Last night I was trying to describe today’s song to my brother-in-law:
“So it comes tearing out of the gate right from the beginning, and the three parts sing in canon and keep getting closer and closer together. At one point it starts all three voice parts only one beat apart so they’re singing right on top of each other, and it’s like this militant yet unarmed depiction of the baby Jesus in a minor key but in treble voices accompanied by this racing harp. It’s totally trippy.”
Yeah. And completely awesome. It’s from the Ceremony of Carols composed in 1942 by Benjamin Britten, a 20th-century British composer.
You have to check out the lyrics though. They’re from a 1595 work by Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest who hung out in England even while popular opinion was staunchly anti-Catholic. Eventually Southwell was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his Catholicism. I love the concept of the Christchild the lyrics present. For example: “All hell doth at His presence quake,/ Though He Himself for cold do shake;/ For in this weak unarmèd wise/ The gates of hell He will surprise.”
I’ve pasted the lyrics below. I really wanted to find a performance of Brits singing it, but it seemed more important that you actually see it being sung, and so you get a sparkling French children’s choir with fun accents instead.
Hope you love This Little Babe from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.
This little babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd 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 pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, hay-stalks 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 be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.