The MCO understands the importance of music education, which is why we’ve developed a unique instructional resource for teachers and parents. Written by music educator Beryl Peters, Ph.D, MCO’s Listening Guides provide a clear and thorough analysis of the repertoire featured in our concerts. They offer a perfect primer to the great works of Bach, Beethoven, Britten and beyond for K-8 and 9-12 students — with engaging historical anecdotes and simple theory for younger students, and more complex information for older students. Indeed, just about anyone can learn a thing or two from our MTS Future First Listening Guides … so dig in!


A Ceremony of Carols was written in 1942 when the English composer Benjamin Britten was 29 years old. It is one of the composer’s most popular and widely performed works, particularly at the Christmas season. This masterwork was originally premiered by a women’s choir and then subsequently revised and published as a work 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 Gregorian Chant 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.


Manitoba Music Curricular Connections

9-12 Making: The learner develops competencies for listening by listening critically with discrimination and purpose to:

  • situate and contextualize music (e.g., cultural/ ideological/historical/social contexts, music style, genre, tradition, or praxis, etc.)
  • support enjoyment and understanding of music
  • make and interpret music expressively and creatively
  • inform analysis, interpretation, judgement, appreciation, and evaluation

K-8 Understanding Music in Context: Demonstrate awareness of the intended meanings and/or purposes of music encountered in own performance and listening experiences

9-12 Connecting: The learner develops understandings about the significance of music by connecting music to diverse contexts.

1 The form (organizational structure) of A Ceremony of Carols is a multi-sectioned cycle of 11 movements. (Some authorities describe the work in 12 movements and separately number the pieces “That yongë child” and “Balulalow”). It includes 8 carols (unless 4a and 4b are considered separately) and a harp interlude, and is framed by a processional and recessional both based on the same liturgical Gregorian chant. Within the larger formal structure, the individual pieces demonstrate great variety of musical elements and also each have their own distinct form. Listen for the following sections:

  1. Procession (“Hodie Christus natus est” based on liturgical Gregorian chant, sung in Latin, and rejoicing in the birth of Christ)
  2. Wolcum Yole! (based on ancient text to welcome the Yule season)
  3. There is no rose of such vertu (In this carol, the rose is a reference to Mary; text alternates between Latin and English)
  4. Fourth movement:
    1. That yongë child (a solo recitative with harp accompaniment usually grouped with Balulalow).
    2. Balulalow (a lullaby)
  5. As dew in Aprille (based on an anonymous fifteenth century poem, praising Mary)
  6. This little Babe (based on a poem by the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, 1561-1595)
  7. Interlude (instrumental harp solo)
  8. In Freezing Winter Night (based on Southwell)
  9. Spring Carol (Cornish, a duet)
  10. Deo gracias (based on medieval text)
  11. Recession (a repeat of the opening "Hodie Christus natus est" liturgical chant.)

2 What Instruments or voices can you hear in A Ceremony of Carols? What different groups of performers are onstage? Do you hear adult or children’s voices? Do all the voices sing the same thing at the same time throughout the work? Can you hear vocal soloists perform during this work?

Are any string instruments playing in this work (violin, viola, cello, double bass)? Can you pick out the harp featured as accompanist and soloist in this work? Can you hear the harp playing in the opening "Hodie Christus natus est"? Listen for when the harp is the solo instrument as in the Interlude and when it accompanies other voices.

3 Can you identify changing moods throughout A Ceremony of Carols? How does Benjamin Britten use tempo (the speed of the music), dynamics (the volume of the music), and expression (musical elements that express certain feelings or dispositions) to create different and contrasting moods?

Which movements use mostly fast music? Which movement uses mostly slow music? Can you hear when the tempo of the music changes and gets faster or slower? How does that affect the mood of the work?

Can you hear how the gentle tempos of “That yongë child” and the lullaby “Balulalow” become faster (Allegro) in “As dew in Aprille” and then faster still in “This little Babe” (presto)? The expression and tempo marking for this movement is “con fuoco” meaning with fire and speed. How does this tempo and expression convey a sense of battle between the baby Jesus and Satan’s forces? Then can you hear the beautiful contrasting, gentler tempos of the following solo harp interlude (andante pastorale)?

