Ceremony of Carols Op. 8 – Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of our parish magazine.

Written in 1942, this is a choral piece, scored for three-part treble chorus (usually children, but can also be women), solo voices, and harp. The text is drawn from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, and is in Middle English. It was introduced to the ladies of St Margaret’s choir several Christmases ago, and over a couple of successive Christmases we gradually learned and sang five of the eleven movements. The full work consists of:

  1. “Procession”
  2. “Wolcum Yole!”
  3. “There is no Rose”

4a. “That yonge child”

4b. “Balulalow”

  1. “As dew in Aprille”
  2. “This little Babe”
  3. “Interlude” (harp solo)
  4. “In Freezing Winter Night”
  5. “Spring Carol”
  6. “Deo Gracias”
  7. “Recession”


We tackled movements 3 to 6, with (I think) Hayley taking the solos.

My personal favourite is “This Little Babe”. As far from “Away in a Manger” as it is possible to get, this is a battle cry, a call to arms:

  • This little babe just three days old,
  • Is come to rival Satan’s hold
  • All hell doth at his presence quake,
  • though he himself for cold do shake;
  • For in this weak unarmored wise
  • the gates of hell he will surprise.


  • With tears he fights and wins the field,
  • his naked breast stands for a shield.
  • His battering shot are babish cries,
  • his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
  • His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
  • and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.


  • His camp is pitched in a stall,
  • his bulwark but a broken wall;
  • The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
  • of shepherds he his muster makes.
  • And thus as sure his foe to wound,
  • the angels’ trumps alarum sound.


  • My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
  • stick to the tents that he hath pight.
  • Within his crib is surest ward;
  • this little Babe will by thy guard.
  • If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then
  • flit not from this heavenly boy!

Forget the sanitised Christmas card images. Even before birth, Our Lord was shunned by society and delivered in a stinking stable full of farm animals. His parents tore strips from their own garments to wrap him against the cold, and then in absence of any kind of cradle, placed him in a feeding trough. The music of this movement emulates the shivering cold of that winter night, the likely fear of his parents, and predicts turmoil of his early years along with the suffering and glory of his later ministry.

Although it begins with all three voices singing together in unison, they soon split firstly into two parts and then three, singing the same words and notes in canon, that is, slightly after each other. In this case, the voices are separated by only a beat, with each voice starting on a half-beat. I realise that sounds rather complex, and it is! The tune trots along at quite a pace, and it is extraordinarily difficult firstly for each voice to time it’s entry correctly, and then to remain independent of the other two. The effect on the listener is auditory confusion, just like on a battle field. All is resolved in the final verse, where the three voices sing once again in synchronous time, but also in glorious three-part harmony.

Here is a recording of This Little Babe by the Oxford Girls Choir:

Enjoy the Christmas season with your family and friends, and remember how it all started.

Carol P



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