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ClassicsOnline Home » BRITTEN: St. Nicolas / Christ's Nativity / Psalm 150
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
St Nicolas • Christ’s Nativity • Psalm 150
In 1947, Benjamin Britten received a commission from Peter
Pears’ old school Lancing College for a work to celebrate its centenary the
following year. A cantata based on the legend of Saint Nicolas was proposed and
Eric Crozier, who had worked with Britten on the opera Albert Herring and
provided the speaker’s commentary for The Young Person’s Guide to the
Orchestra, was engaged to undertake the libretto. Britten completed the
composition sketch of the work in just three weeks, perhaps spurred on by the challenge
and excitement of writing his first large-scale work for amateur performers.
The first performance was given on the opening day of the first Aldeburgh
Festival in June 1948 with the ‘official’ première given at Lancing College the
following month, with the composer conducting on both occasions.
The vocal and orchestral forces required for Saint Nicolas
were conditioned by the occasion for which it was intended: solo tenor,
four-part chorus, a separate girls chorus, piano duet, organ, percussion and
strings. In addition, the congregation is required to participate in two
well-known hymn settings, each of which rounds off the two halves of the
cantata. Of these performers, the solo tenor, who takes the part of Nicolas
himself, the first percussionist and the leaders of each of the five string
sections need to be professionals. Otherwise, Britten tailors his music to take
account of the limitations of less-experienced performers, but, in common with
his later works for children such as The Little Sweep and Noye’s Fludde,
without any sense of compromise or writing down.
Very little is known of the personal history of the actual
Nicolas, the fourth-century Bishop of Myra. Crozier’s text is based on the
various legends surrounding him, using a series of episodes from his life to
build up a rounded and sympathetic portrait of the saint. In the Introduction,
the chorus implores Nicolas to ‘Strip off your glory…and speak!’. His spirit
appears to stand in worship with them, as with his ‘faithful congregation long
ago’. In the second movement, the chorus tells of The Birth of Nicolas in a
lively Allegretto accompanied by strings and piano with imaginative
contributions from the percussion, including one of Britten’s favourite
instruments, the whip. At the end of each stanza, the organ, otherwise silent
in the movement, accompanies the simple chant of ‘God be glorified’, at first
sung by a treble voice but finally, as Nicolas reaches adulthood, by the solo
tenor. In the third movement, accompanied by strings alone, Nicolas relates
how, after the death of his parents, he devoted himself to God by renouncing
all material wealth and worldly pleasures. In He journeys to Palestine, the
ship’s sailors mock Nicolas for prophesying a storm ahead when the sky is
clear; the ship’s onward voyage, the outbreak of the tempest and Nicolas’
prayer for the turbulence to cease are vividly portrayed. In the fifth
movement, Nicolas is chosen as Bishop of Myra: he promises to serve his diocese
and comfort the widowed and fatherless. A fugal episode, ‘Serve the faith’,
leads into the celebratory hymn All people that on earth do dwell in which
everyone joins. In the following movement, Nicolas describes how he was
imprisoned during the persecution of the Christian church by the Romans. He
deplores man’s folly at denying God in an agitated contrapuntal texture which
is magically exchanged for a radiant D major at the words ‘Yet Christ is
yours’. The seventh movement tells how in time of famine, three young boys have
been killed, pickled and sold to the hungry. Their mothers mourn their loss,
but Nicolas restores the boys to life. The miracle is then celebrated in a
general ‘Alleluia’. In His piety and Marvellous works, the chorus sings of how
Nicolas served his people for forty years, saved them from sin and brought
relief to the poor and needy. In the final movement, Nicolas sings movingly of
his coming death and his impending encounter with God while underneath, the
choir simultaneously intone the Nunc dimittis. The work then ends with a fine
setting of God moves in a mysterious way in which, as with the earlier hymn,
the full forces come together.
Christ’s Nativity, originally called Thy King’s Birthday,
was written in 1931 during Britten’s second term as a student at the Royal
College of Music. The work remained unperformed and unpublished during his
lifetime save for two numbers, New Prince, New Pomp, which Britten revived at
the 1955 Aldeburgh Festival, and Sweet was the Song, which was heard during the
1966 Festival and published as an independent item the same year. The first
performance of the complete suite was given at the 1991 Festival by the BBC
Singers and subsequently published in 1994. Britten appears to have been
inspired to write the work by receiving a volume of Christmas Carols as a
present from his sister Barbara in 1930. The work is a clear forerunner of the
large-scale work for unaccompanied chorus that Britten composed a year later, A
Boy Was Born, while the idea of a sequence of texts bound together by a common
literary theme (in this case, the Christmas story) was to become a
characteristic unifying device in several later vocal works, for example the
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the Spring Symphony and Nocturne.
