Program Notes V: SAINT NICOLAS
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
by Brian Law, for the Ottawa Choral Society
Saint Nicolas is scored for tenor solo, main chorus, a gallery chorus of children’s voices, piano duet, organ, strings and percussion. The work was composed for the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, in 1948. St. Nicolas was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Most of what is known about him is conjecture based on legends. One of the world’s most popular saints, he is the original Father Christmas, the patron saint of sailors and children, of countries and cities, and also of pawnbrokers!
As the cantata begins, imagine yourself in a candlelit cathedral on December 6, where a priest is celebrating mass in honour of St. Nicolas’ Feastday. Out of the darkness a blinding vision of the saint appears, in full episcopal regalia. The awed congregation beg the vision to speak, to show the real Nicolas—the man within the saint. There is a rush of wind and a flickering of candles, and Nicolas addresses them. He reminisces and exhorts the congregation to preserve the living faith for which their fathers fought and died. The congregation prays for the strength to heed Nicolas’ words as the vision slowly fades back into the darkness.
As the story of his life begins, Nicolas is being born to an enchantingly happy waltz tune! The legends of his birth and youth are naively recounted, each to a charmingly varied accompaniment. At the end of each verse the tiny saint-to-be sings “God be Glorified!” At the conclusion (a splendid moment, this) the young boy is transformed into the adult saint as the tenor sings the culminating “God be Glorified!”
In the following recitative and aria the young man Nicolas, upon the death of his parents, discovers the miseries of his fellow-men. In the aria—andante molto lento—the dark accompaniment with its pulling semitones depicts Nicolas’ distress at this inability to find inner peace. It is only when he prays for humility that he is answered: the strings quieten as their semitones float upward and the discords come to rest in a tranquil pianissimo cadence.
Nicolas’ sea journey to Palestine is now recounted in a swinging 12/8 melody which evokes the rolling of the ship and the slapping of waves against the hull. Nicolas prophesies a storm ahead but is scorned by the crew. The wind and waves mount, the thunder roars and the full fury of the storm hits the ship. The sailors are panic-stricken, the distant gallery chorus echoes the wailing of the wind and the sailors cry to God for mercy. In answer to Nicolas’ call the storm slowly abates. In the stillness Nicolas offers a penitential prayer: “O God, pity our simplicity, for we are truly pitiable in Thy sight!” The ship sails on over calm, moonlit waters: the melody is transformed into the major key as Nicolas, realizing God’s abiding presence, gently weeps.
Now we are at Nicolas’ enthronement as Bishop of Myra; in an energetic fugue the choir exhorts the bishop to “serve the Faith and spurn His enemies.” At the climax the fugue breaks off, and the twenty-first-century audience/congregation join in the singing of the great hymn All People that on Earth do Dwell.
In the next episode, the land is smitten with famine, and hunger-marchers are on the roads moving toward the city. Voices mourn the disappearance of three little boys. Rich travelers at an inn order a meal and invite Bishop Nicolas to join them. With prophetic awareness Nicolas perceives that the meat about to be served is the flesh of the three lost boys. (They had been killed and pickled in salt!) Before the astonished onlookers he brings them back to life.
The congregation then recall Nicolas’ forty years as their pastor. They recount the various events/legends of his episcopacy.
Finally, St. Nicolas hears the summons of death. During his last prayer—an ecstatic cry of joy, for now he will see God!—the choir murmurs the Nunc Dimittis. As Nicolas grows weaker the chorus swells triumphantly to the Gloria Patri and Amen. When the echoes of the immense orchestral chord have died, the distant organ can be heard announcing a hymn, and the cantata ends with everyone singing God Moves in a Mysterious Way.
Copyright © Brian Law, Ottawa Choral Society, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Permission pending.
Born and educated in London, Brian Law immigrated to Canada in 1965. During his twenty-five years in the National Capital Region, he was the Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master of Festival Ottawa and L’Opéra de Montréal. In 1991 he became Director of the Christchurch City Choir in Christchurch, New Zealand.