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Hyperion Records

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The Story of St Nicolas (c1333) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (d1348)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Track(s) taken from CDH55378
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: 49 minutes 31 seconds

'A very fine recording' (Gramophone)

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

Saint Nicolas, Op 42
1948; cantata for solo tenor, chorus, piano duet, organ, strings & percussion; commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Lancing College; first performed at Aldeburgh Festival by Peter Pears and choirs of Lancing, Ardingly, Hurstpierpoint & St Michael's
author of text

Other recordings available for download
Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

from notes by Kenneth Dommett © 1988

Other albums featuring this work
'Britten: A Ceremony of Carols & St Nicolas' (CDA67946)
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols & St Nicolas

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