Program Notes I: SAINT NICOLAS
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
By Robert Scandrett
For the general public, Britten (1913–1976) is best known as a composer of operas, and operas with often disturbing libretti. Such masterworks as Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw, and most tellingly, his last opera, Death in Venice, deal with the darker side of human nature. Yet the testimony of his friends was that a part of him never grew up, and he always looked back with longing at the joys of childhood. One of his favorite recreations after a day of composing was to play children’s games in the evening. Saint Nicolas is only one of twelve opus numbers that either involve children as participants, or are composed for their enjoyment.
St. Nicolas, whose feast day is celebrated December 6, is the patron saint of sailors, scholars, and children, and is also the patron saint of Russia, Greece, Sicily, and Lorraine. Most information about his actual life is based on oral tradition, but historians agree that he was born to a wealthy family in Patara in Lycia near the end of the third century. He was reported to have worked miracles even as a child, fasting and giving away his wealth to the poor. Nicholas became a model pastor, noted for his charity, and was appointed Bishop of Myra in the early fourth century.
Saint Nicolas was written for performance at the Centenary Celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex… . Inasmuch as St. Nicolas was the patron saint of children (and co-patron of Lancing College), one of the commissioners suggested “a hymn to Saint Nicolas.” Basil Handford, a master at Lancing, writes:
“Tell me about Saint Nicolas,” said Ben. So I told him the legends. Almost immediately he saw it as a series of episodes. “It will have to be a cantata, I think.”
Eric Crozier [who had also written many of Britten’s opera libretti] was engaged to write the text, and Britten gave him Haydn’s Creation as a model. The composition sketch was written in three weeks, and Britten said he “was enjoying it hugely.” This was his first major work intended for performance by amateurs, and he relished the challenge of making a profound statement with simplicity of means. Britten writes:
I want to write for people… . There is something very fresh and unrestrained in the quality of the music produced by amateurs. What annoys me more is the ineptitude of some professionals who don’t know their stuff I have no patience with that.
It is this quality of youthful playfulness contrasted with a profound seriousness that makes Saint Nicolas a unique work. The seriousness is primarily allotted to the tenor soloist, and Nicolas’ fervor, humanity, and vision are passionately portrayed in this central character. He grieves for the corruption of man (“0 man! … You hug the rack of self, embrace the lash of sin,”), and accepts his death with hope (“Lord, I come to life, to final birth,”) the legends spring from his ardent pastoring (“0! he was the prodigal of love! a spendthrift in devotion to us all”). Britten achieves operatic clarity of characterization in these few arias, which were tailored to the dramatic gifts of Peter Pears. This Nicolas is not a plaster saint or Christmas ornament, but a vibrant, vulnerable human being, whose life and works earned him the honors he received.
Britten had great fun with the choruses. Nicolas’ life story begins with a waltz, which includes a bath scene with the orchestral equivalent of water running out of the tub. Pianos and percussion provide marvelous waves in the storm scene. High voices strike lightning, and choir men are the ship’s terrified crew.
A new and important element in Saint Nicolas was the inclusion of the congregation in the musical action. These hymn tunes were familiar to a generation educated in English public schools, where chapel and hymn singing were daily events. It drew them back to their own childhood, at the same time demanded a level of participation beyond passive listening. This remarkable layering of musical elements … provides no small part of the pleasure we have in listening to this work. And the humility of a great composer writing serious music within the capabilities of ordinary people explains the continuing favor this music finds half a century after its composition.
Robert Scandrett is music director at University Congregational Church in Seattle. He is retired from Western Washington University, where he was professor of music from 1967–1990. Dr. Scandrett was director of the Seattle Symphony Chorale from 1976 to 1989, founded and directed the New Whatcom Choral Society (Bellingham) for 12 years, was Minister of Music at University Presbyterian Church from 1957–67 and has been associated with the German publishing house Carus Verlag as editor and consultant since 1985. He graduated from the University of Washington with a Ph.D. in musicology. He was editor in chief for Carus Verlag of the collected sacred choral works of Domenico Scarlatti, contributing performing editions of Stabat Mater, Magnificat, and Missa brevis. Used by permission.