Britten – Men of Goodwill: Variations on a Christmas Carol

by Max Derrickson

Benjamin Britten     (Born: Lowestoft, England, November 22, 1913 (St. Cecilia’s Day); died: Aldeburgh, England, December 4, 1976)

Men of Goodwill: Variations on a Christmas Carol

Like Barber’s Die Natalie, Britten’s Christmas variations were also crafted with intelligence and charm.  Unlike Barber’s medley, however, Britten uses only one carol as his theme: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”  The origins of this wonderful Christmas standard come from England in the 1500’s – its popularity then made its way into Europe and the United States, thanks, in part, to Queen Victoria’s
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– the work seems to be filled with allusions to Britain’s rulers.

Of particular ingenuity is its momentous yet restless opening, easily evoking that most profound moment of Shakespeare’s play Henry V when the King delivers his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech – sweeping, regal, filled with the charge that History is Now and we are its actors.  Further along, Britten inventively molds the variations into something splendidly British in feel – he creates a sort of armchair tour of England’s unique geography and history.   For example, early on,
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“Greensleeves” (otherwise known as “What Child Is This”), reportedly written by England’s own King Henry VIII.

This is a piece of great, though subtle, magnificence, and yet, interestingly, the work ends with a conspicuously understated brass fugue.  Britten’s muted version of this traditional motif to herald the arrival of the King
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own “tidings of comfort and joy” to his People.