St ANDREW'S UNITED CHURCH 311 FitzWilliam St, Nanaimo
Sunday 11 November, 2:00 pm
Benjamin Britten’s St Nicolas Cantata
Originally written for the centenary of Britten’s partner Peter Pears’ old school Lancing College, Sussex England in 1948, Britten’s cantata tells the life of the fourth-century Bishop of Myra in a work of great poetry and sensitivity. It was conceived and composed with semi-amateur performance in mind and the technical demands of the choral and orchestral writing are appropriately straightforward.
St. Nicolas is famous for many legendary miracles and for being the original ‘Santa Claus’. The libretto by Eric Crozier is designed to tell the story of his life, to recount some of his most celebrated acts and to give the audience the opportunity of joining in two beautiful familiar hymns at key moments: ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell’ and ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way his Wonders to Perform’. The narration is all done by the choir, though the tenor sings first-person narratives as well in his role as the mature Nicolas. The young Nicolas is sung by a boy in movement II. There is a dramatic moment at the end of this movement when, replacing the treble voice of the boy, the tenor proclaims in the voice of Nicolas as a young man: ‘God be glorified.’
In the third movement the tenor soloist sings of Nicolas devoting himself to God. He donates to charity all his inherited wealth and sells his lands to feed the poor. He suffers through the agonies and torment of the many distractions and temptations of life. His faith wins through and he sings a final touching phrase: ‘and Love was satisfied.’
The fourth movement depicts a storm at sea when Nicolas sails to Palestine. It threatens to overturn the ship and drown everyone on board. There is wailing from the sopranos and altos of the semi-chorus and agonised calls from the tenors and basses to ‘man the pumps’. Finally, Nicolas begs God to let the storm cease and offers thanks for their safe delivery. Britten creates a palpable sense of relief in the final pages.
In the fifth movement, ‘Nicolas comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop’, the choir sings chorale-like phrases welcoming him as their new Bishop. They go through his ceremonial dressing with all the accoutrements of his office, the mitre, crozier (nice pun on the librettist’s name), cope and ring. An energetic chorus ‘Serve the faith and spurn his enemies’ leads to the first great audience participation hymn ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell’ – a wonderfully climactic uplifting moment.
But things did not go on smoothly and during the reign of Diocletian and the persecution of martyrs (303-311) Nicolas was imprisoned for eight years before he could resume his pastoral mission among the poor and disadvantaged. The sixth movement is an impassioned picture of those barren years and Nicolas’ frustration at the interruption of his work. In the next movement, probably the best-known section of the work, Nicolas performs the miracle of the three pickled boys lost to their families, ‘slaughtered by the butcher’s knife’. At the end of this movement three boys enter from the other end of the church singing ‘Alleluia’. It is a very moving moment. Continuing this theme, the eighth movement ‘His piety and marvellous works’ is a list of miracles he performed followed by a beautifully simple falling phrase which is sung like a round ‘Let the legends that we tell, Praise him with our prayers’ as typical Britten – tuneful, memorable and supremely effective. The final movement tells of Nicolas’ death and the work ends nobly and gloriously with the audience and choirs singing lustily with full orchestral and organ accompaniment the well-known hymn, ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way.’
Saint Nicolas truly is a wonderful composition for performance by a musical community – adult and children’s choirs, string orchestra with percussion, organ, piano duo with tenor soloist and audience participation. Despite the derivation of ‘Santa Claus’ from his name and the occasional performance of the work during the festive season it is not a Christmas work! St Nicolas’ life - his philanthropic work, imprisonment, sacrifice and dedication to the young, poor and suffering – makes Britten’s cantata an appropriate – work for performance on Remembrance Day.
For its concert performance of the St Nicolas Cantata and of Eleanor Daley’s Requiem on Sunday November 11, 2018 Malaspina Choir is fortunate and honored to have as its guest soloist, internationally – acclaimed Canadian tenor Benjamin Butterfield. The choir is also pleased to welcome as its guests the award-winning Nanaimo Youth Choir under its conductor Marian Smith, the Nanaimo Chamber Orchestra under its director Karl Rainer with VIS principal percussionist Nicole Arendt, organist Jenny Vincent, pianist Rie Okamura and Malaspina’s award-winning accompanist Sharon Wishart.
Repertoire note by Paul Spicer, edited and adapted by Lionel Tanod . July 3, 2018