Was the music played at all the same volume (dynamics)? When do you hear music played loudly? Quietly? When do the dynamics change and what effect does that create? When does the music get louder (crescendo) or get quieter (decrescendo)? Can you hear the use of crescendos and decrescendos in “Freezing Night?” What effect is created by their use?

Can you hear how quiet dynamics help to create a lullaby feeling in “Balulalow” while the loud dynamics help to create the feeling of conflict between the baby Jesus and Satan in “This little Babe?” What effect is created by the use of crescendo in this movement? What effect is created by the crescendos and loud dynamics in the “Deo gracias?” How does the harp’s “glissando rapido” (A slide, in this case very rapidly, upward or downward between 2 notes) help to create a feeling of excitement and energy in this movement?

Do you hear musical sounds that are short sounding (staccato) or very smooth sounding (legato)? Which movement features legato sounds? Where do you hear suddenly loud sounds (accents)?

Britten uses a wide variety of effects and expression to create certain moods or to emphasize certain text. For example, listen for ways that Britten creates the effect of freezing cold in “Freezing winter night.” Can you hear how the harp tremolos create a sense of shivering cold? Can you hear dissonances in the music (sounds that don’t seem to agree with each other) that might help create the effect of shivering cold?

What is the effect of the loud accent on the first syllable of the word satan in the movement “This little babe?”

Britten loved the sound of bells and introduced a bell effect at different points in this work. For example, listen to the bell-like harmonics of the harp in the Interlude and the effect of bells also heard in ‘Wolcum Yole!’ and “Deo gracias.”

4 How is rhythm used in the A Ceremony of Carols? Do you hear steady marching rhythms in the opening harp accompaniment to “Wolcum Yole?” Can you hear syncopated rhythms (offbeat rhythms where the accent is on the weak instead of the strong beat) in “Deo gracias?”

In the third section of this work, “There is no rose of such vertu,” can you hear a group of three notes (triplets) played against a group of two notes (duple time) in the harp? Britten used a technique common since Medieval times to convey a contrast between imperfect humankind and the perfection of God. Imperfect humankind is represented by the use of duple (2/2) time, emphasized by the 2/2 pulse maintained by the harp. The Latin phrases are set as triplets, considered a symbol of holy perfection and heard in contrast against the “imperfect” duple accompaniment.

Can you hear a very different rhythmic treatment in the following “That yongë child” and “Balulalow”? Can you hear a gentle rocking rhythm in the accompaniment that suggests the sounds of a lullaby? The idea of rocking is created by the use of alternating 6/8 and 3/4 rhythms.

Ostinato (a continually repeated rhythmic or melodic pattern) is a feature of this work. Can you hear ostinato rhythms in the harp accompaniment in the second and third sections or other movements of this work? In the section “There is no rose” can you hear the harp constantly repeating the same rhythmic and melodic fragment over and over with only one little break throughout the entire piece? Can you hear the use of rhythmic and melodic ostinato in “Freezing Winter Night” that contributes to the feeling of relentless cold?

Can you hear a bell-like ostinato pattern in the harp Interlude?

5 How are pitch and melody used in this work?

Do you hear high sounds or pitches? Do you hear low sounds or pitches? Can you hear when a melody suddenly jumps much higher or lower? Can you hear when the voices reach a particularly low part of their range in the movement “In Freezing Night” that helps to create a sense of darkness and cold? In the same piece can you hear where the intervals (distance between notes) become increasingly wide at the beginning of each phrase, also creating a sense of increasing cold?

Can you hear particular melodies or fragments of melody that are easy to sing or hum? Can you hear certain melodies that are repeated throughout the work? For example, can you hear the opening chant “Hodie Christus natus est” repeated at the close of the work? Can you hear it elaborated in the instrumental harp Interlude?

Can you hear the use of melodic ostinato in this work? For example, in “There is no rose” the harp repeats the rhythmic and melodic ostinato C F C F throughout the entire piece with the exception of a break on the word “transeamus” (we transcend). Melodic ostinato is also featured in “Freezing Winter Night”

In “That yongë child” can you hear a somewhat mournful three-note motif with two repeated sounds followed by a very small (semitone) step up (d-flat, c-sharp—the same note as d-flat, and c-natural) that sounds throughout the movement?

