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
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