My Favorite Christmas Carol (This Year)

Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 11:23 AM

It usually happens around Thanksgiving. Some Christmas tune starts running around in my head and just doesn’t let go.

This year, it’s “This Little Babe,” from Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols.” The text is from a poem by 16th-century English Jesuit priest Robert Southwell.

Britten wrote “A Ceremony of Carols” in 1942 while at sea, traveling back to his native England, after spending about three years in North America. He and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, took passage on a Swedish cargo ship called the Alex Johnson, which made a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, Britten picked up an anthology, The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, which had in it poems by Southwell, two of which Britten incorporated into his new choral work.

Robert Southwell is not particularly well known today, but his story is remarkable. When he was ordained in France in 1584, it was a capital crime under the rule of Elizabeth I for native Englishmen to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood and remain on English soil for more than forty days. But Southwell returned to his home country two years later as an underground Catholic missionary. After six years of such work, he was arrested and tortured, and spent three years as a prisoner in the Tower of London. In 1595, at the age of around 35, Robert Southwell was tried and convicted on charges of treason, and was hanged, drawn, and quartered. His writings, which were very popular for several decades after his death, are said to have influenced, among others, Shakespeare and Donne. In 1970, he was canonized by Pope Paul VI.

One of the Southwell poems in the anthology Benjamin Britten picked up in Halifax in 1942 is “Newe Heaven, Newe Warre.” The second half of this poem is the text of “This Little Babe.” Southwell portrays the story of Jesus’s birth as a sneak attack on the forces of evil. Who would expect God to send a baby to vanquish Satan? Every element of the Christmas story is a metaphor of paradoxical spiritual warfare.

Staging a Battle with a Harp

In his musical setting, Britten found ways to reflect Southwell’s approach. The piece opens in a minor key with an urgent battle fanfare of three-note chords which, in any other context, would be sounded on trumpets. But for this infant’s sneak attack, it’s played on harp, the instrument of lullabies (and the only instrument in the entire “Ceremony” score). In the second and third stanzas, Britten uses his melody as a canon in stretto, a musical technique in which the succeeding entrances of the melody are right on the heels of those that come before. Is it the clash of battle? The echoes of a celestial choir?

It’s an incredible effect, though it renders the text unintelligible, so make sure you can see the words when you listen. In the fourth and final stanza, as Southwell entreats the faithful to join the heavenly fight on Earth, Britten for the first time places the voices in harmony, and concludes, with Southwell, on a note of joyful victory.

“A Ceremony of Carols” is usually performed today by children’s choirs, but Britten conceived it for a women’s chorus, and it was a women’s chorus that gave the first performance of the work in December of 1942 and its first broadcast performance on the BBC in early 1943. But even before those first performances, Britten realized that children could effectively sing the work. Later that year, Britten augmented the Ceremony with another carol, a solo interlude for harp, and the Procession and Recession which frame the piece. In December of 1943, a Welsh boy’s choir gave the first performance of the work as we know it today.

I think I sang “This Little Babe” exactly once, in a children’s choir in my hometown church decades ago. The tune has never left me, but sometime in the last dozen years or so, I was struck – stunned, really – by the richness and beauty of Southwell’s poetry and way Britten conveys the emotions of Southwell’s words in music. The battle of good and evil fought and won by a baby born in obscure poverty; the story of that battle told not by a huge orchestra and massive voices, but by a harp and a choir of children. “The gates of Hell He will surprise,” writes Southwell. I find myself surprised, and deeply moved, by “This Little Babe” every time I hear it.

 

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' trumps 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.

 

There are lots of “This Little Babe” performances on YouTube, and while the choristers here sing Southwell’s words with a French accent, it doesn’t seem inappropriate, since Southwell was ordained in France. The choral textures are very clear, and you get to see a lot of the harpist, who provides not only the harmony, but the rhythmic pulse and urgency that make the piece so exciting. 

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Comments [6]

Les from Miami, Florida

I've long treasured Giovanni Martinelli's recording for the Victor Company of "Gesu Bambino" dating from 1926 "With Ladies' Chorus and Orchestra".

Dec. 25 2013 09:48 AM

Re Christmas bits you spotted in Wagner's Siegfried: Eddie Lopez & I would like to add "do you ear what I hear?" John & Eddie Gill-Lopez.

Dec. 24 2013 10:18 AM
Rev. Michael A. Weber from Clifton, NJ

Thank you for your insightful remarks. Your readers may be interested to know that A Ceremony of Carols uses another poem by Robert Southwell, “In freezing winter night”. The two poems convey very similar messages. In “This Little Babe,” the message is “weakness is power,” while “In freezing winter night” the message is “humility is glory.”

In freezing winter night, Southwell begins by setting the scene—a humble stable, a refugee family, a baby in a manger surrounded by beasts.

Behold, a silly tender babe in freezing winter night,
In homely manger trembling lies; alas, a piteous sight!

The original text does not contain the phrases “silly babe.” Rather, Southwell uses the word “seely.” Although it later evolved into our word “silly,” its primary meanings at the time of composition were “insignificant, poor, good, or blessed.”

In the second two verses of the song, Southwell develops several paradoxes. The humble stable is really a glorious throne room and the manger itself a throne. The wooden dish is as impressive as fine china or gold plate. His parents, although shabbily dressed, are as magnificent as if clothed in silken robes. The closing line of the fourth verse sums up the theme of the poem. “The Prince is come from heav’n: This pomp [i.e., humility] is prized there.”

Southwell concludes the poem, as he does in This Little Babe, with an exhortation to approach the Babe/Prince with joy. In its historical context, both poems exhort persecuted Catholics to put their confidence in a child king, who although he is weak and humble, outstrips the power and glory of Queen Elizabeth and all her court.

Britten’s setting of this song reflects the dissonance/mystery of heaven's king holding court in a stable. The minor key suggests the humility of the babe and the bleakness of his surroundings. Each measure begins with a clash between a B-flat and an A-flat. By using a 5/4 tempo and making the first note of each measure twice as long as any other note in a given measure (a half note followed by 3 quarter notes), Britten emphasizes the poetic dissonance and gives voice to the paradox of Southwell’s poem.

The song concludes with a G major chord which not only resolves the tension throughout the song, but also suggests something of God’s blessing and approval on the whole of the Incarnation. It is as though the G major chord, says “Yes, this is how things should be.”

While not as immediately as memorable as “This little Babe,” Britten’s setting of “In Freezing Winter Night,” show his compositional skill to match the music to the text. This more than any other song in A Ceremony of Carols is the song I can’t get out of my head.

Dec. 20 2013 08:19 PM
JoeVee from NJ

"The battle of good and evil fought and won by a baby born in obscure poverty;" Jeff, I'm not sure this battle has yet been won, but the carol is superb!

Dec. 20 2013 06:19 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

All yes, above, but my new favorite is "In the bleak mid-winter" sung byt Kings Choir. Heaven.

Dec. 20 2013 09:59 AM
Gev Sweeney from The Jersey Shore

There is nothing like hearing This Little Babe live in a church, where the acoustics augment the rushing echo effect of the entrances in that canon. Heard it in St. Thomas Church when I lived in Manhattan. Simply gobsmacking.

Dec. 20 2013 04:59 AM

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