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Hyperion Records

CDA66333 - Britten: Saint Nicolas & Hymn to Saint Cecilia
The Story of St Nicolas (c1333) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (d1348)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Recording details: October 1988
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: February 1989
Total duration: 59 minutes 27 seconds

'A very fine recording' (Gramophone)

'A fresh and atmospheric account of Britten's colourful cantata' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

Saint Nicolas & Hymn to Saint Cecilia
Saint Nicolas, putative Bishop of Myra, is better known to us as Santa Claus. He flourished during the fourth century but is one of those medieval saints whose shadowy existence is more legend than fact. Though his cult was well established by the sixth century, it seems that we have Methodius’s fictitious ninth-century biography to thank for crediting him with his many miracles, and perhaps with most of his good deeds too.

Methodius, no doubt anxious to add perfume to the odour of his hero’s sanctity, was at pains to emphasize the incidence of the number three (the holy number) in Nicolas’s legend. By his gift of three bags of gold to three impoverished girls to save them from prostitution he became patron of unmarried girls, and also, coincidentally, of pawnbrokers, for this story is the origin of the three gold balls that are the pawnbrokers’ insignia. He is credited with saving three men from an unjust death; and the rescue of three drowning sailors off the coast of Turkey made him patron saint of sailors. But not the least of his holy works is the one which made Nicolas the protector of children and most beloved of saints—the restoration to life of three little boys pickled in brine by a vicious butcher in time of famine. In addition to these diverse patronages Nicolas is also the protector of merchants, perfumiers, and apothecaries.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries his cult was particularly strong in England. Anselm and Godric composed prayers to him, and Godric set his to music. Though the cult of saints went into decline following the Reformation, Nicolas’s survived and he became transmogrified by his association with Christmas and the giving of presents to deserving children into the universal Santa Claus.

Nicolas’s association with boys and merchants made him the perfect choice of subject when, in 1948, Lancing College celebrated its centenary and asked Benjamin Britten to write something specially for the occasion. Peter Pears, a one-time pupil of the College, probably had something to do with securing the commission. Eric Crozier, already associated with Britten as producer of The Rape of Lucretia and librettist of Albert Herring, furnished the text of what turned out to be the composer’s first important work for children’s voices. Crozier selected eight episodes from Nicolas’s story—his prodigious piety at birth, his call to the holy life, his saving of the sailors on his way to Palestine, his election to the bishopric of Myra, his imprisonment under Diocletian, his restoration to life of the three boys and other marvellous deeds, and finally his tranquil joy in the face of death. And Britten, no doubt aware of Nicolas’s kindness to unmarried girls, drew on the services of a girls’ choir (albeit modestly distanced) to augment the boys’ voices. At the first performance, which actually took place at the Aldeburgh Festival and not at Lancing, the Lancing boys were joined by choirs from Ardingly, St Michael’s and Hurstpierpoint Schools. The solo tenor part representing Nicolas was sung, naturally enough, by Pears. The instrumental accompaniment, designed to remain within the compass of what a school could provide and accomplished players comfortably manage, consists of piano duet, strings, percussion (not immediately used) and organ.

Peter Evans, in his book about the composer, has made a comprehensive analysis of Saint Nicolas, drawing our attention to the many ingenious devices by which Britten knits together what superficially appear to be simple, sometimes naive, ideas, making out of them a pièce d’occasion which E M Forster described as ‘one of those triumphs outside the rules of art’.

Is everything as faultless, though, as Forster’s tribute might suggest? The fugal section of the fifth movement could be thought over-extended and rather limp, and though the incorporation of a well-known hymn, ‘The Old Hundredth’ (‘All people that on earth do dwell’), has a distinguished pedigree going back to the cantatas of Bach and gives the audience something to get its teeth into, it comes with a bit of a jolt. On the credit side the storm music of the fourth movement, achieved by relatively simple means, is typical Britten and highly effective, and the choral setting of the Nunc dimittis in counterpoint to the tenor solo as Nicolas looks forward to meeting God is inspired. Here the music modulates with effortless ingenuity and might have seemed slick had it not been of such transparent loveliness. But the magic is disappointingly diffused by the appearance of a second ‘chorale’, the hymn ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. Despite the gloss Britten has put upon its mundane harmonies, this, coming as the climax to the work, seriously threatens the emotional climate created earlier.

In May 1939 Britten departed with Pears for America in the wake of their poet friend W H Auden. The professional association between Auden and Britten dated back to 1936 and the GPO Film Unit. It had been a fruitful one and was to remain so a little longer, but by 1942 the conservative musician had become alienated from Auden’s brand of bohemianism, and was beginning to find the poet’s penchant for verbal gymnastics (much in evidence in Paul Bunyan for example) no longer to his taste. Britten began to feel rootless and increasingly homesick. At last, spurred on by the chance discovery of E M Forster’s article on the poet Crabbe in the Spring of 1942, he and Pears decided to return home.

The departure from America coincided with Britten’s final severance from Auden’s influence, but just before he left he began work on a setting of Auden’s three poems ‘A Song to St Cecilia’. These were dedicated to him (Britten’s birthday fell on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November), but he found himself unable to complete the work. The voyage, however, proved therapeutic; his creative imagination began to work again and the Hymn to St Cecilia was finished, as the score proclaims, ‘at sea’. So was A Ceremony of Carols. In a sense these two works represent an end and a new beginning. The Auden setting signifies the end of the appeal of tricksy rhyming, and puts a final closure to the charges of false sophistication and glib facility that had sometimes been levelled at Britten’s early work. The medieval carols on the other hand signal the return to something fundamentally English, deep rooted, familiar, and conservative in the best sense.

The Hymn to St Cecilia is set for five-part unaccompanied chorus. The three poems, ‘In a garden shady’, ‘I cannot grow’, and ‘O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall’ are linked by the litany

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

At certain junctures in his final poem Auden, like Dryden before him, refers to specific instruments—violin, flute, drum and trumpet—but Britten, having no orchestra, studiously avoids any temptation to imitate, inserting instead short isolated solo cadenzas which serve the dual purpose of suggesting an instrumental source while, more importantly, directing the listener’s attention to some of Auden’s most powerfully emotive lines. A repeat of the ‘Blessed Cecilia’ quatrain brings this concentrated and imaginative work to a close.

Kenneth Dommett © 1988

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