2013 sees the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and Hyperion starts celebrating early with this disc of two of the composer’s most popular choral works, both with a Christmas relevance.
The cantata Saint Nicolas tells the story of the original ‘Santa Claus’, a fourth-century saint whose acts—revitalizing three boys who had been pickled by an unscrupulous landlord being among the more dramatic—led to his canonization as patron saint of children and sailors. Britten’s lively setting is distinctly operatic, full of incident and colour—with the story brought ‘home’ through the use of congregational hymns. The part of Nicolas (here sung magnificently by Allan Clayton, already acclaimed as the heir to Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson) is one of Britten’s great heroic tenor roles.
A Ceremony of Carols is a setting for treble voices and harp of some of the medieval texts which Britten loved so much, and is heard every Christmas in cathedrals, churches and concert halls throughout the land. This fresh, sparkling performance completes a thoroughly festive release.
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As someone with a lifelong enthusiasm for word-games and musical puns, Britten might have appreciated the irony in a customs official’s decision to confiscate some of his manuscripts before he and Peter Pears sailed home from the United States in March 1942, after a transatlantic stay of nearly three years—even though the documents did not in fact contain any coded messages in musical notation. Once on the transatlantic voyage, Britten was compelled (with Mozartian facility) to write out from memory the music of the Hymn to St Cecilia on which he had been working before being deprived of the manuscript, though he did not attempt to complete the Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman of which the sketches had also been confiscated. Pears wrote to Elizabeth Mayer, their adoptive mother-figure in New York, on 19 April to report that Britten had finished reconstructing the Hymn (‘very lovely!’), and that while on the ship he had also written ‘7 Christmas carols for women’s voices & Harp! Very sweet and chockfull of charm!’. Britten had purchased a poetry anthology in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as he set out on the voyage, and this provided the source for most of the carols’ texts. When the two men arrived back in the United Kingdom, Britten’s freshly written manuscripts were also (temporarily) confiscated, this time by a British official.
Given Britten’s later fondness for boys’ voices, it comes as something of a surprise to note that A Ceremony of Carols was initially conceived for a female choir. By September 1942, Britten was referring to the carols in correspondence as being for ‘children’s voices’. But it was by a women’s choir that the first performance of the initial set of seven was given, on 5 December in the Library of Norwich Castle: the Fleet Street Choir, with Margaret Ritchie (soprano solo), was accompanied on this occasion by Gwendolen Mason (harp) and conducted by T B Lawrence. These same forces gave the set its first broadcast, on the BBC Home Service on 25 January 1943 (along with Hymn to St Cecilia). Later in the year, Britten conceived the idea of framing the piece with a ‘Procession’ and ‘Recession’ (a symmetrical dramatic device encountered in many of his later works), and based these passages on the Magnificat antiphon for the second Vespers of the Nativity, which Alec Robertson (an expert on Gregorian chant) had sent him. Britten added a pastiche plainsong ‘Alleluia’ to the authentic chant ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, and many years later, in the autumn of 1971, he transformed this additional idea into a short three-part canon in honour of Robertson’s eightieth birthday.
In the summer of 1943, Britten added a further carol to the set (‘That yongë child’), along with a new Interlude for solo harp, and his preference for boys’ voices was now strengthened by several memorable performances of the work in the run-up to Christmas. Britten wrote to Elizabeth Mayer on 8 December:
[the carols] have had a series of thrilling shows by a choir of little Welsh boys (from a school in the poorest part of Swansea) and a great Russian harpist, Maria Korchinska. This has meant many journeys to Wales to rehearse, & then they all (35!) came up to town & sang the piece many times, & to record it […] People seem to love the piece, & altho’ it has been only printed about a month, the 1st edition is just on sold out.
