Music for The Holy Family — Sunday, December 27, 2020

This Little Babe (A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28) – Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

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A Ceremony of Carols was written in 1942 when the English composer Benjamin Britten was twenty-nine years old. It is one of the composer’s most popular and widely performed works, particularly at the Christmas season. The work is written for treble choir and harp, although it has since been arranged for various voice combinations.

A Ceremony of Carols was composed in part during five weeks that Britten spent travelling by ship from New York to England during the Second World War. During the voyage the ship stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Britten purchased a book of medieval poetry. Poems from this book, along with seasonal plainsong and other poetry spanning 14th to 16th century England, were the inspiration for A Ceremony of Carols, which includes both a Christmas narrative as well as references to the re-birth of spring.

The work was innovative in many respects, such as the use of harp as the sole accompanying instrument for a large, choral work. This excerpt is the sixth movement, based on a poem by the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell (1561-1595). The martial urgency of This Little Babe’s expanding canon and the vivid holy war between the infant and Satan must surely have been inspired by the real-life World War. It is sung here by Vancouver’s own Elektra Women’s Choir.

This little Babe so few days old
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
all hell doth at his presence quake
though he himself for cold do shake;
for in this weak unarmèd wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield;
his battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes,
his martial ensigns Cold and Need
and feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
the crib his trench, haystacks his stakes;
of shepherds he his muster makes;
and thus, as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trump alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight,
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward,
this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
then flit not from this heavenly Boy.


Nunc dimittis – Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)

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The Estonian Arvo Pärt is one of those composers whose creative output has significantly changed the way we understand the nature of music. In 1976, he created a unique musical language called tintinnabuli, a minimalist style inspired in part by Gregorian chant that has reached a vast audience of listeners and that has defined his work. There is no compositional school that follows Pärt, nor does he teach; nevertheless, contemporary music has been greatly influenced by his tintinnabuli compositions.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is the story of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, and the encounter of Simeon with the one he recognized as the Messiah, resulting in his song of praise, the Nunc dimittis. Arvo Pärt’s setting of the Nunc dimittis was commissioned by the Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh. Different musical textures alternate according to the paragraphs of the text. While the piece sounds mostly in a minor key, it has its climax on the word lumen (light) that is highlighted by a shift to major. This is brilliant music unadorned, infused with a stark, spare beauty.

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace,
quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum,
quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum,
lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in
peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
Both now and always, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


Sussex Carol – arr. David Willcocks (1919-2015)

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The text of the Sussex Carol was first published by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop, in a work called Small Garlands of Pious and Godly Songs (1684). The origins of the popular tune to which this carol is sung are not known, but Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp transcribed it as sung to them in 1919 by a Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex (hence “Sussex Carol”), bringing it into the carol books and homes of people around the world. It has been arranged by Vaughan Williams, Erik Routley, Philip Ledger, and David Willcocks. Willcocks’ arrangement, sung here, appears in the first volume of the Oxford Carols for Choirs, familiar to choristers all over the English-speaking world. It is fitting that it is sung here in a 2014 performance by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, which Willcocks directed from 1957 to 1974.

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King’s birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
“Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!”

Gerald Harder