(Edward) Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)is a quintessentially English twentieth-century composer, with works which are among the standards for virtually all types of serious performance– instrumental solos and chamber music, overtures, symphonies, songs, cantatas, and operas. Among his better known works are A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; the operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd; and A Ceremony of Carols, which the Chorus sang in toto in one of its earliest concerts, and has excerpted in other presentations since. Britten admired the innovations of Stravinsky, Mahler, and Berg– he wished to study with the latter after hearing Wozzeck in the late 1930’s, but was discouraged from doing so by his countrymen’s political opposition to Germany. Despite these influences, he developed his own unique style, which is sometimes lyrical, and, occasionally, sharply dissonant.
St. Nicolas was written on a commission for the 1948 centenary of Lancing College, the public boarding-school which had nurtured his friend, tenor Sir Peter Pears. Despite the already-scheduled premiere at Lancing, the first performance was given in Suffolk on the opening day of the first Aldeburgh Festival, which Britten and Pears founded in 1948. The idea of a work honoring St. Nicholas of Bari (for the Italian city where his remains were relocated in 1087 after Myra fell to the Saracens) was suggested by a Lancing schoolmaster, Basil Handford, in July 1947: He related some of the Nicholas legends to a fascinated Britten, who immediately saw the potential for a cantata, embedding a series of episodes, and utilizing Lancing schoolchildren among its performers. The libretto was written by Eric Crozier, with whom Britten had collaborated on other works; Crozier studied the literature of legends intensively for months before beginning the task, and obviously pleased Britten with the result.
If Britten was fascinated with the Nicholas legends, he was only the latest in an 1100-year history to be so impressed. Unfortunately, Nicholas– the patron saint of sailors, travellers, children, prisoners, and both the nations of Russia and Greece– is much more a creature of legend than of fact. There is agreement that he became Bishop of Myra, a port city of ancient Mycaea, located on the Gulf of Adalia (now in south central Turkey; Paul the Apostle stopped here on his voyage to Rome in 60 A.D.)early in the fourth century. Beyond that, almost nothing is known to be factual; the “least unreliable” account is that of St. Methodosius of Constantinople, compiled in 847 A.D., 505 years after Nicholas’ presumed date of death! At the time of Methodosius’ account, the best-known miracle ascribed to Nicholas was the release of three functionaries condemned to death by the governor, Eustathius, who had accepted a bribe to pronounce that sentence; Nicholas rescued the men at the hour of their execution, then hounded Eustathius until he confessed and pled for mercy from the Saint. Another well-repeated story concerns a citizen of Patara, Nicholas’ birthplace (about 100 miles west of Myra, on the Gulf of Makri, due east of Rhodes): The destitute man was about to sell his three daughters into prostitution, when Nicholas, from his own fortune, anonymously gave a purse of gold as a dowry for the eldest. Later, dowries appeared for the second and third daughters as well. Nicholas is in fact represented in art with three gold objects, perhaps spherical, representing the three purses (and this writer covets the unprovable notion that this may be the source of the universal symbol of the pawnbroker!). The giving of gifts at Christmas is said to stem from this tale, although the American Santa Claus appears to have been based on Dutch traditions which may or may not have had such an origin. Other Nicholas legends include his miraculous intervention securing the release of unjustly accused prisoners (apparently separate from the incident already quoted); the invoking of a storm as a punishment of scornful sailors (movement IV of the cantata); and the precocious infancy described in movement II. In the latter instance, Britten uses an interesting device: The repeated utterance, “God be glorified!”, which Nicholas repeats from his birth, is sung each time by soprano youth, save for the last repetition in a tenor (i.e., a broken) voice, representing Nicholas verging upon manhood.
Another legend, embedded in movement VIII, has Nicholas, as a participant in the Council of Nicaea, slapping the face of another Bishop, Arius. Arius had been excommunicated in A.D. 321 for promoting a view of the Trinity which subjugated two persons of the Trinity, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to the third person, the Father; Arius’ view was opposed to that of Sabellius, who earlier held that only the Father was of God. Controversy continued to divide the Church after Arius’ expulsion, and in 325 Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to resolve the issue. The Council first affirmed the excommunication– if Nicholas indeed confronted Arius, he was of the same mind as most of the other delegates– but remained strongly divided on what view to espouse in place of those of Arius or Sabellius. A measure of concord was reached with the approval of the carefully worded Nicaean Creed, still in use today, but the argument continued for at least another 60 years, and has re-emerged periodically ever since. Regrettably, there is not a shred of evidence placing Nicholas at Nicaea, much less taking physical action.
Hagiologists also discount the story of the “pickled boys”, movement V of the cantata. While on a journey, Bishop Nicholas is offered meat, in the midst of famine, by an innkeeper who has butchered three boys and placed their dismembered remains in a tub of brine; Nicholas warns the travellers of the crime and restores life to the boys, who enter singing Alleluias. The story almost certainly dates from a much later period than that of Methodosius and other historians; one writer suggests that it may have been inspired by the resemblance of Nicholas’ symbolic gold purses to the heads of three boys. This story was not included by Crozier in the first draft of his libretto; however, it was added, probably at Britten’s own request, and Britten, ever the dramatist, makes it the emotional high point of the cantata.
Britten carefully chose his sounds for the locale of the premiere– repeatedly wandering the Lancing chapel to get the “feel” of its acoustics, and pondering how to evoke the sound of waves for the storm in movement IV. In the end, he determined to involve the audience itself in the work, inserting two familiar hymns, the “Old Hundredth” (“All people that on earth do dwell…”, a setting of Psalm 100) and “God moves in a mysterious way…” to be sung by both choir and congregation. Thus he takes advantage of the emotional content of the Nicholasian legends– which he acknowledges as legends, in movement VIII, but defends as a means to keep Nicholas’ memory and his piety alive for future generations.