Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)

by Sue Klausmeyer, for the Chapel Hill Community Chorus

Concert poster
Benjamin Britten St Nicolas, Sussex Chorus, Lancing College Chapel, 2007
St Nicholas Center Collection

Benjamin Britten's St. Nicolas, a dramatic cantata in nine movements, was written in 1948 for the centenary of Lancing College in Sussex, the alma mater of Britten's close friend and frequent musical partner Peter Pears. The work is scored for mixed chorus, treble ensemble, tenor soloist, a few children, strings, piano duet, organ, and percussion. The text was prepared by Eric Crozier and is based on his extensive research into the life of Saint Nicolas, Bishop of Myra. The legend surrounding the life of Nicolas grew to mythic proportions and thus the music and text required a bold signature.

I. Introduction — Over a somber pulsing E from the orchestra, a solo violin explores a range of tonal directions. The chorus enters quietly calling to Nicolas, "Strip off your glory and speak to us." Nicolas appears in his bishop's robes and what follows is a flashback to the miraculous events that propelled Nicolas to sainthood.

II. The Birth of Nicolas — The women of the chorus, representing school children, recount scenes from his early life. A young boy, representing the child Nicolas, chants "God be glorified," at the end of each of six short tales. The climactic moment arrives when the women predict that Nicolas will be a saint and the adult Nicolas picks up the chant "God be glorified."

III. Nicolas Devotes Himself to God — A reflective solo from Nicolas, this scene tells of the death of his parents, his personal struggles, and his decision to denounce a life of wealth and privilege to care for the poor.

IV. He Journeys to Palestine — The men of the chorus, representing sailors, and Nicolas endure a stormy night aboard ship. Gambling and jeering on deck give way to prayers and cries for help as the waves crash into the ship. Nicolas calls to God for salvation from impending peril. As the skies clear, the sailors sleep and Nicolas gives thanks and weeps.

V. He Comes to Myra and Is Chosen Bishop — The full chorus proclaims Nicolas is Bishop of Myra. A small ensemble outlines the various ceremonial rites accompanying Nicolas' ordination as Bishop. The chorus sings, "Amen," seven times, confirming the ordination, and quickly moves into a fugal section that charges Nicolas to "serve the faith and spurn his enemies." At the conclusion of the fugue, the audience is requested to join the choir in singing the familiar Old Hundredth. "All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice."

VI. Nicolas From Prison — Like the apostle Paul, Nicolas spent time away from his congregation condemned to prison. Like the prophet Jonah speaking to the people of Ninevah, his message is one of repentance.

VII. Nicolas and the Pickled Boys — This odd scene begins with a troop of hungry, weary travelers marching through the snow to an inn. Fresh in their memory is the disappearance of three children on the journey. When they settle into the inn and gather for a meal, Nicolas, who is also resting at the inn, warns them not to eat. The food set before them is the flesh of the missing children. Through miraculous intervention, the children, now alive, enter the lodge singing "Alleluia" and all join their voices in praising God.

VIII. His Piety and Marvelous Works — The chorus recalls forty years of service from their bishop Nicolas. The ensemble voices share incidents of courage and selfless leadership. They pledge to keep alive the memory of the great servant of the faith.

IX. The Death of Nicolas — Following a discordant fanfare from the orchestra, Nicolas acknowledges the approach of death. The movement ends with the chorus singing the Nunc dimittis (Lord, let thy servant depart in peace) while Nicolas yields his soul to God.

Overview of Cantata with complete audio
Selected text
by Eric Crozier with audio files
Audio (only) from London
Program Notes I, II, III, IV, V, VI

By Sue Klausmeyer, Chapel Hill Community Chorus, permission pending.

Sue Klausmeyer, Chapel Hill Community Chorus conductor, has held positions with Duke University Chapel, Duke Divinity School, Binkley Baptist Church, Worthington Presbyterian Church, and University United Methodist Church. She holds degrees in music from Meredith College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Westminster Choir College in Princeton, and the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, where she earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts. She has pursued additional studies at the Oberlin College Baroque Performance Institute and at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam.

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