A Ceremony of Carols,Op. 28, is an extended choral composition for Christmas by Benjamin Britten. scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp. The text, structured in eleven movements, is taken from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett. It is principally in Middle English, with some Latin and Early Modern English. It was composed in 1942 on Britten’s sea voyage from the United States to England.
Britten composed the music at the same time as Hymn to St. Cecilia, in similar style. Originally conceived as a series of unrelated songs, it was later unified into one piece with the framing processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorianantiphon “Hodie Christus natus est”. A harp solo based on the chant, along with a few other motifs from “Wolcum Yole”, also serves to unify the composition. In addition, the movements “This Little Babe” and “Deo Gracias” have the choir reflecting harp-like effects by employing a canon at the first in stretto.
The original 1942 publication was written for SSA (soprano, soprano, alto) children’s choir. In 1943, a SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) arrangement was published for a mixed choir. Many of the movements are written as rounds or call-and-response pieces – lyrically simple for the sake of the children performing. There are three-part divisi in both the tenor and bass parts. Each of these lines individually mirrors a line in either the soprano or alto parts, as though the tenor and bass sections are a men’s choir singing the original SSA composition with a SSA choir.
“Hodie Christus natus est” is a Gregorian antiphon to the Magnificat at Second Vespers of Christmas. It is sung exclusively by the sopranos and is patterned on a traditional processional in Christian church service. It has no time signature and can be sung in flexible tempo. The last several measures can be repeated to allow the whole ensemble to take their places.
Hodie Christus natus est:
hodie Salvator apparuit:
hodie in terra canunt angeli:
hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The second movement is an upbeat and festive piece intended to welcome the audience as guests coming to celebrate the holiday. The text is written in Middle English. At one point, all the parts come in at separate times to introduce each guest who has arrived for the holidays: the tenors begin by welcoming St. Stephen and St. John, the altos then welcome “the innocents” who are implied to be children (referring to the first-born children killed by Herod, observed on one of the feast days of the season), followed by sopranos welcoming Thomas Becket, and finally the basses welcome all the previously named guests.
Wolcum be thou hevenè king,
Wolcum, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom we sall sing!
Wolcum be ye, Stevene and Jon,
Wolcum, Innocentes every one,
Wolcum, Thomas marter one,
Wolcum be ye, good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe Day both in fere,
Wolcum, seintes lefe and dare,
Wolcum Yole, Wolcum Yole, Wolcum!
Candelmesse, Quene of Bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.
Wolcum be ye that are here, Wolcum Yole,
Wolcum alle and make good cheer.
Wolcum alle another yere,
Wolcum Yole. Wolcum!
The text of “There is no Rose” is kept at Trinity College (MS 0.3.58) and dates to the early 15th century. It presents a more reverent tone than the previous movement, as the choir admires the beauty of the birth of Jesus. The sopranos and altos sing the melody in a soft, prayerful manner, while the rest of the ensemble occasionally joins them to sing in unison. This is a macaronic piece, meaning the text is in both a vernacular language (English, in this case) and Latin.
There is no rose of such vertu
As is the rose that bare Jesu.
For in this rose conteinèd was
Heaven and earth in litel space,
Res miranda, Res miranda.
By that rose we may well see
There be one God in persons three,
Pares forma, pares forma.
The aungels sungen the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis, gloria in excelsis Deo!
Leave we all this werldly mirth,
and follow we this joyful birth.
Transeamus, Transeamus, Transeamus.
Alleluia, Res miranda, Pares forma, Gaudeamus,