About the Music

Viderunt omnes (1198)                               Pérotin the Great (fl. 1200)

Viderunt omnes                                             All [the ends of the world] have seen
fines terrae salutare Dei nostri.                       the salvation of our God.
Jubilate Deo omnis terra.                               Be joyful to the Lord, all lands.
Notum fecit Dominus salutare suum:             The Lord declared his salvation:
ante conspectum gentium revelavit                in the sight of the heathen he revealed
justitiam suam,                                               his righteousness.

Our concert begins in Medieval Paris, a city quickly developing as a centre of cultural and religious significance in the 12th Century. With a University established in 1170, and a gradually expanding Cathedral of Notre Dame, these two interrelated worlds were to enact significant changes on the function, and treatment of music in this ancient Roman city. The 10th to 13th Centuries are of great musical significance, since notation developed to the extent that music could transform from being a predominantly aural tradition, to one in which the music is written down. This is good news for us, as we can access what the music of this time might have sounded like. Most recorded music of this time is based on the ecclesiastical chants of the Church. Viderent Omnes is based on the Gradual for Christmas Day. This polyphonic setting (multiple voices against each other) of c. 1198 by Pérotin has an unusual rendering as Organum Quadruplum (four discrete voice parts, including the chant). Heavily melismatically treated, the text is barely discernible. The lowest part sustains a pedal drone beneath three florid and intricate upper parts.

La Source (Étude), op.44 (1898)                  Alphonse Hasselmans (1845-1912)

Andantino – A tempo animato – Tempo primo

A Ceremony of Carols, op.28 (1942)          Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

I           Procession (Plainchant)
II         Wolcum Yole (Anonymous)
III        There is no rose (Anonymous)
IV        That Yongë Child (Anonymous)
V         Balulalow (James, John, and Robert Wedderburn)
VI        As dew in Aprille (Anonymous)
VII       This little Babe (Robert Southwell)
VIII     Interlude (Harp Solo)
IX        In freezing winter night (Robert Southwell)
X         Spring carol (William Cornysh)
XI        Deo Gracias (Anonymous)
XII      Recession (Plainchant)

A month-long transatlantic voyage spent in a tiny cabin next to the ship’s refrigeration unit is an unusual backdrop for the composition of a musical sequence of medieval and Renaissance poems. However, such were the conditions under which Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols on board the small Swedish cargo vessel MS Axel Johnson. To make matters worse, the crossing was made during the spring of 1942, amidst the constant threat of submarine attack. Britten’s creative surge on board ship (during which time the Hymn to St Cecilia was also completed) occurred as the composer was returning home to England after a period of self-imposed exile in America. During his three years away, Britten had become increasingly homesick, and his decision to leave America was due in part to his discovery of the work of the East Anglian poet George Crabbe. Britten later said: ‘I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked; I had become without roots.’ Britten resolved to return home in spite of the fact that he would have to face a conscientious objectors’ tribunal and possible imprisonment. The two Robert Southwell poems in A Ceremony of Carols are particularly apt, with their emphasis on human frailty and a warrior who is to fight without weapons – so relevant to Britten’s personal predicament at the time.

The nine carols of Britten’s sequence represent a kaleidoscope of the changing seasons throughout the year, and are punctuated by a harp interlude at the centre. Britten was captivated by the sound of the harp and wrote idiomatically for the instrument. The harp’s interlude makes use of harmonies in fauxbourdon style above a slow-moving bass ostinato in a manner reminiscent of late-medieval musical practice. The elegant simplicity of this midway movement is clearly designed to enhance the emotive settings of the two Southwell poems placed on either side. In A Ceremony of Carols Britten constantly evokes an antique atmosphere by his use of fauxbourdon, canon, ostinato, and ritual chanting. And the particular directness of the vocal writing is achieved in several ingenious ways, as for instance by solemn melodic recitation in ‘There is no Rose’, the close canonic writing of ‘This little Babe’, and the excited parlando patter and exultant exclamations in ‘Deo Gracias’. Britten must have been delighted to celebrate his return to England by attending the première of A Ceremony of Carols in Norwich Castle sung by a choir of women’s voices.

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