The ‘little Welsh boys’ came from the Morriston School (which is now a comprehensive), and they gave the revised version of the score its first performance on 4 December at Wigmore Hall in London, under Britten’s direction; the Russian harpist mentioned here had already worked with Britten at the GPO Film Unit when he was composing scores for documentaries prior to his American sojourn, and her playing features on the soundtrack to the celebrated film Night Mail (1936), with its well-known script by W H Auden. The Morriston Boys’ recording of A Ceremony of Carols was issued by Decca in 1944. In a letter to Mary Behrend written on 9 December 1943, Britten commented: ‘I think the little boys were enchanting—the occasional roughness was easily overweighed by their freshness & naivety—something very special.’ These were qualities that the composer was later to appreciate in the Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir and the trebles of Westminster Cathedral Choir, with whom he frequently collaborated in the 1960s, though he also enjoyed working with more polished groups such as the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir (with whom he recorded A Ceremony of Carols in 1953) and the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
A Ceremony of Carols was dedicated to Ursula Nettleship, a singing teacher and choral trainer who was later responsible for assembling the choir that took part in the first performance of Britten’s Saint Nicolas in 1948. (She had shared a house in Chelsea with Britten and Pears in the autumn of 1942, and helped secure them concert engagements through her work with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts.) The Saint Nicolas premiere was the climax of the very first concert of the inaugural Aldeburgh Festival, held in the local Parish Church on 5 June (and repeated a week later). Because the cantata had been commissioned by Lancing College in Sussex—where Pears had been a schoolboy in the 1920s—critics attending the Aldeburgh performances were requested not to write about the work until it had been given its first airing at Lancing, which Britten regarded as the ‘official’ premiere. The latter took place on 24 July 1948, when Britten conducted the combined choirs of Lancing, Ardingly and Hurstpierpoint Colleges and St Michael’s, Petworth, with the Southern Philharmonic Orchestra and Pears in the title role. Britten’s handsome commission fee of £1000 had been paid by Esther Neville-Smith, who was married to a member of the Lancing teaching staff, and with whom Britten and Pears often stayed when in the area, and the new work was intended to celebrate the College’s centenary. In addition to Nicolas’s role as the College’s patron saint, he is also the patron saint of children and mariners—two topics very close to Britten’s heart—so the composer’s enthusiasm for the project was inevitable.
Britten had asked Eric Crozier to collaborate with him on the cantata. Crozier had recently provided him with a substantial libretto for his comic opera Albert Herring, first performed at Glyndebourne in June 1947, but he found the task of originating a text for the new work more of an uphill struggle. In September 1947 Britten gave him Haydn’s Creation to serve as a useful model of the kind of piece he had in mind, and the Saint Nicolas text was completed in draft form in November (though rewriting was later required). Britten began composing the music before Christmas, writing to Pears on 18 December:
I am beginning St Nicolas, & enjoying it hugely. It’ll be difficult to write, because that mixture of subtlety & simplicity is most extending, but very interesting […] I think St Michael’s [choir] will have to be relegated to the galleries (where anyhow all girls should be in Church), because they are obviously the most efficient, & their breathy voices are obviously most suited to the wind noises & so forth.
The composition draft was finished on 8 January 1948, but Britten then put the music aside while he embarked on his realization of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera—first performed in Cambridge on 24 May—and it was not until 31 May that he was able to complete the cantata’s orchestration, less than a week before the first performance.
A review published in The Times following the Lancing premiere declared that Saint Nicolas ‘testified yet again to the composer’s genius for securing the most telling effects by the simplest of means’. Other critics found the work patchy, and rather too occasional in nature, with one venturing to suggest that ‘at some moments the naivety sounded assumed rather than spontaneous’. But the piece was an instant success with the public, and typified Britten’s unique ability to bring together amateur performers and even the audience (via the means of collective hymn-singing) into a coherent musico-dramatic experience with widespread popular appeal. Many further performances followed: on 6 December 1948 (St Nicolas’s Day), for example, it was conducted by Britten in Amsterdam with local Dutch forces, and was then revived at the second Aldeburgh Festival in 1949. In November that year it was heard in Los Angeles while Britten and Pears were on an extended concert tour of the United States. Stravinsky, then resident in LA and always a grudging commentator on Britten’s creative work, wrote to Nicolas Nabokov on 15 December: ‘All week here I’ve listened to Aunt Britten and Uncle Pears […] Britten himself makes quite a favourable impression, and he is very popular with the public. He undoubtedly has talent as a performer, especially at the piano.’
Crozier, who went on to publish a book entitled The Life and Legends of Saint Nicolas, Patron Saint of Children (London: Duckworth, 1949), described in his programme note to the early performances how Nicolas ‘spent most of his life in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the Christian community of Lycia, his native country’. Noting that it was virtually impossible to sift hard facts from the numerous legends and myths surrounding the saint, Crozier informed audiences that Britten’s cantata aimed to bring the scant evidence about his life ‘into imaginative harmony with the Saint whose life and miracles are revered in all Christian countries, and who has been identified in the West with the vague, homely figure of Santa Claus’:
No attempt is made to rationalize the miraculous qualities in the legends of the Saint. These are described by the chorus with the simple faith that has preserved them in the hearts of generations of believers, while Nicolas himself expresses the anguish of the struggle for faith that all good men must experience in a world corrupt with sin, despair and lack of grace.
Mervyn Cooke © 2012