Every year, just after Thanksgiving, I pull out my recording of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, make a cup of tea, and sit down to listen. I wait for the first notes of the Hodie to drift in and build. By the first gentle “resmiranda” I feel the inevitable lump in my throat. And by the time the harpist plays the solo, I’m undone. The simplicity and clarity of the solos. The piling up of notes and energy at the end of Deo Gracias. The circling around again of the Hodie at the end. I feel it deep in my chest. It’s consistent; it happens every year.
This year, with the early start to my season of Ceremony—early November, no less!—I’ve thought a lot about why it touches me so deeply. I’ve sung the Ceremony more than two dozen times in my life, starting with a performance with our middle school Girls Chorus. I’ve sung alto, soprano II, and first soprano parts, in the SSA and the SATB versions. I sang it a few more times in high school, in church choirs, and in 2005 with BCCO.
My mother has a similar reaction to the Ceremony; like me, she plays her recording from Thanksgiving through the early new year. We sang it together when I was growing up, at least once that we both remember, with our church choir. We sang together every Thursday and Sunday from my sophomore through senior years of high school. We can both sing much of it from memory (although I find it hard to keep straight which part I’m singing.)
Perhaps most memorable was the performance I was part of with the Harp Studio of the Peninsula, directed by master harpist Phyllis Schlomowitz. She was in her eighties at that time and had a spectacular studio full of harpists of all ages. Each December, she directed a program something along the lines of 50 Harps for Christmas. The Ceremony of Carols with one harp is spectacular—imagine the sound of 50 harps playing together the opening chords of “This Little Babe…” or “Deo Gracias” in a resonant church hall. The sound went right through your skin into your bones.
Imagine 50 harps playing together the harp solo. I think they did, at least. At least that’s how I remember it. It could have been just one, but the resonance of all those harps was so powerful, it’s obscured any accurate recall of the number of harps that actually did play the solo.
And it really doesn’t matter. Each time I listen to the piece, the accumulation of all the times I’ve sung it, of all the people I’ve sung with, of the conversations with my mother (we’re singing Ceremony of Carols! and the recalling of the different segments) resonate through me. This is the power of singing for me, of singing such extraordinary and beautiful works. No one performance exists on its own, but as part of a continuum of music in my life. And as I sang at our community sing in November I realized that each time I sing it, I get to return to those distant musical points in my life as well. What a gift.