Members of the Choral Arts Society of Luzerne County rehearse.pete g. wilcox/the times leader
The journey from America to England lasted a month, German submarines were firing torpedoes through the Atlantic and suspicious customs officials had confiscated a musician’s manuscripts, believing they might contain a secret wartime code.• Under these less-than-hospitable conditions in the spring of 1942, composer Benjamin Britten wrote the peaceful passages and soothing lullaby of his “Ceremony of Carols,” providing even for the soft tinkling of a harp.
“What I always find amazing is the piece he writes in that situation is so beautiful and ethereal,” said John Curtis, who will direct the Choral Arts of Luzerne County chorus and harp soloist Frances Duffy through the music on Saturday. “How he managed to do it in the midst of danger is remarkable.”
Perhaps the volatile atmosphere of World War II did influence one movement in “Ceremony of Carols,” a section that describes how “this little babe, so few days old, has come to rifle Satan’s fold.
The lyrics continue: “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.”
“These are the weapons by which he (the Christ child) is going to defeat the perils of evil,” Curtis said. “It’s really striking imagery.
“It’s fast and intense and really almost violent,” the director explained. “It’s not something you usually associate with harp music. It really shows the whole range of the harp. More than just angelic glissandos, there are very different emotions.”
The Britten piece contains a Gregorian chant, a “Balulalow” lullaby and movements with language that might remind some audience members of high-school Chaucer studies – or Sunday School lessons.
“One of my favorite ideas about old English carols is, you don’t start out talking about Jesus birth. You go all the way back to Adam and start talking about original sin,” Curtis said. “American carols never seem to go all the way back.”.
Also on the program is Camille Saint-Saens’ “Christmas Oratorio.”
Originally intended to be performed on Christmas Eve, the lush piece contains solos and duets as well as passages for three, four and five singers. “It explores a lot of the sounds the human voice can make,” Curtis said.
What: Choral Arts of Luzerne County Christmas Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: First Presbyterian Church, 97 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre
Tickets: $15, $10