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On Yoolis Night

December 24, 2013

The Dean and Chapter of Durham, together with the choir, read lessons and sing carols around the Christmas tree.

The Dean and Chapter of Durham, together with the choir, read lessons and sing carols around the Christmas tree.

ONE OF the most beautiful anthems composed for the Nativity was written in 1930 by a young Benjamin Britten. Entitled A Hymn to the Virgin, it is haunting, passionate, and restrained, bearing in its cadences something of the simplicity of that first Christmas, two thousand years ago. As the composer Paul Spicer writes,

As young as he was, aged only 16, Britten produced in this carol a tiny masterpiece. This is one of the most well-known and best-loved of his choral pieces. Understandably so, too. It has all the ingredients which make for a really satisfying choral experience. The use of a solo quartet or small semi-chorus, best placed at a distance, brings a dramatic element to the essential simplicity of the carol. The Latin responses of the semi-chorus to the medieval English words of the main chorus give these responses a further element of mystery which adds another layer of spiritual drama. The ratcheting up of the intensity in the final verse by increasing the tempo, by the ATB of the main chorus singing continuous rising phrases and by the sopranos singing a short phrase which is answered by the semi-chorus brings the piece to its climax. The final tranquillo page leads the carol to its conclusion in a mesmerizing final phrase sung by the semi-chorus.1

It is sung here with consummate artistry by the Sixteen.

Of one that is so fair and bright
     Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the day is light,
     Parens et puella:
I cry to thee, thou see to me, Lady pray thy Son for me,
     Tam pia,
That I may come to thee.
     Maria!
All this world was forlorn
     Eva peccatrice,
Till our Lord was y-born
     De te genetrice.
With ave it went away, darkest night and comes the day
     Salutis;
The well springeth out of thee.
     Virtutis.
Lady, flower of everything,
     Rosa sine spina,
Thou bare Jesu, Heaven’s King,
     Gratia divina:
Of all thou bear’st the prize, Lady, queen of paradise
     Electa:
Maid mild, mother es Effecta
     Effecta.

1. “Benjamin Britten – A Hymn to the Virgin,” Boosey & Hawkes, accessed December 9, 2013, http://www.boosey.com/cr/music/Benjamin-Britten-A-Hymn-to-the-Virgin/5715.

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