Britten, Benjamin (1913-1976):  
Saint Nicolas  Opus 42

Undoubtedly one of the most engaging and approachable of Britten’s choral works, the cantata Saint Nicolas  was written to celebrate the centenary of Lancing College in Sussex in 1948.  Designed for school forces, it is nonetheless popular with professional and amateur choirs of all sizes and abilities. 

The cantata depicts the life of St Nicolas, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the late 3rd/early 4th centuries and recognised today not only as the patron of seafarers, travellers and children but also the prototype of Santa Claus (a corruption of his name).  Few facts are known about St Nicolas; but there are abundant legendary stories, reflecting his generous and compassionate character.  From these the opera director Eric Crozier developed the text which Britten set.

The work is divided into nine movements, chronicling the life of Nicolas from his birth and precocious childhood (“he climbed up to the font to be baptised”), through his ministry to his death.  Versions of two familiar hymns, “All people that on earth do dwell” and “God moves in a mysterious way” mark the ends of the fifth and the final movements.  Nicolas himself is represented throughout by the tenor soloist.  

Each movement is full of musical fascination; but highlights must certainly include the storm conjured up as Nicolas travels by sea to Palestine, the exhilarating fugue which follows his crowning as Bishop, and the tensely dramatic rendering of the story of the “pickled boys” whom Nicolas restores to life.  In the last movement, Nicolas’ final prayer to God flows above a  spine-tingling chant of the Nunc Dimittis.  The singers are accompanied by strings, piano, organ and a substantial range of percussion instruments.

This delightful work, the simplicity of which accurately mirrors the subject matter but was mistaken for naivety by some early critics, is now universally regarded as a minor masterpiece; and it will always richly repay a hearing.

Peter Harbord,  North Yorkshire Chorus
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