Monday, December 29, 2008


Before being consumed in an orgy of fireworks, grog, and evanescent self-reflection (in all of which I will fully indulge), I'm trying to hang on the 'Christmas Spirit' for at least as long as there are left-overs in the fridge and am playing Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, choir of King's College Cambridge, Sir David Wilcocks.

St Paul Cathedral Choir, soloist Edward Burrowes:


"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 heart sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow"

After four years in North America, and four months after the United States had entered the War, Benjamin Britten, now well joined-at-the-hip to Peter Pears, chanced crossing an Atlantic menaced by U-boats and returned to Britain on the Swedish cargo ship 'Axel Johnson'. He was nurturing the beginnings of Peter Grimes, an outsider against the rest, and was heading home to face the consequences of his stance on war service. The ship had docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where in a bookshop Britten found the medieval texts he was to use during the passage to compose his A Ceremony of Carols and "alleviate the boredom". It was a very English return to choral music, scored for 3 part trebles and harp, the voices and instrument of the angels, and infused with innocence and reverence.

They arrived in Liverpool in April 1942. In May he was called to appear before a tribunal to explain his conscientious objection. His statement to the Local Tribunal for the Registration of Conscientious Objectors reads:

"Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to avoid helping to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual's actions or thoughts. The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction. Moreover, I feel the fascist attitude to life can only be overcome by passive resistance. If Hitler were in power here or if this country had any similar form of government, I should feel it my duty to obstruct this regime in every non-violent way possible, and by complete non-cooperation. I believe sincerely that I can help my fellow human beings best, by continuing the work I am qualified to do by the nature of my gifts and training, i.e. the creation of propagation of music"

His two most powerful anti-war statements were yet to come: the extraordinary War Requiem, commissioned for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral (1962) where threading the Requiem Mass with the poems of Wilfred Owen, he would write music for tenor, soprano, baritone (Britain, Russia, Germany), choir and separate boy's choir, creating a work claimed to be among, if not the, greatest pacifist statements of the 20th C; and a BBC commissioned opera-for-television, Owen Wingrave (1970), wherein the son of a military family rejects militarism and claims his inner peace, and death. Any details of any performance of this work in Australia would be welcome.

The sudden death of Richard Hickox had robbed us of one of Owen Wingrave's latest proponents. He recorded it only this year, for Chandos, following a very well received concert performance at Cardagan Hall London. The CD is now released, with cast members very well know to us, notably Peter Coleman-Wright as Owen, Elizabeth Connell, and particularly sadly, Hickox's widow, Pamela Helen Stephen. Would we have at last heard this long overdue work here?

After the concert performance, The Guardian wrote: 'Any doubts as to its worth, were quashed by this performance, conducted by Richard Hickox, who exposed, often with lethal precision, the moral paradox at the work's centre. In depicting Owen's determination to come out to his military family as a pacifist, Britten adopts a fiercely anti-war stance: yet the opera also envisions life as a battlefield, where death is often the price for the preservation of integrity. Hickox drew us through the resulting complexities with passionate subtlety."

Following this thread led me to a now rather haunting interview with Richard Hickox, podcast, talking about his busy schedule, Owen Wingrave, Opera Australia, and Brett Dean, artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music. Dean and Hickox were in collaboration and work-shopping a new Australian opera Bliss, based of the Peter Carey novel of the same name. I had dwelt on Sydney's potential as a world host to a (bi-annual perhaps) Britten Festival; the core of my dream is now gone. Nor will he lead the new Armfield Peter Grimes next year.

Back to Christmas, and more joyful matters. The Ceremony of Carols is a celebration of the birth of Christ, childhood and innocence, and finally, if unexpectedly, acceptance (Deo Gracias) of the downfall (of Adam/man).

The opening processional and closing recessional bookend:

Wolcum Yule
There is no rose
That yunge child
As dew in Aprille
This little babe
Interlude (for solo harp)
In freezing winter night
Spring Carol
Deo Gracias

For those unlucky enough to not have a copy, here are some, to me nothing short of exquisite, selections, and maybe for your stocking next year...

Westminster Cathedral Choir:

Today Christ is born

Wolcum Yole
Welcome be thou hevene king

O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

Choir of Trinity College Cambridge:

That Yunge Child

That yonge child when it gan weep
with song she lulled him asleep

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