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Two Benjamin Britten classics in performances which must be as close to the composer's intentions as any.
The cantata Saint Nicolas was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Lancing College, where Peter Pears had been at school: his school days were more conventional than Britten’s, and much happier. Lancing was the first of a series of schools founded by Nathaniel Woodard, a high-church Anglican clergyman who had become increasingly preoccupied with the education of the children of the middle classes while a curate in Shoreham-on-Sea, in Sussex. In August 1848 he opened Shoreham Grammar School and Collegiate Institution, which soon became St Nicolas’ Grammar School, taking its name from Old Shoreham Church. The grammar school merged with a day-school that Woodard had previously founded, St Mary’s, and moved to its present site in Lancing in 1857. Two other boys’ schools founded by Woodard in Shoreham, St John’s and St Saviour’s, moved out to become Hurstpierpoint and Ardingly, and the choirs of these schools, along with that of another Woodard foundation, St Michael’s Girls’ School in Bognor, joined the Lancing choir in the official premiere on 24 July 1948. This was not the first performance, as Britten had conducted it in Aldeburgh Church on 5 June, in the opening concert of the first Aldeburgh Festival, with largely adult forces.
The work is scored for tenor solo, main chorus, gallery choir, piano duet, organ, strings and percussion. Britten provides a note in the score with advice to the conductor which reveals something of his approach to the work—an approach he took to other works for community performance. ‘It is suitable for performance by any numerically big chorus, even if the singers are not very experienced. The choir in the gallery should have a separate conductor. The string parts are not very sophisticated and can be played by amateur players, preferably be led by a professional quintet. The piano duet part is also of only moderate difficulty. The first percussion part is obligato and should be played by a professional drummer … the second part is ad libitum and may be played by as many gifted and/or enthusiastic amateurs as there are instruments. On the other hand, the solo tenor part, as can easily be seen, is no amateur matter. The conductor must be cool-headed and should turn to the congregation/audience to conduct them in the two hymns.’
Britten asked Eric Crozier to provide the libretto: he had written the libretto for Britten’s most recent opera, Albert Herring, and had directed the first production of Peter Grimes in 1945. The life of Saint Nicolas, dedicatee (along with St Mary) of Lancing College Chapel, provided an obvious subject, and Crozier was sufficiently engaged with the story that he went on to write a children’s book on the subject, The Life and Legends of Saint Nicolas: Patron Saint of Children (1949). In a note at the front of the score, Crozier refers to Nicolas as ‘Bishop of Myra, Patron-saint of children, seamen and travellers’, and the episodes of the cantata illustrate these aspects. And while the Nicolas of Crozier’s book is located clearly in the world of the ancient Mediterranean, the saint he created for Britten transcends time and place, to be invoked by seamen and travellers in Sussex, or Suffolk, as well as Asia Minor.
Saint Nicolas is a work of nine movements, which divide into two balanced halves.
1. Introduction: the chorus invokes Nicolas; he appears and inspires them to keep the Christian faith alive.
2. The birth of Nicolas: Britten wrote a deliberately child-like tune in 6/8 time for the story of Nicolas’ miraculous childhood, sung by upper voices. At the premiere this would have been the younger boys, and Britten specifies that the words ‘God be glorified!’ at the end of each verse is to be sung by the youngest boy in the choir. The movement ends with Nicolas reaching adulthood, and the tenor sings the final ‘God be glorified!’
3. Nicolas devotes himself to God: in complete contrast to the preceding movement this solo for the tenor is full of anguish, as Nicolas mourns his parents and comes to terms with his calling.
4. He journeys to Palestine: this is the first of two dramatic movements. The lower voices tell the story of a sea voyage, with piano arpeggios depicting the waves. When a storm arrives, it is evoked by the ‘breathy voices’ of the gallery choir. Nicolas calms the storm, and takes over the narrative, while the piano arpeggios now evoke the sunlight glittering on the calm surface of the sea.
