BRITTEN: St. Nicolas / Christ's Nativity / Psalm 150

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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

St Nicolas Christ's Nativity Psalm 150

In 1947, Benjamin Britten received a commission from PeterPears' old school Lancing College for a work to celebrate its centenary thefollowing year. A cantata based on the legend of Saint Nicolas was proposed andEric Crozier, who had worked with Britten on the opera Albert Herring andprovided the speaker's commentary for The Young Person's Guide to theOrchestra, was engaged to undertake the libretto. Britten completed thecomposition sketch of the work in just three weeks, perhaps spurred on by the challengeand excitement of writing his first large-scale work for amateur performers.The first performance was given on the opening day of the first AldeburghFestival in June 1948 with the 'official' premi?¿re given at Lancing College thefollowing month, with the composer conducting on both occasions.

The vocal and orchestral forces required for Saint Nicolaswere conditioned by the occasion for which it was intended: solo tenor,four-part chorus, a separate girls chorus, piano duet, organ, percussion andstrings. In addition, the congregation is required to participate in twowell-known hymn settings, each of which rounds off the two halves of thecantata. Of these performers, the solo tenor, who takes the part of Nicolashimself, the first percussionist and the leaders of each of the five stringsections need to be professionals. Otherwise, Britten tailors his music to takeaccount of the limitations of less-experienced performers, but, in common withhis later works for children such as The Little Sweep and Noye's Fludde,without any sense of compromise or writing down.

Very little is known of the personal history of the actualNicolas, the fourth-century Bishop of Myra. Crozier's text is based on thevarious legends surrounding him, using a series of episodes from his life tobuild up a rounded and sympathetic portrait of the saint. In the Introduction,the chorus implores Nicolas to 'Strip off your glory...and speak!'. His spiritappears to stand in worship with them, as with his 'faithful congregation longago'. In the second movement, the chorus tells of The Birth of Nicolas in alively Allegretto accompanied by strings and piano with imaginativecontributions from the percussion, including one of Britten's favouriteinstruments, the whip. At the end of each stanza, the organ, otherwise silentin the movement, accompanies the simple chant of 'God be glorified', at firstsung by a treble voice but finally, as Nicolas reaches adulthood, by the solotenor. In the third movement, accompanied by strings alone, Nicolas relateshow, after the death of his parents, he devoted himself to God by renouncingall material wealth and worldly pleasures. In He journeys to Palestine, theship's sailors mock Nicolas for prophesying a storm ahead when the sky isclear; the ship's onward voyage, the outbreak of the tempest and Nicolas'prayer for the turbulence to cease are vividly portrayed. In the fifthmovement, Nicolas is chosen as Bishop of Myra: he promises to serve his dioceseand comfort the widowed and fatherless. A fugal episode, 'Serve the faith',leads into the celebratory hymn All people that on earth do dwell in whicheveryone joins. In the following movement, Nicolas describes how he wasimprisoned during the persecution of the Christian church by the Romans. Hedeplores man's folly at denying God in an agitated contrapuntal texture whichis magically exchanged for a radiant D major at the words 'Yet Christ isyours'. The seventh movement tells how in time of famine, three young boys havebeen killed, pickled and sold to the hungry. Their mothers mourn their loss,but Nicolas restores the boys to life. The miracle is then celebrated in ageneral 'Alleluia'. In His piety and Marvellous works, the chorus sings of howNicolas served his people for forty years, saved them from sin and broughtrelief to the poor and needy. In the final movement, Nicolas sings movingly ofhis coming death and his impending encounter with God while underneath, thechoir simultaneously intone the Nunc dimittis. The work then ends with a finesetting of God moves in a mysterious way in which, as with the earlier hymn,the full forces come together.

Christ's Nativity, originally called Thy King's Birthday,was written in 1931 during Britten's second term as a student at the RoyalCollege of Music. The work remained unperformed and unpublished during hislifetime save for two numbers, New Prince, New Pomp, which Britten revived atthe 1955 Aldeburgh Festival, and Sweet was the Song, which was heard during the1966 Festival and published as an independent item the same year. The firstperformance of the complete suite was given at the 1991 Festival by the BBCSingers and subsequently published in 1994. Britten appears to have beeninspired to write the work by receiving a volume of Christmas Carols as apresent from his sister Barbara in 1930. The work is a clear forerunner of thelarge-scale work for unaccompanied chorus that Britten composed a year later, ABoy Was Born, while the idea of a sequence of texts bound together by a commonliterary theme (in this case, the Christmas story) was to become acharacteristic unifying device in several later vocal works, for example theSerenade for tenor, horn and strings, the Spring Symphony and Nocturne.

Psalm 150 was written in 1962 for another centenary, thistime that of the composer's own preparatory school, South Lodge, in Lowestoft,re-named by then Old Buckenham Hall School. Britten had been a day-boy at SouthLodge from 1923 until, in September 1928, he entered Gresham's School, Holt,where he stayed for two years, before entering the Royal College in 1930. Thework is written in such a way as to allow an accompaniment of whatever trebleand bass instruments might be available, with percussion and keyboard. Theformal plan is straightforward, a sturdy C major march surrounding acontrasting F major 'trio' section in 7/8 time, but within this simpleframework, Britten is able to provide his young performers with a polished andinfectious score that, with the loud shout on the word 'cymbals' and anapparently endless four-part canon, gives everyone, whatever their level ofskill, something to do.

Lloyd Moore

Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten and Lancing College

Benjamin Britten's friend and collaborator, the tenor PeterPears, had continued his connection with his old school, Lancing, where he hadenjoyed a happy adolescence. He and Britten were frequent visitors to Lancing,staying with their friend Esther Neville-Smith, the wife of the senior Englishmaster. She had always encouraged Pears and listened sympathetically to him, asa schoolboy and in his later career. In 1939 Britten and Pears had moved toAmerica, following the example of W.H.Auden. England had seemed to offerlimited opportunities in musical terms and in the morally restrictiveatmosphere of the time, and they had considered this step for some time. InApril 1942 they arrived back in England once more, driven by a nostalgia thathad been further aroused by Britten's reading of George Crabbe and his plansfor the opera Peter Grimes. Both were able to register as conscientiousobjectors, continuing their careers in recitals that did much to raise themorale of audiences, while Pears was able to establish himself in opera,insofar as circumstances of the time allowed. Characteristic of theiractivities was a visit in 1943 to the Neville-Smiths at Richard's Castle, nearLudlow, where Lancing had been evacuated to a number of nearby country houses.Here they introduced an audience of a handful of boys, in the drawing-room ofone of the houses, to Britten's new Michelangelo Sonnets, and to
Disc: 1
Psalm 150, Op. 67
1 Introduction
2 The Birth of Nicolas
3 Nicolas devotes himself to God
4 He journeys to Palestine
5 He comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop
6 Nicolas from Prison
7 Nicolas and the Pickled Boys
8 His Piety and Marvellous Works
9 The Death of Nicolas
10 Christ's Nativity
11 Sweet was the Song
12 Preparations
13 New Prince, New Pomp
14 Carol of King Cnut
15 Psalm 150, Op. 67
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