Britten's Christmas Music: St Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols

A celebration of Britten's choral mastery at Christmas

Britten's Christmas Music: St Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols

The voice is central to Benjamin Britten's output: the vast variety of his operas, from the gritty Peter Grimes (remember the recent Chandos one?) to the Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw to the brilliantly inventive Paul Bunyan, with much else besides.

When it comes to Christmas, by far the most famous piece Britten wrote was A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (1942). Scored for high voices and harp, it is one of his most magical creations; Saint Nicolas is perhaps less famous but certainly worthy of discovery. Today we are celebrating both of these works through the new recording by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, with the excellent Sally Pryce on harp in Ceremony.

A Ceremony of Carols begins and ends with with plainchant ("Procession" and "Recession") but one of its most famous movements is the sprightly, glistening   "Welcom Yule!" heard just after the processional:

A Ceremony of Carols: Wolcum Yule!

We should reserve a special mention for the purity of Genevieve Helsby's voice in "Balulalow":

A Ceremony of Carols: Balulalow

For me, the most impressive movement of this piece has always been "This Little Babe," which starts with a single line before layering canon upon canon:

A Ceremony of Carols: This Little Babe

It is precisely that mix of sophistication and simplicity that marks A Ceremony of Carols as a truly great piece. David Temple has created a "listening party" on YouTube in which he guides you through the piece. It's a delight:

The forces Britten calls for in Saint Nicholas (Op. 42, 1947) are much larger:  chorus, children's chorus, tenor soloist and orchestra; it is designed for community performance. This version was recorded in the recently restored Victorian Theatre at London's Alexandra Palace, an acoustic that seems perfect. With Mark Le Brocq as a fine, clarion-voiced Nicolas, the forces under David Temple trace the adventures of Saint Nicolas with breezy aplomb. This is quite an extended work, in nine sections that takes in innocent tunes:

Saint Nicolas: The Birth of Nicolas

... and hugely contrasting lyricism for the tenor soloist:

Saint Nicolas: Nicolas devotes himself to God

.. and just listen to the visceral power of chorus and orchestra in "He Journeys to Palestine":

Saint Nicolas: He Journeys to Palestine

There is remarkable drama, too, mixed with a certain ritualistic feel in the final "The Death of Nicolas," with the solo tenor part plangent against chorus and instrumentalists:

Saint Nicolas: The Death of Nicolas

Again, David Temple hosted a "listening party" for Saint Nicolas, which you can hear here: