A Very Britten Christmas
A Note About the Music Performed on this Concert
A Boy was Born was written when Britten was only 19, while in his studies at the Royal College of Music. This multi-movement piece is a developmental progression of his working of the “Theme and Variations” form, as in his earlier work and obvious prototype for A Boy Was Born; Christ’s Nativity. The work was originally premiered on the radio, and gained instant success with both critics and listeners. Britten’s facility to incorporate “simple” melodic figures that remain with the listener, while layers of depth and sophistication blanket the work, astonishes everyone who hears this piece. While not knowing instinctively where each individual musical gesture is leading, one acknowledges the intricacies of the vocal writing. From first listen, it is obvious that this is not a flippant or superficial work, but one that demands attention, acceptance and an overall willingness to suspend the analytical brain and allow the emotional centers to examine the experience.
Britten originally composed this work for divided choir (SSAATTBB) with a boy choir singing as obbligato on top of the choral texture. As you can imagine, the effect was tremendous, but as this is a piece with it’s last exposure to the Boston audiences nearly 40 years ago, we decided to present this piece with as much clarity as possible by using instead of large choruses, adopting Joshua Rifkin’s (of the American Musicological Society) concept of “Bach minimalism” to this Britten masterwork.
In this performance you will hear only 9 singers performing, with the standard choral divisi, but instead of a boy choir, you will hear a countertenor voice. While we had some criticism at first concerning our unorthodox presentation of this work, we believe that often with a choral ensemble of notable size, there is discrepancy in tonal color, vowel placement, and often intonation within sections. By eliminating the “choral in-fighting,” the minimalist Opera Brittenica ensemble is able to articulate the rhythmic complexities, negotiate extremely close harmonics (as in Britten’s chilling setting of the well known “In the bleak midwinter” text), and display the varying dynamics and musical gestures that comprise the unmistakable genius of Britten’s A Boy Was Born.
In the second part of this concert, you will hear divided sopranos sing the second movement of Britten’s earlier mentioned work Christ’s Nativity, entitled “Sweet was the song.” This piece is thought to be the precursor to “Jesu, as thou art our savior” in A Boy Was Born. The following piece is a setting of the folksong “I wonder as I wander,” by John Jacob Niles, that Britten and his partner and muse Peter Pears would often perform as an encore following recitals and concerts. Following, the double-chorus setting of the anonymous text “A Hymn to the Virgin” is the earliest work of Britten’s that you will hear in this performance. He wrote this “mini-masterpiece” when he was only 16 years old. The antiphonal nature of the piece, with the first chorus singing text in english, is responded to by a second solo quartet singing only in latin. This hauntingly beautiful work is one of the best-loved, and earliest still performed works of Britten.
Ending the concert will be the entirety of A Ceremony of Carols with harp. Written in 1942, when Britten and Pears were returning to England after their brief but productive stint in America. Originally written for three-part women’s chorus, we will be presenting this as the composer-sanctioned SATB edition with solos for soprano, alto, tenor, and a Harp “Interlude.”
-Joshua Collier, Executive Director Opera Brittenica
Tyler Turner - Conductor
Susan Miron - Harp
Erin Merceruio Nelson