Program Notes VI: SAINT NICOLAS
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
by Ken Meter, for the Oratorio Society of Minnesota
Nicolas—the man and the saint
The life of Saint Nicolas has been amplified so greatly by tradition that it is difficult to get a true sense of the man. Patron saint to children, sailors, bakers, brewers, brides, grooms, merchants, pawnbrokers, travelers, Russians, Greeks, and Sicilians, he has proven a popular icon. Canonized by common practice well before there was an official Roman Catholic procedure for recognizing sainthood, he is one of only a few saints who were sanctified for their long and dedicated lives rather than for martyrdom.
Nicolas grew up near Myra, the capital of Asia Minor (near modern-day Antalya in southern Turkey), in the 4th Century A.D. His parents died when he was quite young, leaving him a handsome inheritance, which he then donated to the poor. One story recalls that he purchased dowries for three young girls who were on the brink of being sold into prostitution. The three bags of gold he is said to have given them became the emblem of pawnshops everywhere—three golden spheres.
Eventually he served as Bishop of Myra. Known as a compassionate church leader, he nevertheless was rebuked at the Council of Nicea in 323, when he slapped the face of an Arian leader who had advocated that God the Father was superior in liturgical power to Christ the Son.
Nicolas was so revered that six centuries after his death, in 1087 his remains were stolen from Myra and relocated to Bari, Italy, and used as relics for a pilgrimage church. Later, Vikings established a cathedral in his name on Greenland. Christopher Columbus anointed a harbor in Haiti to Nicolas for his saint day in 1492.
His generosity to children made Nicolas the model of Christian gift-giving in several traditions—on his saint day (December 6), New Year’s Eve, and Christmas. Over time, Saint Nicolas the giver of gifts morphed into the rotund, jolly, more commercial image of Santa Claus.
Benjamin Britten and his librettist, Eric Crozier, selected a few key stories from the Nicolas tradition for this cantata. Foremost in their minds was the hope that children would learn about the life of the saint as they sang, or listened to, the performance. The piece not only engages a youth choir, but also invites the audience to join in singing two Anglican hymns that are woven into the work. It was premiered in 1948 at the first Aldeburgh Festival organized by Britten, with Peter Pears singing the tenor role of Saint Nicolas.
The cantata opens with an invocation to look beneath the trappings of church power to understand the “simple man within the saint.” The chorus pleads, “Strip off your glory, Nicolas, help us to find the hidden road that leads from love to greater Love, from faith to greater Faith.”
The “hidden road” is evoked as the cantata portrays a dramatic event later in his life, when Nicolas sailed to Palestine. It is said he felt the premonition of a furious storm and prayed for safety. The sailors ridiculed him, but finally fell on their knees as steep waves threatened their vessel. Only then was their ship released. Then, presenting a horrifying incident during a famine, the work depicts how Nicolas was invited to join a feast, but he refused because he recognized that the meat being served was children’s flesh. With his intervention, the boys magically were restored to life. In Britten’s setting, the boys erupt with peals of “Alleluia,” soon echoed by the choir.
A final refrain expresses the central theme of the composition: “We keep his memory alive in legends that our children, and their children’s children, treasure still.” Indeed, writing music for children was one of Britten’s central passions. He was well-known for his A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. His opera Turn of the Screw featured two young siblings who cope with an increasingly disoriented context.
This focus on children seems to reflect his own precocious youth. Britten began writing music at the age of seven. As he matured, he counted Ralph Vaughn Williams and Alban Berg among his major influences. In turn, Britten was revered by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Berg and Pãrt shared Britten’s love of unusual chromatics. In this cantata alone, Britten draws upon several modal keys, including Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian—each of which helps to evoke Asia Minor during the era when Nicolas lived.
Author’s note: Reprinting these program notes is permitted as long as the original author and the source are identified. The author welcomes hearing about how these notes may be used. Contact Ken Meter through the Crossroads Resource Center.
Ken Meter has sung baritone with the Oratorio Society of Minnesota since 1991 and is a member of its Chamber Choir. Previously he sang with the Macalester Festival Chorale and the Canto General chorus. He taught writing through the Minnesota State Arts Board and COMPAS, and taught journalism and economic history at the University of Minnesota. He holds a masters in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he also taught economics. He is president of Crossroads Resource Center, providing consulting services for inner-city and rural community capacity building and food system analysis.