioch Chamber Ensemble, 10 February 2010; YouTube

7, January 2012

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRHZj7EhkbU&feature=relmfu>

 

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About blackwinterrosethorn

I am an artist and a writer whose living in Virginia. I go to Hollins University and I am a double minor in Creative Writing and Music. I've been writing for about eleven or twelve years. I've been singing forever and I have been drawing and painting for four or five years. I am open to doing commissions and collaborative pieces. View all posts by blackwinterrosethorn

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