BRITTEN: A Ceremony of Carols / Friday Afternoons
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Benjamin Britten (1913 - n1976)
Friday Afternoons, Op. 7 (1933 - 35) for choir & piano
Three Two-Part Songs (1932) for boy's or female voices &
piano (Walter de la Mare)
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (March 1942) for treble voices & harp
It is a good thing to please people, even if only for today. That is what we should aim at - pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself
-Benjamin Britten, on receiving the first Aspen Award, July 1964
"At the centre of his music there is an intensely solitary and private spirit, a troubled, sometimes even despairing visionary, an artist much haunted by nocturnal imagery, by sleep, by presentiments of mortality, a creator preternatural/y aware of the destructive appetite (the ever-hungry beast in the jungle) that feeds on innocence, virtue and grace"
-Donald Mitchell, 1972
Britten was to English vocal and choral music in the twentieth century what the great Henry Purcell had been in the seventeenth. "It would be strange," his friend and life-companion, Peter Pears, has written (in Donald Mitchell's & Hans Keller's 1952 Benjamin Britten commentary), if "Britten had never written for the voice. He was surrounded by singing as a child. He was not brought up on a gramophone or a wireless set. (Perhaps he will be the last composer of whom that can be said.) ..." Britten, Pears confirms, "never claimed to be an innovator; the generation of revolutionaries was the previous one to his". In endeavouring to build his own tradition" he turned instead to "the purest stream of modem music. Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Verdi and, of later figures, Mahler, Berg and Stravinsky - from all these he has learnt much in his search for the classic virtues of a controlled passion and the 'bounding line'... there blows in his vocal music ...a strong revitalising south-east wind which has rid English song of much accumulated dust and cobwebs, and has renewed the vigour of the sung word with Purcellian attack. If Britten is no innovator, he is most certainly a renovator, and having thus cleansed his, house he has a right to feel at home in it". "it is as a choral composer," Hans F. Redlich adds, "- apart from his probably even more popular achievements as a musical dramatist - that Britten seems to stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries (on both sides of the Channel). It is here more than in any other sphere of his work that the break with Edwardian conventions in particular, and with the nineteenth century in general, has become completest. It is here that he sets a shining example by creating a new musical style of idiomatic inevitability within a sonorous medium of very real limitations... Britten's choral style may (in the eyes of posterity) have the same significance as did Schubert's cyclically conceived Lied for the dawn of the Romantic movement\.
This album brings together some of Britten's most celebrated music for treble voices, accompanied and unaccompanied, ranging in period from 1929 (when the composer was still in his mid teens and a pupil of Frank Bridge) to 1967. " A triumph of the realist Britten" (Redlich) drawing largely on texts from Walter de la Mare's collection Tom Tiddler's Ground, Friday Afternoons (1933-35), the first of Britten's many works for children, was written for his schoolmaster brother, Robert ("a nondescript and not specially intelligent teacher," Eric Crozier remembered, "anxious to please but out of place in the social and artistic world of his younger brother") and the boys of Clive House preparatory school, Prestatyn: choir practice used to take place on Friday afternoons. The twelve settings, with their witty piano accompaniments, belong to an England between two world wars, to an age of innocence, to a childhood time of Meccano sets and Hornby trains, of model boats and Arthur Ransome. These " enchanting fresh songs," Pears says, " a performance of which, given by well-trained boys and girls with their intelligent teacher at the piano, once heard is never forgotten". Their imagination and economy remains extraordinary .All are beautiful. Most are short. The last -Old Abram Brown - aspires to Wunderhorn Mahler (the slow movement of the First symphony).
Together with Hymn to Saint Cecilia and Rejoice in the Lamb, A Ceremony of Carols, written "at sea, MS Axel Johnson March 1942" en route from New York to Liverpool via Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia, helped establish Britten "as a master of English song" (Pears). For the unusual combination of trebles (originally women's voices) and harp, it has been described as "neither a medley of carols - something quite different from the Christmas story is being narrated - nor a ceremony" but, rather in the Yeats sense, "a ceremony of innocence, a musical representation of life before the fall" reminding us (in the exuberant closing "Adam lay i-bounden") "that without the Fall of Man there would be nothing; no Christian story, no love, no life, no art" (Humphrey Carpenter, 1992). The (identical) Latin plainchant Procession and Recession (a favourite device of Britten's, witness the later church parables) are based on the "Hodie" Antiphon from the Nativity Vespers - at the suggestion, it has been said, of Alec Robertson. In this performance the former is accompanied, the latter - creating the illusion of voices receding into silence - is not. The predominantly medieval English texts of the cycle are divided by a central Interlude for harp, a striking solo memorable for the "sweet imperturbability" (Redlich) of its four-note ostinato (redolent, celestially, of Mahler's Fourth symphony).
Britten's earliest writing for voices and piano is found in his Three Two-Part Songs (1932) to words by de la Mare. The first is about the broom-stick ride of the witches from Goethe's Walpurgisnacht. Infinitely subtle in delicacy of counterpoint (the vocal entry is an augmentation of the piano accompaniment), contrast of a cappella sound, and final cadence, the second is about a landscape washed by rain and lit by sunshine. The third is a tumbling shanty. The Birds (for unison chorus but here sung as a solo), A Wealden Trio (boldly identified by its three folkloristic solo refrains, published 1968) and sweet was the Song (published 1966) comprise challenging examples of apprentice works subsequently revised: the first two Britten originally submitted to the Royal College of Music in the summer of 1930, hoping to be awarded a scholarship (he was successful). King Herod and the Cock (to words and melody collected by Cecil Sharp), The Oxen and Fancie are all late settings, dating from between the War Requiem and The Building of the House.
© 1995 Ateş Orga
Alexander Wells has been accompanist to the New London Children's Choir since its foundation. He has been associated with children's choirs in North London since 1978, starting his career while still a student at the Royal College of Music and after taking a degree in Russian and French at Cambridge. In 1987 he spent a year as a trainee repetiteur at the National Opera Studio and has since worked at Glyndebourne, the Wexford Festival and The Royal Opera House. He is also accompanist to the London Choral Society.
Born in India, the harpist Skaila Kanga studied as a pianist, before turnin