Wunderlicher kind

I sang Britten’s Ceremony of Carols today.  It’s a fabulous piece of music.  I did not perform my best, but circumstances were difficult.  See yesterday’s rant for details, but better than that, check out this brilliant thing it made me think of…

I wrote a paper earlier this semester on the fourth verse of Bach’s cantata #4, Christ lag in Todesbanden.  And I noticed a parallel between that verse, “Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg,” and Britten’s “This Little Babe.”

First, there’s the text similarities: both are about battle.  Bach:

It was a strange battle,
that death and life waged,
life claimed the victory,
it devoured death.
The scripture had prophesied this,
how one death gobbled up the other,
a mockery has been made out of death.
Hallelujah! (thanks, Emmanuel Music!)

And Britten:

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 unarmed 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 be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy. (Thanks, California Boys Choir!)

Battle, you see?  The Bach is about life over death, but it comes in the narrative of the Easter Cantata when the harrowing of Hell occurs in the Easter story.  The Britten is about the baby–Christmas Jesus rather than Easter Jesus–and it also presents this victory of life over death, of love over hate, joy over grief.

The music has some parallels, too.  Both verses come in the middle of their respective larger works.  The Bach is four of seven, the Britten is seven of twelve (slightly past the middle numerically, but pretty damn close in terms of time, since the earlier movements are shorter than the later ones).  The Bach is in E minor, the Britten is in E-flat minor–taking Baroque tuning in account, that’s just about the same pitch.  Okay, that one’s kind of a stretch, but both use closely-packed imitation to obscure meter and provide a sense of insecurity as well as an aural depiction of battle.  Both are scored for voices with minimal accompaniment: percussive harp for the Britten, only continuo for the Bach.


The Bach is a Lutheran chorale text.  It has quite graphic language–“devoured” is the translation of frass, which is only used to describe how animals eat.  The tune is the chorale tune, familiar as the path from your bed to the bathroom, though Bach shifts it over to the wrong beats to keep us off-kilter as we listen.  The final Hallelujah (there’s one at the end of every verse, and Bach makes them all very different!) spins and sinks, exhausted.  There is a kind of resolution at the end.  There’s the peace, the victory of salvation over damnation, but not for free.  There was a cost, it took a toll on the singers, whose vocal lines practically collapse in exhaustion at the end.

The text of the Britten presents obvious comparisons, like “his naked breast stands for a shield.”  It sets up this dichotomy between the accoutrements of battle and the bald weakness of an infant savior.  It’s brilliant.  Peace as a weapon.   His arrows looks of weeping eyes.  Victory through love.  But there is not much of that in the music.  It’s all aggressive and persistent until the last line, “If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.”  Suddenly unison with off-beat thumps in the harp, Britten oscillates between major and minor, finally deciding on major–a happy ending!  Not just happy, though, ecstatic.  So empassioned that he gives the singers a break afterwards, letting the harp play a three-minute interlude.

War was very different for these two composers.  Christianity meant different things to them.  But their music gets it.  Peace as a weapon, salvation as victory, and how much it costs.

You want to listen to them now?  Me, too.  I recommend the John Elliot Gardiner recording of the Bach.  It’s brutal and fabulous.  And I recommend The Sixteen singing the Britten.  Crystal clear.

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