Explore Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony Of Carols and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On Christmas Carols with Classics Unlocked, a classical music education podcast series presented by Graham Abbott, one of Australia’s most beloved broadcasters. In this episode of Classics Unlocked, Carols Old And New, Graham Abbott explores these two beautiful English works from the first half of the 20th century which evoke the spirit of Christmas and are inspired by seasonal carols and poetry.
Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony Of Carols
A Ceremony Of Carols is a choral piece by Benjamin Britten, scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp. The work begins with an unaccompanied procession, ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’, before the harp joins the choir for a series of carols telling the traditional story of the birth of Christ. The work was written in 1942 while Britten was at sea, travelling from the United States back to England, during the Second World War. During the voyage home the ship stopped in the Canadian city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Britten bought a book of medieval poetry, The English Galaxy Of Shorter Poems, which was the source of the texts set to music in A Ceremony Of Carols. Originally the carols were intended as a series of unrelated songs but were later unified into one piece with the framing processional and recessional chant in unison, based on the Gregorian antiphon ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’, heard at the beginning and the end. A Ceremony Of Carols is one of Benjamin Britten’s most popular and widely performed works and marked a return to his English musical roots.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On Christmas Carols
Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a number of works inspired by Christmas, the first of which was the Fantasia On Christmas Carols. Like the better-known orchestral Fantasias, Fantasia On Greensleeves and Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis, Fantasia On Christmas Carols takes pre-existing folk songs from England’s cultural past as its starting point. It’s significant that the piece avoids popular and well-known carols – Vaughan Williams based the work on lesser-known music for the season including melodies that he himself had collected on his travels. Fantasia On Christmas Carols was composed by Vaughan Williams in 1912 and he conducted the first performance at the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral later that same year. The single-movement work, in four linked sections, includes the English folk carols, ‘This Is The Truth Sent From Above’, ‘Come All You Worthy Gentlemen’ and ‘On Christmas Night’, The fourth section combines words and music from the second and third sections with the sound of bells and ends with a hushed wish for a happy new year.
Classics Unlocked podcasts
The following Classics Unlocked music education podcasts are available on YouTube and as Apple Music podcasts. Each 45-minute podcast focuses on a particular period of music or body of work and delves into the stories behind the music.
• Bach’s Six Cello Suites – Pierre Fournier
• Mahler’s Symphonies – Bernard Haitink
• Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies – Mikhail Pletnev
• Wagner’s Ring Cycle – Sir Georg Solti
• Berlioz The Rule Breaker – Various Artists
• Beethoven’s Early Piano Sonatas – Wilhelm Kempff
• Bruckner’s Symphonies – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/various conductors
• Mozart’s Wind Concertos – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
• Carols Old And New – Choir of King’s College Cambridge conducted by Stephen Cleobury
The recordings in this episode of Classics Unlocked, featuring Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony Of Carols and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On Christmas Carols, are from A Boy Was Born which can be bought here.