Psalm 150 was written in 1962 for another centenary, this
time that of the composer’s own preparatory school, South Lodge, in Lowestoft,
re-named by then Old Buckenham Hall School. Britten had been a day-boy at South
Lodge from 1923 until, in September 1928, he entered Gresham’s School, Holt,
where he stayed for two years, before entering the Royal College in 1930. The
work is written in such a way as to allow an accompaniment of whatever treble
and bass instruments might be available, with percussion and keyboard. The
formal plan is straightforward, a sturdy C major march surrounding a
contrasting F major ‘trio’ section in 7/8 time, but within this simple
framework, Britten is able to provide his young performers with a polished and
infectious score that, with the loud shout on the word ‘cymbals’ and an
apparently endless four-part canon, gives everyone, whatever their level of
skill, something to do.
Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten and Lancing College
Benjamin Britten’s friend and collaborator, the tenor Peter
Pears, had continued his connection with his old school, Lancing, where he had
enjoyed a happy adolescence. He and Britten were frequent visitors to Lancing,
staying with their friend Esther Neville-Smith, the wife of the senior English
master. She had always encouraged Pears and listened sympathetically to him, as
a schoolboy and in his later career. In 1939 Britten and Pears had moved to
America, following the example of W.H.Auden. England had seemed to offer
limited opportunities in musical terms and in the morally restrictive
atmosphere of the time, and they had considered this step for some time. In
April 1942 they arrived back in England once more, driven by a nostalgia that
had been further aroused by Britten’s reading of George Crabbe and his plans
for the opera Peter Grimes. Both were able to register as conscientious
objectors, continuing their careers in recitals that did much to raise the
morale of audiences, while Pears was able to establish himself in opera,
insofar as circumstances of the time allowed. Characteristic of their
activities was a visit in 1943 to the Neville-Smiths at Richard’s Castle, near
Ludlow, where Lancing had been evacuated to a number of nearby country houses.
Here they introduced an audience of a handful of boys, in the drawing-room of
one of the houses, to Britten’s new Michelangelo Sonnets, and to some of his
folk-song arrangements, ending, inevitably, with Oliver Cromwell lay buried and
dead. Some years later the boys, back at Lancing on the south coast, were able
to hear an early performance of Britten’s setting of The Holy Sonnets of John
It was for the centenary of Lancing College in 1948 and for
the remarkable neo-Gothic school chapel, a cathedral for the Woodard Schools,
of which Lancing was the first, that Britten wrote his cantata Saint Nicolas.
The commission came through the generosity of Esther Neville-Smith and the
subject was suggested by the fact that Lancing is dedicated to St Nicolas. The
celebratory first performance took place in Lancing chapel in July, in a
concert that included works by Geoffrey Bush, an old boy of the school, and by
Jasper Rooper, a master from Pears’s time at the school and now director of
music there. In addition to Peter Pears, the tenor soloist, and the choir of
Lancing, the choirs of Ardingly, Hurstpierpoint and the girls’ school St
Michael’s, Petworth took part in the Lancing centenary performance, each group
offering its own part in the enumeration of the saint’s miracles. Saint Nicolas
was to provide its own consolation after Britten’s relatively early death, with
the arrangement of the hymn God moves in a mysterious way heard at the memorial
service in Westminster Abbey in March 1977. The day after Britten’s funeral the
previous December Peter Pears had fulfilled an engagement to sing in Saint
Nicolas in Cardiff and he later explained the profound meaning the hymn had for
him: God moves in a mysterious way . . . and when that is put into music, into
a musical context, for me . . . there is consolation and an understanding of
what this whole world is about.
Saint Nicolas, Op. 42
Words by Eric Crozier (1914-1994)
Reproduced by permission of Boosey & Co Ltd.
Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear.
The bishop’s robe, the mitre and the cross of gold
Obscure the simple man within the Saint.
Strip off your glory, Nicolas, and speak!
