A Ceremony of Carols

'Alston captures the soaring ecstasies and dark mysteries of Britten's musical vision' Judith Mackrell, The Guardian

Choreography Richard Alston
Music Benjamin Britten A Ceremony of Carols
Music by arrangement with Boosey & Hawkes
Lighting Charles Balfour
Costumes Richard Alston (made by Becky Hayes)

A Ceremony of Carols was written in 1942 - Britten was at that time living and working in America. Stricken with a sudden intense bout of home-sickness, he somehow managed to get a passage back to England (not so easy mid-War) on a Swedish freighter. The freighter stopped off on the way at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Britten went ashore and happened to find, in a second hand bookstore, a collection of mediaeval English verse. Back in his cramped and overheated cabin, he wrote settings of these mediaeval carols on the tedious transatlantic journey home. It is music seemingly so simple and direct, full of a powerful frankly joyous elation, deploying superb skill in its expression of images from the Christmas story. The words are early English and sometimes strange to the modern ear, but that they completely caught Britten’s imagination is abundantly clear from this glorious music.

Taking the lead from Britten, I have not tried to narrate the Christmas story as such, but rather to portray the poetic imagery of the mediaeval words. A Ceremony of Carols is a gathering assembled to meditate on the mystery of Christ’s humble beginnings - something the poor in the Middle Ages would have understood all too clearly. For the Harp Interlude, I wanted to convey the image of the Virgin Mary having insight into what would inevitably happen to her child.

First performed 8 February 2012 at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Co-commissioned by The Marlowe Theatre, Sadler's Wells and Peak Performances @ Montclair State University (NJ).

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