In 1976 Pärt responded to the death of Benjamin Britten (whom he never met) with the composition of one of his most powerful—and disarmingly simple—works, the Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and tubular bell. Twenty-two years later, he was able to come close to Britten again through a commission from Lancing College to mark their 150th anniversary. Not only was Britten’s partner Peter Pears an alumnus of this Sussex school; Britten had also written the Christmas cantata St Nicolas for the 100th anniversary, back in 1948. St Nicolas is a patron saint of Lancing, and so Pärt sought a further connection for his commission. He selected three Odes from the Orthodox Prayer Book—one to ‘Jesus the Son of God’, one to the ‘Most Holy Birth-giver of God’, and the last to the ‘Holy Saint Nicholas’ (Britten’s titular Saint lacks the ‘h’).
Each Ode is characteristically solemn, each is statically homophonic, and each builds to a climax prior to the mantra-like repetition of the final entreaty. All is stripped bare at this point: harmonic movement halts, silence becomes as important as sound, and centuries of mysticism are rolled back as Pärt communes with an ancient Orthodox past.
from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2003