CEREMONY OF CAROLS
By Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was one of England's most prolific composers whose works included orchestral and choral music as well as many operas. Fifteen of his operas are listed in the Kobbe Book of Opera; several of them, e.g. Peter Grimes, Death in Venice, Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night's Dream are firmly established in the standard repertoire.
In 1939, Britten, a pacifist attempting to escape the looming war, left England for the U.S. accompanied by his life-long companion, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten at age 25 was already an established composer. In fact, during his stay in the U.S. the Boston Symphony, under Serge Koussevitsky, performed his Sinfonia da Requiem with soloist Paul Wittgenstein, the distinguished one-armed pianist and elder brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in WWI.)
In 1942, after the U.S. had entered the war, Britten and Pears returned to England where they were granted conscientious objector status. En route from the U.S. to England Britten composed the Ceremony of Carols, Opus 28. It is a Christmas choral work in twelve short movements for treble voices with harp obbligato, based on medieval chants and carols, and was first performed at Norwich, England on Dec. 5, 1942. Ceremony and Amahal and the Night Visitors are two of the most popular 20th-century pieces of (classical) Nativity music.
The story of the three wise men, or Magi, who came to Bethlehem to pay their respects to the Christ Child shortly after His birth appears in the second chapter of Matthew:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Herod's chief priests advised the Magi where to find the King:
In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet.
(cf. Micah 5:2)
The Magi set out for Bethlehem, about 10 miles away:
…and, lo, the star which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
(The guiding star was also prophesied: Num 24:17)
Modern astronomy has been able to decipher the historical facts underlying this story, resulting in a fascinating portrayal of the reality of myth. (For a full account see the book The Star of Bethlehem: the Legacy of the Magi by Michael Molnar and/or visit http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/.)
The Magi, members of a hereditary priestly caste in ancient Media and Persia, were followers of Zoroaster (who appears in The Magic Flute under the name Sarastro). These Magi were reputed to have practiced supernatural arts (including astrology); in fact, the English word "magic" derives from "Magi." In the year 6 B.C. these Magi-astrologers would surely have observed the retrograde motion of the planet Jupiter in the constellation Aries. (Retrograde motion is an apparent reversal of the movement of a planet due to the earth's overtaking it in its orbit.) This motion, in which the planet briefly stops before reversing its course, is believed to have been responsible for the quotation above referring to the star of Bethlehem's "going before" the Magi and "stopping" over Jesus' birthplace; the Greek original referred to the retrograde motion of a planet and its "pausing", but the Vulgate mistranslated the excerpt as quoted above.
Jupiter, the largest planet, had kingly connotations to the astrologers, and Aries was the sign of the Jewish peoples (to pagans. The monotheistic Jews rejected astrology.)1 Thus the motion of Jupiter in Aries would have suggested the birth of a king somewhere in the Jewish world. The star appeared in the east because in April, 6 B.C. Jupiter was a morning star, which of course is seen in the eastern sky ahead of the rising sun. This explains the otherwise puzzling contradiction that a star in the east could lead the Magi westward from Persia towards Jerusalem.
From this and other evidence, April of 6 B.C. seems the probable date of Jesus' birth, not December 25, 1 A.D. as our calendar suggests. The "other evidence" includes the fact that Herod the Great, (mentioned in the biblical quote above), died in 4 B.C. And surely the Nativity took place in the spring; Luke tells us (2:8): "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." Shepherds don't "abide in the fields" in wintertime. They abide there during lambing season (spring). The celebration of Christmas in December comes from the adaptation of an old pagan feast, Sol Invictus (the unconquerable sun), to the new Christian holiday. To sum it all up, modern science has shown that the story of the Magi is not just a child's fairy tale, but in all probability an historical event.
The traditional date for the visit of the Magi is not Christmas but 12 days later on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany (hence, "Twelfth Night"). The song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" refers to this period between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6. Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night, has nothing to do with the Magi but was probably so titled because it was scheduled to be presented on or shortly after Twelfth Night when the Carnival theatrical season began. (Carnival runs from Epiphany until Lent.)
The number of Magi (three); their names Kaspar (or, sometimes, Gaspard), Melchior and Balthazar; as well as their gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) are all matters of Christian myth. (Sister Wendy explains this in her book 1000 Masterpieces). In the myth, which is adopted by Menotti for Amahl, Melchior is an old, white European, Kaspar is a middle-aged and darker Asiatic while the young Balthasar is a black African. Many Renaissance paintings represent the Magi thusly, for example an "Adoration of the Magi" by Andrea Mantegna and another by Abraham Bloemart. (Other "Adorations", e.g. by Boticelli, show all three Magi as white.) The rationale behind the myth is that in Christian theology the Epiphany represents the revelation of Christ to the entire Gentile world. Apparently Menotti got the idea for this opera when he viewed an "Adoration" painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And who can ever forget O. Henry's poignant story, "Gifts of the Magi": poverty-stricken Jim Dillingham sells his watch to buy a set of hair combs for his wife Della as a Christmas gift while Della has sold her hair to a wig-maker to buy Jim a watch fob chain! Perhaps this tale is closest in sentiment to the sacrifice made by our little hero, Amahl, who gives his only possession, his crutch, to the Christ Child. Could Menotti have been influenced by O. Henry's story? (If you haven't read this story, you can find it at http:/www.auburn.edu/~vestmon/Gift_of_the_Magi.html)
Menotti, an Italian who emigrated to the U.S. to study
music (at the Curtis Institute), is still active musically at the age of
91. He has been America's most prolific opera composer, and Amahl is
his most popular work; it was written expressly for NBC television where
it premiered on Christmas Eve, 1951. Its first stage performances followed
in 1952. The TV version was presented annually for many years until NBC
lost the video tape! The portrayal of the title character in that video
was the first casting of a child in a major operatic role. It was, and
still is, customary for other children playing important roles, such as
Hansel, to be sung by women.
Three other of Menotti's operas have been produced by Opera Roanoke (or its predecessor Southwest Virgina Opera Society). They are The Old Maid and the Thief 2 (1960); Amahl (1994); and The Consul (SVOS's first-ever production in 1978). Other well-known Menotti works include Amelia al Ballo (written while he was a student, and his only opera not in English); The Medium and The Saint of Bleecker Street.