Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Benjamin Britten: The Holly and the Ivy for choir.

In late 1956, Benjamin Britten (1913-76) was asked by June Gordon (1913-2009), Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair to arrange ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ for the Haddo House Choral Society’s annual Carol Concert. The Britten Catalogue (1999) explains that the reason for this request was because the choir ‘were heartily sick of all arrangements…tried so far.’
June Gordon was a near-contemporary of Britten and had graduated from the Royal College of Music at the same time. In 1945 she founded the Haddo House Choral Society.

‘The Holly and the Ivy’ for unaccompanied chorus (SATB) was completed by Britten during January 1957. The text is derived from an original carol collected by Cecil Sharp’s published in his English Folk Carols (1911). Sharp states that he heard the tune sung by Mrs. Mary A. Clayton, aged 64, at Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire on 13 January 1909. He had noted five versions of the carol. These were denoted as A, B, C and D – text and tune and E - text only. Britten used version ‘A’ for this setting.  
The sheet music carries the dedication ‘For June Gordon and the Haddo House Choral Society, 1957.’

The holly and the ivy are trees that's both well known;
Of all the trees that grows in woods, the holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun, the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry harp, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom as white as any flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Saviour.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a colour as green as any tree,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to set poor sinners free.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ at Christmas day in the morn.
The rising of the sun…

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.
The rising of the sun…
English Traditional carol

Britten has created a kind of ‘palindromic’ setting of this carol. The arrangement of each verse is given a different combination of voices as follows: Verse 1, solo treble accompanied by altos, Verse 2, tenor solo accompanied by basses, Verse 3, alto (or mezzo soprano) solo accompanied by tenors, Verse 4, baritone solo accompanied by sopranos and altos. The process is then reversed. The soloists may be replaced by a semi-chorus. In each case the accompaniment is simple, often depending in a ‘pedal’ note.
In the first six verses the refrain ‘The rising of the sun…’ is heard in the same harmonisation. There is considerable use of parallel thirds here. The final chord is at the unison. Britten subtly varies this refrain for the final verse providing a descant and concluding with a six-part (basses and altos divisi) chord contrasting dramatically with the spare conclusion of the previous six refrains. It includes effective crossing of parts.
The harmony of this carol is straightforward: there is not a single accidental in the entire piece. The harmonic interest is devised by gentle clashes in the part writing creating and dissolving gentle dissonances. Much use is made of major and minor 7th and 9th chords.

The carol was published by Boosey and Hawkes in 1957 and was reissued in 1963 by Novello in their compilation volume Sing Nowell: 51 carols new and arranged and edited by Louis Halsey and Basil Ramsey. The present arrangement also appears in The Cambridge Hymnal ed. David Holbrook and Elizabeth Poston. (OUP 1967)

The Britten Catalogue (1999) notes that the first performance of this carol was during a BBC Home Service Broadcast on 22 December 1957. It had been recorded on 14 December at Haddo House in Aberdeen by the Haddo House Choral Society, conducted by June Gordon.  I was unable to find an exact entry in the contemporary Radio Times.

It is good to know that the Haddo House Choral and Operatic Society is still going strong. They have presented a series of Carol concerts over in the run up to Christmas 2018.

There is a splendid version of this carol on YouTube sung by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks and originally issued in 1966 on the LP Christmas Music from King's.

Finally, my (very tatty) copy of the sheet music for Britten’s ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ was bought in a now-defunct second hand bookshop in North Wales for 5 pence. The copy, presumably surplus to requirements, is stamped up as belonging to the Frodsham and District Choral Society. It is satisfying to discover that this Cheshire organisation is still performing happily in 2018.

Brief Biography:
Banks, Paul etc., Benjamin Britten: A Catalogue of Published Works (The Britten-Pears Library, 1999)

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