Advent Calendar: The Beauty of Britten

For the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: December 21 – Christmas Music.

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Choirs and choral music have been a fact of my Christmas life since I was … oh, I don’t know, thirteen?

It was inevitable. I sang my way through the junior high and high school choirs. I sang in church choirs.  I sang in regional and state choirs and of course I sing in the shower when all else fails.

The magic of human voices blending and soaring has never lost its mesmerizing effect for me, and never more so than in the depths of December. Every year for the past decade, my church choir and an ensemble of musicians have participated in a candlelight carol sing, and the moment when the audience and the singers hold lit tapers and join together for our final song has a way of stopping anger, anxiety and cynicism in its tracks, if only for two or three precious minutes.

We’ve sung a lot of Christmas pieces over the years, but one in particular is special to my heart.

British choirs and composers work their own particular spell with Christmas. And hands-down my favorite Christmas choral work is by Benjamin Britten — A Hymn to the Virgin, composed in 1930, when Britten was all of 16. Using a starkly simple medieval text, it is a dialogue between two groups of singers, usually a full choir and a quartet of soloists.

It is simply, hauntingly lovely. Singing it transports you for a few minutes to a cleaner, calmer, brighter place.

Apparently, Britten retained a deep affection for Hymn to the Virgin throughout his life, and it was one of only two of his own works performed at his funeral on Dec. 7, 1976. Here it is, performed by the British professional mixed choir Polyphony.

I also love Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols — another beautifully crafted tribute to the season.

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