Benjamin Britten’s SAINT NICOLAS
for St. Mark’s Players, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
February 21, 1987
A dramatic cantata in Nine Scenes depicting the life of Saint Nicolas, his faith, his miracles and his enduring legacy. Listen to audio files for the complete cantata from Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Cantata, Saint Nicolas, written in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, presents legendary incidents in the life of Nicolas, patron saint of children, seamen, and travelers. The part of Nicolas is sung by the solo tenor, while the choir, transforming themselves into various contrasting characters during the drama, relate the adventures with the conviction of eye-witnesses and tie the story together with their payers and praise.
The chorus, as contemporary people gazing back over the centuries, asks Nicolas to “strip off your glory …” and speak to them. The Saint responds across the span of sixteen hundred years saying that the seeds of faith survive “in you” and to preserve the living faith won by those who died “that you might worship God.” In response, the choir asks God for strength to serve with simplicity.
II. The Birth of Nicolas
The sopranos and altos, representing school children, sing of the birth and childhood of Nicolas, even describing his enthusiasm in his bath or at his baptism. At the end of each verse, the boy Nicolas sings, “God be Glorified.” The excitement builds to the dramatic moment when the voice of the boy Nicolas is transformed into the full power and confidence of the adult Nicolas’ call: “God be Glorified.”
III. Nicolas Devotes Himself to God
At the beginning, Nicolas relates his feelings as he views the “wider world of man,” living in poverty, doomed to die “in everlasting fear of everlasting death.” Nicolas sells his lands to feed the poor, but is still heart-sick and angry. He asks God to “purge my angry soul” and prays for sweet humility. The discords of the music come to rest indicating that the prayer of Nicolas is answered.
IV. He Journeys to Palestine
The men of the choir relate a sea voyage. On the journey, the sailors jeer at Nicolas who predicts a storm ahead. Darkness falls and, as the crew settles down to sleep, the wind arises and the waves begin to pour over the deck. The sailors try to launch the lifeboats and shorten sail, but finally break into cries of help. Schoolgirls sing of the lightning hissing through the night and of the angry roar of the wind and waves. At the height of the storm, the sailors kneel and pray. Nicolas joins the sailors and begs God to make the storm to cease. The thunder dies down, and wind loses its violence, and the waves lay down to rest. As the ship sails on, the stars appear in the calm sky and Nicolas kneels down in thankfulness.
V. He Comes to Myra and is Chosen Bishop
The full choir proclaims Nicolas Bishop of Myra. A small ensemble follows each action of the ceremonial acceptance of the mitre, the golden robe, the dalmatic, and the crozier. Following the setting of the ring on Nicolas’ hand, the “Amen’s” quicken to an energetic fugue: “Serve the Faith and spurn his enemies.” At the conclusion of the fugue, there is a pause for the twentieth century congregation to “join the choir in singing the familiar hymn, ‘All people that on earth to dwell… .’”
VI. Nicolas From Prison
Nicolas tells of the persecution of the church for eight years by the Romans and relates having to celebrate communion with prison bread. Then he angrily admonishes those who “embrace the lash of sin” and “build your temples fair without and foul within… .” Nicolas calls them to turn away from sin and “bow down your hard and stubborn hearts.”
VII. Nicolas and the Pickled Boys
The choir sings of approaching travelers struggling along a wintry road seeking food in the city. Three women call for their missing boys, “Timothy, Mark, and John are gone.” Upon reaching the inn, the travelers order a meal and invite Nicolas to join them. But Nicolas suddenly warns them not to touch the meat, for it is the flesh of the missing boys who have been killed by the butcher and pickled in salt. Before the eyes of the travelers, Nicolas calls the three boys back to life. They enter hand-in-hand, singing, “Alleluia.” The choir joins them in praising God for the miracle.
VIII. His Piety and Marvelous Works
After being Bishop for forty years, the choir thanks Nicolas for being “our shepherd and our gentle guide… .” They recall his courage, kindness, and of being “a spend-thrift in devotion.” On many occasions, he saved them from prison, from famine, from shame of sin, from death, from shipwreck, and from oppression of being ruled by unjust men. The choir asks to keep the memory of Nicolas alive through his legends.
IX. The Death of Nicolas
Nicolas hears the summons of death and eagerly looks forward to “Him who waits for me above.” During his final prayer, the choir sings the Nunc dimitis (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace) with the voices growing in strength towards the final Amen. The sound of the organ quietly announces the beginning of the final hymn and the cantata concludes with the congregation joining the choir and singing: “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”
Stephen Johnson, for BBC Radio, explores Britten’s first major work for children’s chorus with both amateur and professional performers, revealing Britten’s passion to make music accessible and meaningful for everyone. 22 minutes.
Benjamin Britten: A Biography
Audio files from SAINT NICOLAS: A Cantata, op 42
Music by Benjamin Britten, Text by Eric Crozier
Joseph Frank, Nicolas the man; William Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Nicolas the boy; Brian-Paul Thomas, organist; Andrew DuBois, Adam Stockton, Bruce White, as the pickled boys; the Christ Church Cathedral of Men and Boys, the Cathedral Girls’ Choir, the Indianapolis Festival Orchestra; Frederick Burgomaster, Conductor. Copyright © 1987 Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis. Used by permission. Purchase from Christ Church Cathedral Choir CDs
Overview text from St. Mark’s Players Production Archive
© 2001 St. Mark’s Players, 118 Third Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 118 3rd Street, SE (Just behind the Library of Congress), Washington, DC 20003