We have spent a good deal of time working on and thinking about Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" in recent days and weeks. Realizing the work was written during a voyage from America to Europe across the North Atlantic at the height of German U-boat activity in March of 1942, it seems likely that some of the musical choices made by the composer reflect the mood of not only the voyage but also of the world as a whole at that time.
Britten, following W. H. Auden, with whom he had collaborated frequently in the 1930's, left his homeland for American shores in the spring 1939 under the looming specter of German aggression throughout the continent. The change of residence was a good one, at least for the sake of Britten's career as a composer. His friendship with Aaron Copland allowed many important connections with influential people in the musical world and, more directly, allowed Britten the opportunity to hear and be inspired by the music of his friend. The war, and the effects of that war, however, were inescapable, finding its way into daily life in so many ways. In spite of, or maybe because of, German targeting of England and the danger of a sea voyage during those times, Britten, inspired by an article he read about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe and his poem "The Borough" (which inspired the opera "Peter Grimes"), found some deep seated national pride and set sail for his homeland.
Working through the emotional weight of those war years for Britten continued at least through the completion of the "War Requiem" nearly two decades later. Join us in December to listen closely to the "Ceremony of Carols" and see if you can hear the not-so-distant drum beat of war; the angst of the composer sailing to an unknowable future as he returned to the land of his birth.