In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: We’re kicking off the season with holiday songs we’re not sick of yet.
On March 16, 1942, Benjamin Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, boarded the MS Axel Johnson, a Swedish cargo vessel bound for England from New York. They had come to America years earlier as close friends, but were returning as a couple. The journey back home would be long and unpredictable, and Britten, the finest British composer of his generation, passed the time writing music. The summer before, while visiting California, he had stepped into a used bookstore and found The Borough, a book of poems by George Crabbe that made Britten deeply homesick for his native Suffolk, inspiring his return and, later, his opera Peter Grimes, one of the greatest written in the English language. Now, ashore while the MS Axel Johnson stopped in Nova Scotia, Britten walked into a bookstore in Halifax and discovered a collection called The English Galaxy Of Shorter Poems. In the weeks that followed, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and the middle of World War II, in the cramped and noisy quarters of a ship whose neutral flag was the only thing keeping the U-boats at bay, Britten wrote Christmas carols.
“Balulalow” was one of those, a carol based on a 16th-century text from Scotland, arranged for harp and boys’ choir, as were the other movements of what would ultimately be called A Ceremony Of Carols. Britten wrote so much lovely music for boys’ choirs that it’s hard to pick favorites, but this lullaby—in which faith takes the form of a sleeping infant Jesus to be watched and rocked—stands out as a testament to his gift for graceful simplicity. (Of course, Britten’s knack for writing for young performers and audiences had a lot to do with his many close friendships with adolescent boys; this writer recommends John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children on the subject.) Spare and haunting, “Balulalow” begins with a slightly sinister, icicle-like harp line and a lonely treble voice, before the full choir comes in like a swell of falling snow. Christmas music is some of the most over-played in Western culture, turning winter into a season of tedium and repetition. And yet, even on the umpteenth listen, “Balulalow” never loses that quality that most Christmas music sorely lacks: a sense of mystery. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a walk out in the cold.