5. Nicolas comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop: the organ introduces this evocation of a Byzantine service of consecration. The gallery choir has a different role from the previous movement, here describing the rich vestments and implements as they are presented to the new bishop. By including the crozier in this list, the librettist is subtly inserting himself into the work. Nathaniel Woodard would no doubt have approved of this high-church ritual. But at the end of the ceremony, the music transforms into a fugue in the style of Handel (or the Rossini of the Petite Messe solennelle) on the words ‘Serve the Faith and spurn his enemies’, representing a rather more protestant form of Christianity; and the movement ends with the audience or congregation joining in with a hymn, ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, following in the tradition of performances of Bach’s passions. The words and tune would have been well known to the original audiences, and Britten’s setting here predates Vaughan Williams’s arrangement made for the Queen’s coronation five years later.
6. Nicolas from prison: the second part of the work opens with another solo for the tenor, as a parallel to movement 3. The Church is under attack, and Nicolas calls on the persecutors to seek repentance.
7. Nicolas and the pickled boys: this is the second dramatic movement, involving travellers in a famine-struck landscape saved by Nicolas from eating human flesh. The gallery choir now represents the mothers of kidnapped children, and at the climax of the movement three children (‘small boys’ according to the score) represent the three boys restored to life by the saint.
8. His piety and marvellous works: this parallels the account of Nicolas’s birth and childhood in the second movement. The music is reminiscent of Elgar and Fauré, which Britten may have considered appropriate for describing adulthood, but there are still elements that evoke childhood (and the ‘legends that our children and their children’s children treasure still’), in particular the canon sung by the semi-choruses to the words ‘Let the legends that we tell, Praise him, with our prayers as well’.
9. The death of Nicolas: the final movement, like the fifth, has a ritual tone, with the chorus intoning the Nunc dimittis as Nicolas utters his final words. The chanting grows louder, and there is an orchestral climax which dies away before the organ introduces the second congregational hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, with Nicolas’s departure mirroring his miraculous entrance at the start of the work. Here, after a quiet opening verse, the counterpoint of the second brings Bach very clearly to mind, and the work ends with the full forces of the ensemble unleashed.
A Ceremony of Carols was begun while Britten and Peter Pears were returning from the United States to England in 1942 on the cargo ship MS Axel Johnson. The last port at which the ship called before it began the Atlantic crossing was Halifax, Nova Scotia, and there Britten picked up a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, chosen and edited by Gerald Bullett, and originally published in 1923. This anthology included five of the texts that Britten set in A Ceremony of Carols: the anonymous 14th- and 15th- century poems ‘There is no rose’, ‘As dew in Aprille’ and ‘Deo gracias’ (or ‘Adam lay ybounden’), and two by the 16th-century poet Robert Southwell, ‘This little babe’ and ‘In freezing winter night’.
Britten and Pears wrote out other poems on the blank pages at either end, including another of the texts in A Ceremony of Carols, ‘Balulalow’. This text, comprising two verses from a translation into Scots of Martin Luther’s hymn ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’, had been set two decades earlier by Peter Warlock. Warlock had also composed settings of ‘As dew in Aprille’ and ‘Adam lay ybounden’, and this may explain why it was included—Pears’s first recording, made in 1936, had been of Warlock’s ‘Corpus Christi carol’. The voyage from Halifax to Liverpool lasted twelve days and in that time Britten completed his Hymn to St Cecilia, writing out much of it from memory, as his sketches had been confiscated in New York before he began the voyage, as well as composing what he called ‘7 Christmas Carols for women’s voices and harp’. This was made up of the six songs mentioned above, and a setting of ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, the festive Antiphon for the Magnificat at Vespers on Christmas Day, the music for which Britten later adapted for ‘Wolcum Yole!’. Britten had with him two harp manuals, which he was consulting with a view to composing a concerto for the principal harpist of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and this may have inspired his choice of accompaniment.
Brahms, a composer Britten did not approve of, had composed Four songs for women’s chorus, two horns and harp, Op 17, but Britten’s approach to the instrument is very different. On his return to England Britten added the plainsong ‘Procession’ and ‘Recession’ using the text of ‘Hodie Christus natus est’, and reused the music composed for those words to set another anonymous 14th-century poem, ‘Wolcum Yole!’. He also added the ‘Spring Carol’, setting the poem ‘Pleasure it is to hear iwis, the Birdès sing’ by William Cornysh (d1523). The work received its first performance, by the women’s voices of the Fleet Street Choir, in Norwich Castle in December 1942. The following year Britten revised it, adding a further anonymous 14th-century poem, ‘That yongë child’, and the harp interlude. This final version was first performed by the Morriston Boys’ Choir, conducted by Britten himself, with the harpist Maria Korchinska, in London in December 1943.
