This weekend no fewer than six Boston-area ensembles will have performed Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” — A Cappella Singers, Boston University Chamber Chorus, choirs of Trinity Church, Cantilena, Halalisa Singers, and Pilgrim Festival Chorus. New England Conservatory’s Chamber Chorus, Opera Brittenica, Boston Children’s Chorus, and choir of St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge are also performing the piece in coming weeks.
This collision of holiday entertainment demands and Britten’s centenary is, nonetheless, an appropriate American tribute. “A Ceremony of Carols” was (just barely) the last work of Britten’s three-year US residence, which lasted from 1939 until 1942, when a homesick Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, boarded the freighter Axel Johnson for the hazardous return to England, during which Britten (1913-76) composed his treble-voices-and-harp “Ceremony.”.
Britten picked carols from a poetry anthology he bought in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his ship waited for the rest of its convoy to assemble. But three of the lyrics — “Wolcum Yole,” “As dew in Aprille” and “Deo Gratias” — originate in a 14th-century manuscript now known as Sloane 2593, a compendium of early carols. Alongside other verse (“A collection of old English poems,” one early catalog summarizes it, “some pious, some the contrary”), Sloane 2593 preserves an extensive collection of medieval Christmas carols, the sole source of some of the most well-known, including Britten’s latter two choices (better-known by the titles “I syng of a mayden” and “Adam lay ybounden”).
The manuscript was part of the vast collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), which became a foundation of the British Museum. Sloane was a prominent physician (George II was a patient). His collecting — primarily of natural history specimens — started with a 1680s journey to the West Indies and Jamaica, the basis of Sloane’s two-volume “Natural History of Jamaica,” surveying Caribbean flora and fauna as well as the characteristics and customs of natives, colonists, and slaves. The trip also yielded lucrative connections to the trade in sugar and cinchona bark, marriage to the widow of the owner of one of Jamaica’s largest plantations, and an acquaintance with the medicinal benefits of the cocoa bean, which Sloane promoted so successfully in England that milk-based hot chocolate became widely, if mistakenly, regarded as his invention.
The resulting wealth enabled Sloane’s prodigious accrual of curiosities; the carols Britten set en route to England could claim, as part of their provenance, Sloane’s own trans-Atlantic crossing.
Performances of “A Ceremony of Carols”: Choirs of Trinity Church, Dec. 8, 3 p.m., Trinity Church ($10-$50; www.trinityinspires.org/musicforall); Cantilena, Dec. 8, 4 p.m., First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Arlington Center ($18 advance, $20 door; www.cantilena.org); Halalisa Singers, Dec. 8, 3 p.m., First Parish, Sudbury ($18; www.halalisa.org); Pilgrim Festival Chorus, Dec. 8, 4 p.m., Church of the Pilgrimage, Plymouth ($20; www.pilgrimfestivalchorus.org). A Cappella Singers and Boston University Chamber Chorus had performances Dec. 7.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.