A Boy was Born: Choral Variations Op.3

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)



Theme: A boy was born

Variation 1: Lullay Jesu

Variation 2: Herod

Variation 3: Jesu, as thou art our saviour

Variation 4: The three kings

Variation 5: In the bleak midwinter / Lully, lullay

Variation 6: Noël

Some composers, such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams, reach maturity only after years of dedicated struggle. Others - Mozart and Mendelssohn for example - produce superb music whilst still in their teens. Benjamin Britten unequivocally belongs in the latter category; he was prodigiously gifted and by the age of sixteen had produced a large body of accomplished works. His official Op.1, the Sinfonietta for small orchestra, marked the beginning of his professional composing career at the age of 18.

          Britten’s precocious genius is evident on every page of his Christmas cantata A Boy Was Born, Op.3. It was completed in 1933 whilst he was still only nineteen and a student at the Royal College of Music, and was dedicated to his father. The cantata is a remarkable tour-de-force of technical mastery and creative brilliance.  It is scored for eight-part unaccompanied choir and soprano solo, and comprises six variations of increasing complexity, all based on a simple four-note theme:

         This unassuming little motif is subjected to an astonishing variety of transformations, creating a rich source of melodic material on which to draw. Whilst this provides the principal basis for each variation, the harmony that underpins it also reappears at various points, most noticeably in the closing pages of the work.

          The theme is presented in the hymn-like opening movement, which leads without a break into the first variation, Lullay Jesu. This begins with a gentle rocking figure introduced by the sopranos and taken up in turn by the other voices as it threads its way through the whole variation. The men of the choir are featured prominently in the second variation, Herod, which forcefully portrays the slaughter of the innocents and Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt. Variation 3, Jesu, as thou art our saviour, is in complete contrast. A subdued semi-chorus chants the medieval text whilst a lyrical soprano solo soars above with the single word ‘Jesu’. In Variation 4, The three kings, Britten ingeniously employs a continuous, undulating rhythmic figure to suggest the kings approaching on their camels. A climax is reached as the Magi present their gifts, after which the music gradually recedes as they make their way home. Variation 5 combines Christina Rossetti’s memorable carol, In the bleak mid-winter, sung by the upper voices of the choir, with the medieval Corpus Christi Carol for the soprano soloist. The harsh mid-winter chill is brilliantly captured in the subtle dissonance generated by Britten’s descending vocal lines.

          The final variation, Noël - much the longest and most complex movement - sets a number of carols, linked together by repeated appearances of the Noël refrain. In the final pages the intricate vocal complexities give way to a simplified texture and a final jubilant reference to the original theme as the full choir declaims ‘Sing Hosanna!’, bringing the work to an exultant conclusion.

John Bawden

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