About the Program

Ceremony of Carols: Music for Chorus and Harp

Dec. 3 & 4, 2016 | Download PDF | Print

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As I sat down to program this season’s repertoire, I was particularly struck by the state of the world in which we live – our struggles, our ongoing quest for connection, our anxieties. These atmospheric forces led me in a direction of the familiar. Music that evokes memory, warmth, sensibilities, joy. So, today I welcome you in, in the hopes that our time together feels familiar, seasonal, comforting and even joyous.

Despite conducting Britten’s beloved cantata many times (in many voice configurations) over a multi-decade career, I never tire of its exquisite beauty, intelligence and pure sentiment. A Ceremony of Carols is all at once dramatic, lyrical, clever, economical and full of heart.

I first encountered Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols many years ago, at the age of 14, as a freshman in high school. I went to a private girls’ school in Los Angeles, sang in the chorus, and performed this incredible work. Since A Ceremony of Carols was the first extended work I had ever sung, it was important in shaping and influencing my life in the choral arts.

The work has a storied history. Benjamin Britten wrote the piece in 1942 while crossing the Atlantic aboard a Swedish cargo ship. He actually intended to use the month-long voyage to complete what would become his well-known Hymn to St. Cecilia, but the early sketches were confiscated by customs authorities who feared that the music was in fact a secret code. Britten left England at the outset of the war in 1939 and headed for the United States, where his fame grew quickly, and where, it must be noted, he was unlikely to be drafted into the British army. After several years abroad, he and his partner, the acclaimed tenor Peter Pears, returned home, embarking on this long sea voyage.

While in port in Nova Scotia, Britten came upon a little book, The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, which became the source of the “carols.” The carols are largely the product of 15th- and 16th-century writers, most of whom are anonymous. Britten maintained their authentically unique flavor by setting the original Middle English texts. A Ceremony of Carols consists of eight polyphonic settings; these eight carols are bookended by statements of the Gregorian chant “Hodie Christus Natus Est” ("Christ is born today"), and midway through the set is an astounding interlude for harp solo that features this same plainchant tune. The carols themselves show a remarkable diversity of styles, from the jubilant exultations of “Wolcum Yole” and “Deo Gracias,” to the pastoral and lyrical “There is no rose” and “Balulalow,” to the martial urgency of “This Little Babe”'s ever-expanding canon. The piece is all at once haunting, vibrant, gorgeous, lovely, meditative, and most importantly marked by concision of composition and a rich, sophisticated harmonic palate. The result? A truly beautiful and enduring canonical work.

This program features one of Boston’s best harpists, Franziska Huhn. I have known Franziska for many years, and she is currently a faculty member at three of the area’s most esteemed music schools: New England Conservatory, Boston University College of the Arts and the Longy School of Music of Bard College. Her accomplishments are many, and I will leave it to you to read her impressive bio in the concert program. Franziska’s participation has allowed me to program a concert filled with dynamic choral + harp music. As well, you will have an opportunity to hear Franziska offer a beautiful solo.

As companion pieces to A Ceremony of Carols, we offer John Owen Edwards’ Wassail!, a delightful Christmas sequence of three traditional English carols (Sussex Carol, Lute Book Lullaby and Gloucestershire Wassail), written for choir and harp. Gabriel’s Message is a haunting and gorgeous arrangement of the extraordinary Basque Carol, set by Grammy award-winning composer and arranger Stephen Paulus, who died unexpectedly in 2014. William Beckstrand’s So Gracious Is the Time, a setting of one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful texts, rounds out our choral + harp offerings.

You will also hear the traditional Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal, arranged many years ago by Alice Parker for the Robert Shaw Chorale. The piece is set in the style of shape note singing and has been proven a favorite amongst choral listeners. Festival Deck the Hall is a funny and tight rendering of the famous carol (you will know it), and we close our program with one of the ensemble’s favorite pieces, Morten Lauridsen’s passionate and stirring Sure on This Shining Night.

As always, I look forward to seeing you after the concert. I appreciate your ongoing good will and support, and wish you the happiest of holidays.

With warmth and gratitude,
Jane Ring Frank, Artistic Director