In the following "As dew in Aprille" based on anonymous fifteenth century poetry, can you hear a falling melodic line that Britten used to represent God’s descent to earth? Can you hear where the lines are repeated canonically in other voices to achieve the musical effect of the dew in April falling on the grass? (A melodic canon is defined as two or more voices singing the same melody or melodic line starting at different times).

The next piece “This little babe” also features the use of melodic canon but in this instance a very different effect is created. Can you hear an upward moving melody in this piece that is added to with each verse so that the sounds of conflict or battle are suggested? In this piece, Britten uses a stretto effect, where the voices of the canon enter shortly after each preceeding one, here creating the sounds of a battle waged between the baby Jesus and Satan’s forces.

Can you hear another stretto use in “Deo gracias” where Britten creates the effect of many voices joining together in song giving thanks to God?

Can you hear that different sections use different sounding scales (major, minor, modal, pentatonic)? The harp Interlude uses a five note pentatonic scale that creates the effect of a Balinese gamelan orchestra, which Britten had heard shortly before leaving the United States to return home to England.

6 Can you hear different kinds of texture (the combination and interaction of multiple voices and instrumental parts) in A Ceremony of Carols? There are dramatic texture changes in texture throughout this work and also within movements. Can you hear when Britten uses solo voice, unison voices (one melodic line sung by all voices at the same time), or homophonic voices (a dominating melody accompanied by chords often all moving similarly together) for different purposes? For a good contrast between unison and homophonic voices, listen for the close, lush harmonies of the voices when singing the English text contrasted with the chant-like unison voices singing the Latin text in “There is no Rose.” Then listen to the thinner texture of sounds in, “That Yongë Child”.

7 What kinds of timbre do you hear? Timbre refers to different qualities of sound, for example the kinds of sound that all the voices make when they sing together, or the very different kind of sound heard by the solo harp. Britten achieves a wide range of timbre or color in this work to create different moods and contrasts of sound to emphasize certain text. When does the timbre of the music change because Britten adds or takes away different voices? How does Britten use timbre to create a lullaby effect in Balulalow? A battle effect in This Little Babe? What is the effect of the timbre of the harp in this work when it accompanies the voices? When it plays as a solo instrument?


Reflections and Responses (K-8 Valuing; 9-12 Responding)

Grades 9-12 Responding

The learner develops and uses critical reflection and thinking for music learning:

  • the learner generates initial reactions to music experiences
  • the learner critically listens to, observes, and describes music experiences
  • the learner analyzes and interprets music experiences
  • the learner constructs meanings about music experiences

Grades K-8 Valuing

Students analyze, reflect on, and construct meaning in response to their own and others’ music:

  • students analyze their own and others’ musical excerpts, works, and performances
  • students form personal responses to and construct meaning from their own and others’ music

1 What is your immediate response to A Ceremony of Carols? Does this music sound like any other music you have heard before? What does this music make you think of? Have you heard any other music by Benjamin Britten?

2 What adjectives might describe the mood that you felt when listening to this work? Can you identify what musical elements may have created that mood for you? When did the mood change and why?

3 What musical elements did you enjoy or find interesting? Did you enjoy the use of harp? Did you like the melodies that you heard? Did the rhythms, dynamics, or tempos used by Britten help make this work exciting? Did you hear parts of the work that made you feel peaceful or calm and if so, what part of the work were they in? Were there any parts that sounded particularly dramatic to you? If so, which movement did you hear them in and why did they feel dramatic to you? Were there parts of the work that you did not enjoy? Why or why not?

4 Different people often have different responses to the same music. Ask someone else who heard the same music about their response to Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols.

5 What feelings did it seem that Britten was trying to communicate to his audience about this work? What music elements seemed to be important to him? Is there other music by Benjamin Britten that you could listen to and compare to the sounds and experience of the A Ceremony of Carols? Great performances of Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and War Requiem can be found on youtube.

You might enjoy watching the 2012 movie Moonrise Kingdom, which features music by Benjamin Britten drawn from Britten's opera for children, Noye's Fludde, and his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

6 Benjamin Britten is considered one of the leading composers of modern English music. Other leading modern English composers whose music you might wish to explore are Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Michael Tippett.

7 Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols has been performed by many different choirs around the world. Different directors and choirs interpret this work in different ways. It might be fun to hear other recordings of this same work or to listen to youtube recordings of other choirs performing this work.