One of Benjamin Britten’s strengths as a composer was writing music for children. Not just music for children to enjoy — many of his works, particularly his operas, are not really kid-friendly affairs — but for them to perform. I’m thinking particularly of choral music, where he excelled at writing songs that I found both beautiful and really fun to sing when I was very young.
That’s not to say that these songs are easy, of course; much of Britten’s music was described by critics (often derogatorily) as “clever,” and can be highly challenging. But that’s one of the joys of singing it. His songs felt like puzzles we were given to solve, and I remember feeling pretty clever when we finally pieced them together.
I was about 10 years old when I first saw A Ceremony of Carols, Britten’s multi-movement Christmas work for treble chorus and harp. I left that performance awestruck, especially by the song “This Little Babe,” which has, off and on, been stuck in my head ever since. In the years after that concert my sister and I hoped emphatically that our church’s choir would sing that song in an Advent service one Sunday; they did, eventually, but not at the breakneck speed we were hoping for.
“This Little Babe” is a Britten puzzle-piece. It begins with all voices singing one line in unison, then, like several other movements in A Ceremony of Carols, uses a canon-like structure. (In a canon, one part of the choir begins a melody, another part joins in after them singing the same melody, and the overlapping of the two or more parts creates harmony. This concept is deftly explained here by a frustrated Stephen Colbert to the band Grizzly Bear.)
But “This Little Babe” isn’t quite a round or a canon. It’s not like “Row, row, row your boat” where each voice sings exactly the same melody as every other. Nor are the entrances of each part spaced out in a way that makes the resulting harmony similar in every measure. The second verse splits the choir into two parts, the third verse in three, and each entrance in the split follows so quickly after the last (only a beat apart) that there’s a ripple effect; it doesn’t sound like harmony so much as like echoes in a racquetball court.
Performing this effect is difficult, and demands focus from the singers. The parts all end simultaneously despite their starting at different moments, which means that the second and third lines are shortened (and, therefore, melodically different) versions of the first line. These slight differences and the speed of the song make it imperative that the chorus members know their parts cold. At a length of about a minute and twenty seconds, however, the song doesn’t demand that the kids learn very much material, just that they learn it well.
Britten began work on the carols in 1942, during a sea voyage to England. He had been living in America for three years as a conscientious objector to WWII, but returned that spring. He’d recently been commissioned to write a concerto for harp, and brought some harp manuals to study on his way home. The boat he was traveling on made a stop in Halifax before crossing the Atlantic, and while on shore there he bought the excellently titled book The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems.
Among this book’s contents are Robert Southwell’s “New Heaven, New War” (from which the stanzas that make up “This Little Babe” were taken) and four other 14th-16th century poems used in A Ceremony of Carols. Britten completed drafts of seven of the carols in the five weeks before he landed in England while working concurrently on another choral piece. He reported to a friend that this happened simply because “one had to alleviate the boredom!” (Trying to calculate how many Ceremonies of Carols I could have written while bored on long trips myself has yielded depressing results.)
The final aspect of what makes “This Little Babe” so thrilling to perform is the words. The first verse begins:
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.
If you’re the kind of kid (as I was) that preferred the Christmas carols she sang to be in a minor key, and to invoke some scary images (“We Three Kings,” “What Child is This,” or “Coventry Carol,” for example) then getting to sing the words “Satan” and “hell” in concert is something you might relish. And it’s not just that these ideas are involved — you also get to sing about their being vanquished by a tiny baby. Being a child and singing about another child who fights and wins against evil is a glorious sensation — especially when all voices come together in unison again to sing the final line: If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.
“In Freezing Winter Night,” a foil to “This Little Babe,” is slower, and quieter, but its text, also by Southwell, is thematically similar. It addresses the paradox of God existing as a human baby with all the attendant weaknesses, like vulnerability to cold, but in “In Freezing Winter Night” the baby is first described as pitiful, his shivering portrayed in the chilly harmonies in the choir and dissonant harp tremolos.
It also utilizes a sort of canon, and in this one the top two voices do sing exactly the same line. But the harmonies shift underneath them, making the role of the D-sharp sung by the first voice-part different from the role of the D-sharp sung by the second voice part. This gives each line individual musical responsibility — a feeling that both are uniquely vital to the piece.
That is Britten’s gift to children’s choruses. He trusted them with exciting text and difficult music, and gave them the opportunity to make real art despite their age. Children can tell the difference. I’ve read that he originally intended this piece to be performed by a women’s choir, and I recently got to perform it with the women’s ensemble I’m in, but the best parts of that performance were the ones where I felt I was singing like a little kid, foiling my foes with joy.