A Musical Year – December: Benjamin Britten A Ceremony of Carols

My December has not been hectic at all. I have had plenty of time to do my gift shopping, I have been in Rome, I have studied (but not too much), I have worked (but not too much), I have been to the opera a couple of times, yesterday I went to Händel’s Messiah, I have baked a few cookies, and now we have passed the darkest day of the year and I am relaxed and ready for the holidays. They will be quite (/too?) filled with family encounters every day until the 29th. And cat encounters! I don’t know how it happened but suddenly four (4) cats are supposed to spend Christmas at my parents’ place. And I’m feeding the neighbour’s big grey cat too. We’ve become cat-people!! Argh!!

But what I really wanted to share with you is my Christmas music. The piece I listen to more than anything in December is Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. It is a collection of carols for boys’ choir and harp.
It begins with a procession, very simple, the choir in unison without accompaniment. The voices can be heard from afar and as they approach they become stronger. This reminds me of when I was a little girl in first grade. On the morning of the 13th of December when the sun was not yet up the whole school was gathered in the assembly hall. The lights were turned off and when all had gone silent we could faintly hear the voices of the the Lucia procession approaching slowly while singing and then appearing in their white gowns and with their lit candles. That was one of the most magical experiences of my childhood and being reminded by Benjamin Britten is beautiful.


After the opening Procession the music breaks into the more dramatic and complex Wolcum Yole! which is pure rejoicing. Then follows three quiet carols with an exquisite pureness and wintriness. It includes a ode to Mary, then a description of how she lulls the Child to sleep and then we hear her lullaby. That lullaby is the sweetest and most tender I know. You can listen to the Balulalow here.

O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.

But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my hert sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow!

I am not the victim of a sudden dyslexia, the text is like that – old and strange. It might actually be easier to understand the lyrics just by listening.

The Ceremony of Carols continues alternating between the quiet almost private songs that gives you a feeling of tender love granting warmth in freezing times (whether it be between mother and child or between God and his children), and the more official hymns of joy where multiple voices are set free in noisily rejoicing.
The suite ends with the Recession just like the Procession, just reversed so that the voices slowly disappear in the distance.

A Ceremony of Carols gives me the most condensed Christmas feeling. It is just beautiful.



December 22, 2006. A Musical Year, Music, The course of the year.


  1. confidentialattachees replied:

    I think it’s so great that not only is Anna my friend and co-blogger, she’s also a great inspiration for me. I simply must go and pick up A Ceremony of Carols somewhere today. What a beautiful lullaby. God, how I love Britten. Thank you so much for posting it!


  2. Peter replied:

    I really enjoyed reading this discription of the Ceremony of Carols. We’re in the beginning stages of planning this for our choir to sing for next year and I’m feeling a little nervous about “talking up” the piece and selling the idea to the choir. I know why and how I love the Ceremony but I guess I’m hoping others (especially the singers) will also. I’ve heard a few different recordings of this and seen several more available for sale. The one I like the best so far is the Shaw Singers on Telarc.

  3. confidentialattachees replied:

    Dear Peter
    Thank you for your comment. I’m sure your choir will understand how wonderful music this is. What kind of choir is it? I have only been to one performance of the Ceremony of Carols and that was with a women’s choir. That worked quite well, but of course I would like to hear it with a boy’s choir too.
    I am not at home right now, so I can’t tell you which recording I have. I only remember it is with King’s College Choir and recorded in the beginning of the 90’s. I’ll check it out.
    Happy New Year to you!

  4. confidentialattachees replied:

    Ok, now I’ve found it: King’s College Choir, conductor Stephen Cleobury on Argo.
    Very good!

  5. Advent and Christmas Songs: Singing That Richt Balulalow « At the Lighthouse replied:

    […] introduced me to it, and she did a lovely post about it back when we were Confidential Attachées here, and I don’t really have much to add. It’s simply a beautiful work, with a quiet, […]

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