The music which always gets me in the Christmas spirit is "A Ceremony of Carols" by Benjamin Britten. It might seem an odd choice; though beautiful, it's not exactly the light, cheery music we hear in the stores or on the radio. Part of the reason it speaks to me is because our choir performed this work when I was a senior in high school. The concert came during a snow storm right before Christmas break. A professional harpist performed with us. Walking out of the school in the falling snow after the concert, the music was still very much alive in my whole being. It was magical!
Britten's use of dissonance, varying rhythms, overlapping voices, and key changes make this a challenging work for a choir. From the reverent procession in Latin to the bright "Wolcum Yole!" in middle English, to the gentle lullabies then a plunge into the dark with "This Little Babe" , to the song of praise in "Spring Carol" to the energy and urgency of "Deo Gracias", we are carried on powerful waves of emotion and beauty through these carols. It's exhausting.
This is not surprising when we learn Benjamin Britten wrote the music for "A Ceremony of Carols" while on board ship, a month long voyage crossing the Atlantic from North America to England in March of 1942. He was with his partner, Peter Pears, a well known tenor. They were personal as well as professional partners. This was also right in the middle of World War II and the sea wasn't the safest place to be, nor was England as bombs were falling on their cities.
For the celebration of Christmas, peace on earth, goodwill toward men, Britten included both the harmony and dissonance which was the world around him. This is just right. Jesus wasn't born into a world of peace and goodwill, but into this struggling, imperfect one.
This little babe so few days old has come to rifle Satan's fold...
Dissonance occurs in music when two notes which are discordant are sung or played at the same time; a major or minor 2nd is the easiest example. It's the sound of tension and our minds want to resolve the tension by coming back to the harmony of a 3rd interval. The dissonance itself is not pleasant to listen to and only can achieve beauty by the context and harmony which is around it.
Listen closely to the music and we can hear the dissonance in Benjamin Britten's world. We hear the joy as well, but the tension is never far away. It is interesting he was inspired by poems of Robert Southwell, a Catholic priest who was executed in England in 1595 for treason; being a Catholic priest in England for more than 40 days was a crime punished by death in those days. Perhaps Britten, being a gay man in the 1940's, understood Fr. Southwell's devotion and the danger he had to accept.
There's dissonance in our world again. Of course, there always is, but right now there seems to be more than ever. We don't know what to expect, but we dare not ignore what is happening, even if listening to the news sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. We have elected a president who has publicly made fun of disabled people, constantly and consistently puts women down, is backed by the KKK and Russia, prefers to communicate through Twitter, isn't interested in hearing security reports, among many other seriously concerning behaviors. We dare not ignore the racist comments made by the man who has been his closest adviser. We dare not ignore it when people feel empowered to harass others because of the color of their skin, their nationality, religion, or sexual/gender identity.
We must dare to stand up to this new administration and refuse to allow a Muslim registry. We must encourage our state and local leaders to refuse to be a part of this.
There are people organizing. We don't need to do this alone. It's not one hero we need, but an entire chorus of voices. To be one voice in a chorus is to (to quote a friend) feel very small in a very big way. It's the acknowledgement that we are, and need to be, a community.
We need courage, but we also need joy. The darkest poem in this work ends with:
"If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly boy"
The way a child expresses reverence is through joy. There is no other way. Whether we are expressing our reverence to God, to the earth, our home, to our families, or to life itself, to express this through joy is to give a crushing blow to those who want us to live in fear. These carols, even when the music is tense and the words speak of struggle, are filled with joy. Think of the struggle which was going on at the time Fr. Southwell wrote the poem and when Benjamin Britten wrote the music. At the end, the "Deo Gracias" is an urgent call to be thankful, but with a wonderful twist:
"Adam lay ibounden, bounden in a bond; four thousand winter thought he not to long.
And all was for an appil, an appil that he tok, as clerkes finden written in their book.
Ne had the appil take ben, the appil take ben,
Ne hadde never our lady a ben hevene quene.
Blessed be the time that appil take was, therefore we moun singen,
How thankful we should be that we are human... imperfect as we are. To stand with our fellow human beings, especially those whom our society has repeatedly tried to squash (marginalize seems much to sanitary a word) and those who need our support, and helping each other to find joy, this I believe is the work we are called to do.
Here are the carols, sung by the Copenhagen Boys' Choir and conducted by Benjamin Britten. Each song is relatively short, the entire work is about 20 minutes. Thank you to the Internet Archive for the recording and lyrics to Benjamin Britten's beautiful music and for making this available to share with others.