The work begins and ends with unaccompanied plainchant as the choir processes in at the start of the work and out at the end. Within this frame are a sequence of movements for full three-part choir, singing sometimes in harmony and sometimes in canon, with short movements for solo (‘That yongë child’) and duet (‘Spring Carol’) as well as one or two solo voices singing over the chorus (‘Balulalow’, ‘In freezing winter night’). The use of canon, where different voices sing the same musical line a number of beats apart, is a feature of Britten’s writing for children throughout his composing life, from the final song, ‘Old Abram Brown’, of his early Friday afternoons (1933-5) and the penultimate movement of Saint Nicolas, to the operas The little sweep (1949) and Noye’s fludde (1958).
Hugh Bowden © 2020
Britten’s Saint Nicolas commission (made in 1947 for £100) was essentially a community project for amateur musicians, involving Lancing College—whose centenary the work celebrated—as well as other local schools. In our recording I wanted to recreate this idea of the community. There are over 200 singers and only one, the tenor soloist, is a professional. Whilst we never lost sight of musical excellence, the performance celebrates the voices ‘of the people’, who sing with total commitment and passion.
Britten was a cultured and sophisticated artist who also revelled in playfulness, rawness and passion. He loved the sound of the natural human voice, especially the voices of children. He died eight years before Crouch End Festival Chorus began but I am convinced that he (in common with Tippett, in 1994) would have been taken with the sound and the total commitment of the choir, which is made up of beautiful, flexible and mainly untrained voices.
The children chosen for this recording are from a London state primary school (Coldfall Primary School), where they have been superbly taught but still retain that freshness and innocence that Britten craved. The spirit within the recording sessions was to celebrate getting it right rather than fear getting it wrong.
The character of Saint Nicolas is so compellingly attractive, as demonstrated by the glorious send-off he gets towards the end of the piece (‘His piety and marvellous works’)—rather like the early stages of an Irish wake where the first few drinks fuel the warmth and tears as each group relates stories about this beloved person. Choosing a tenor for this recording was a fascinating exercise. Not only did he need to have a fine voice, but it was essential to select someone who performs with insight, intelligence and a profound understanding of the work. Mark Le Brocq gave all of that and more.
Saint Nicolas was recorded in the recently restored Victorian Theatre at Alexandra Palace in north London. Visually, the space is full of character and great beauty, but of course for a recording venue this is of little importance! It is the acoustics that are vital. Just before the first session, I asked the choir to warm up with one of the hymns from the work. We were all open-mouthed at the wonderful sound—clear, dynamic and warm. As the recording progressed, we became more and more aware that London has been graced with a stunning new recording venue and concert hall.
The excellent BBC Concert Orchestra are possibly the most versatile orchestra in existence so it was no surprise that they played Saint Nicolas with such skill, commitment and character. What I found particularly moving, though, was the extent to which they embraced the ‘community’ approach to this work, and—in common with all the singers (Crouch End Festival Chorus, Coldfall Primary School, the Congregation choir and Mark Le Brocq)—created such warmth and joy in the room.
A Ceremony of Carols was recorded earlier in the year, using a choir of c40 singers from within Crouch End Festival Chorus. Again, it was the singers’ energy, enthusiasm and attention to detail which made this recording day so special for me. Once the singers had left, I was privileged to hear Britten’s extraordinary harp solo from the work (played so exquisitely by Sally Pryce) ring out in the crystal clear acoustic of All Saints’ Church in East Finchley.
Of course, neither Saint Nicolas nor A Ceremony of Carols would ever have seen the light of day had MS Axel Johnson—the ship which transported Britten and Pears back to the UK from America in 1942—been attacked by a German U-boat: A Ceremony of Carols was composed during that very journey (and Saint Nicolas six years later).
David Temple © 2020