OK, now it's officially the holiday season. I am blown away by "A Ceremony of Carols" by British composer Benjamin Britten, as I am every year. This year, however, we got to hear a live performance -- chorus and harp -- by the Plymouth Festival Chorus who, if I cannot promote them to angels, deserve some kind of special recognition for a heavenly performance.
It was a holiday present in itself to hear the piece performed live as it should be, both strong and sweet with thundering moments of 20th century hijinks. But the performance also provoked my curiosity about why "Ceremony" stirs and pleases us the way it does. I do not have any answers, but it's fun to poke around in the sources.
The concert program describes the work as 11 movements, two for solo harp, and the others musical settings of nine poems for voices. The texts date from 1300 to 1500, but the music is very 20th century.
The leads to the question (which I have no intention of answering): wheresoever he got the texts, how did he hear them as song?The standard explanation of how the composer came to create a choral piece "that everybody loves" -- evidence: a dozen performances this month in the Boston area; countless in England -- is that while stopping in Halifax, Canada, during a treacherous ocean crossing in 1942 from New York to London, Britten picked up an anthology of old British poetry and spent the days of the hazardous cruise locked up in his stateroom creating resplendent musical settings for these old poems.
I've recently read another account that traces the source of some of these so-called "carols" to a 14th century manuscript acquired and preserved by the founder of the British Museum, Hans Sloane, that preserves an extensive collection of medieval Christmas carols. Sloane's manuscript is said to be the sole source of some of the best loved songs in "Ceremony" -- “I syng of a mayden” and “Adam lay ybounden.”
I do not know how to assess either of these foundation tales, but I doubt whether any scholarly or biographical take on the composer's doings can explain where he got the music for settings that manage to sound like: the Middle Ages, the Christmas season, a rousing good choir practice by a heavenly host of thoroughly modern English-speaking voices.
Looking at the lyrics in the texts, however, tells us something about how different the world that produced them is from that which came after. Lots of Latin here. The English church in these centuries was wholly Roman Catholic, its worship conducted in church Latin. The church Latin of the opening "Procession" is so simple that my eighth grade Latin class still holds up.
"Hodie Christus natus est." All you have to know is that "hodie" means today and you can figure the rest out. The remainder, a mere five lines, is on the same level.
Some of the other texts are described as Middle English. To my eye they don't look as "foreign" as Chaucer's Middle English, but they preserve some of the English tongue's old words that are rooted in the Saxon (or early Germanic) and preserve the flavor of the locals' barbaric tongue the Normans looked down on when they took over the place in 1066. Middle English has a lot of French roots and sounds added to the old Anglo-Saxon tongue.
The second song, "Wolcum Yole," attributed to Anonymous 14th century has that Saxon taste in the ear, though only the slightest of adjustment of the title takes us the modern version of this familiar phrase. But the text is full of references to a religious world-view that is pre-Reformation England. We have martyrs ("Wolcum Thomas marter one"), saints ("Wolcom be ye Stevene and Jon") and the "Queen of Bliss." These phrases and ideas they refer to would disappear from public discourse when the Protestant reform gained sway over Tudor England.
Chanted expressions of joy such as that invocation to "Stevene and Jon" bring associations obvious to Anon.'s 14th century audience but not to me. I have to look up who Saint Stephen was (he shows up in Good King Wenceslas's "On the feast of Stephen" as well) and find him described as the "first Christian martyr," stoned to death for teaching an unpopular gospel in Jerusalem. Those medieval Christians sure held on to their martyrs.
Anon. 14th century is also credited with "There is no Rose," a carol that sends me groping back to the origins of the English rose. The first two lines are heard often: "There is no rose of such vertu/As is the rose that bare Jesu."
The rest of the text is doctrinal filler. It's the medieval English fascination (or obsession) with the rose that gets to me. I think the rose symbolizes the mystical something at the center of all things. That mystery appears in nature's rose, in the delicate and complicated layers of the flower's flesh. It's red, like blood. And when you get to the center of the rose, what's there? The inexplicable. That no one home. God is in the world, and yet out of it too.
One of the most important --in its day -- medieval texts was a long "poem" called "The Romance of the Rose." Other poems or authors refer to it, but nobody teaches it today. When I search it in online references I am rather set down to learn that much of this didactic poem is spent on talking young men out of homosexuality, and that the rose is regarded as symbolic of the the female sexual organ. Sorry I asked.
Then the whole English medieval period climaxes in "The War of the Roses."
Frankly, I'm much happier with the two lines that begin the 14th century carol "There is no Rose." And quite transported with what Britten does with it. That's the bottom line as well for the rest of the songs in the "Ceremony of Carols."
It's music of parts that somehow fit together like a ceremony, an observance, a thanksgiving of the spirit, a work of art that worships the wonder of existence.
It's a ceremony that evokes nostalgia, peace, and a sense that those higher things we are always supposed to be concerned with turn out to be all around us.