Thursday, 4 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (5): ‘Deo Gracias,’ from
‘A Ceremony of Carols’ by Benjamin Britten

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning I have chosen Deo Gracias, from A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 by the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

A Ceremony of Carols, is a choral piece scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp. It is one of his best-known and most-performed works.

It was written for Christmas, and it consists of 11 movements, with text from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett. It is in Middle English. The piece was written at the height of World War, while Britten was at sea, returning from the US to England in 1942.

Britten originally conceived this as a series of unrelated songs, but later brought it together as one piece with the framing processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorian antiphon Hodie Christus natus est, which is heard at the beginning and the end.

All the carols have such identities, each contributing to a work that is a feast of discovery throughout.

The text of the final song, Deo Gracias is from a 15th-century text by an unknown author. It is found in a manuscript in the British Library, which dates from ca 1400 and the lyrics may have belonged to a wandering minstrel. Although the lyrics date from the reign of Henry V (1387–1422), the Victorian antiquarian and Secretary of the Camden Society, Thomas Wright (1810-1877), suggests the songs may be of an earlier date. He says the lyrics probably originate in Warwickshire and the songs were composed for mystery plays.

This final song, Deo gracias describes the events in Genesis 3 and the Fall of Adam … “all for an apple.”

In mediaeval theology, Adam was said to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus partum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ (the “4,000 winters”).

The second verse narrates the Fall of Humanity following Adam’s temptation by Eve and the serpent. There is a tone of astonishment, almost incredulity in the phrase “and all was for an apple.”

The third verse suggests the subsequent redemption of humanity by the birth of Christ by the Virgin Mary, who was to become the Queen of Heaven as a result.

The song concludes on a positive note that hints at Saint Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the felix culpa (“blessed fault”). Had Adam not taken the apple there would have been no need for the Virgin Mary to be the heavenly queen. So it was a blessed time when the apple was taken and we thank God for it.

The voices then shout an excited Deo Gracias over a harp glissando rapido and then quietly leave with Hodie Christus.

Apart from this work by Benjamin Britten, there are many modern choral settings of the text by composers such as John Ireland and Boris Ord. Ord’s setting, which was sung at the Advent Procession in Christ Church Cathedral last Sunday [1 November 2014]. is well-known because of its traditional performance following the First Lesson at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, where Ord was organist from 1929 to 1957.

A new setting by Giles Swayne was first performed in 2009 by the Choir of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, at their broadcast of the Advent carol service on BBC Radio 3.

Deo Gracias by Benjamin Britten

Deo Gracias! Deo Gracias!
Adam lay ibounden, bound in a bond,
For thousand winter thought he not too long.

And all was for an appil,
An appil that he tok,
As clerkès finden written in their book.

Ne had the appil takè been,
The appil takè been,
Ne haddè never our lady
A ben hevenè queen.

Blessed be the time
That appil takè was.
Therefore we moun singen,
Deo Gracias! Deo Gracias!

Tomorrow:A Spotless Rose’ by Herbert Howells.

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