Across the tremendous bridge of sixteen hundred years
I come to stand in worship with you, as I stood
Among my faithful congregation long ago.
All who knelt beside me then are gone.
Their name is dust, their tombs are grass and clay,
Yet still their shining seed of Faith survives -
In you! It weathers time, it springs again
In you! With you it stands like forest oak
Or withers with the grasses underfoot.
Preserve the living Faith for which your fathers fought!
For Faith was won by centuries of sacrifice
And many martyrs died that you might worship God.
Help us, Lord! to find the hidden road
that leads from love to greater Love, from faith
To greater Faith. Strengthen us, O Lord!
Screw up our strength to serve Thee with simplicity.
 The Birth
Nicolas was born in answer to prayer
And leaping from his mother’s womb he cried
God be Glorified!
Swaddling-bands and crib awaited him there
But Nicolas clapped both his hands and cried
Innocent and joyful, naked and fair,
He came in pride on earth to abide.
Water rippled Welcome! in the bath-tub by his side.
He dived in open-eyed: he swam: he cried
When he went to Church at Christmastide
He climbed up to the font to be baptised.
Pilgrims came to kneel and pray by his side.
He grew in grace, his name was sanctified.
Nicolas grew in innocence and pride:
His glory spread a rainbow round the countryside.
‘Nicolas will be a Saint!’ the neighbours cried.
devotes himself to God
My parents died. All too soon
I left the tranquil beauty of their home
And knew the wider world of man.
Poor man! I found him solitary, racked
By doubt: born, bred, doomed to die
In everlasting fear of everlasting death:
The foolish toy of time, the darling of decay –
Hopeless, faithless, defying God.
Heartsick, in hope to mask
The twisted face of poverty,
I sold my lands to feed the poor.
I gave my goods to charity
But Love demanded more.
Heartsick, I cast away
All things that could distract my mind
From full devotion to His will.
I thrust my happiness behind
But Love desired more still.
Heartsick, I called on God
To purge my angry soul, to be
My only Master, friend and guide.
I begged for sweet humility
And Love was satisfied.
 He Journeys
Nicolas sailed for Palestine
across the sunlit seas.
The South West Wind blew soft and fair,
Seagulls hovered through the air,
And spices scented the breeze.
Everyone felt that land was near:
All dangers were now past:
Except for one who knelt in prayer,
Fingers clasped and head quite bare,
Alone by the mizzen-mast.
The sailors jeered at Nicolas,
Who paid them no regard,
Until the hour of sunset came
When up he stood and stopped their game
of staking coins on cards.
Nicolas spoke and prophesied
A tempest far ahead.
The sailors scorned his words of fear,
Since sky and stars shone bright and clear
So ‘Nonsense!’ they all said.
Darkness was soon on top of them,
But still the South Wind blew.
The Captain went below to sleep
And left the helmsman there to keep
His course with one of the crew.
Nicolas swore he’d punish them
For mocking at the Lord.
The wind arose, the thunder roared,
Lightning split the waves that poured
In wild cascades on board.
Waterspouts rose in majesty
Until the ship was tossed
Abaft, aback, astern, abeam,
Lit by lightning’s livid gleam
And all aboard cried ‘Lost!’
Lightning hisses through the night
Blinding sight with living light!
Winds and tempests howl their cry
Of battle through the raging sky!
Waves repeat their angry roar,
Fall and spring again once more!
Thunder rends the sky asunder
With its savage shouts of wonder!
Lightning, Thunder, Tempest, Ocean
Praise their God with voice and motion!
Men (shouting above the storm)
Spare us! Save us! Saviour!
Man the pumps! Lifeboats! Lower away!
Axes! Shorten sail! Reef her! Heave to!
Let her run before the wind!
Pray to God! Kneel and pray! Pray!
Nicolas waited patiently
Till they were on their knees:
Then down he knelt in thankfulness
Begging God their ship to bless
And make the storm to cease.
O God! we are all weak, sinful, foolish men.
We pray from fear and from necessity -
at death, in sickness or private loss.
Without the prick of fear our conscience sleeps,
forgetful of Thy Grace.
Help us, O God! to see more clearly.
Tame our stubborn hearts.
Teach us to ask for less
and offer more in gratitude to Thee.
Pity our simplicity,
for we are truly pitiable in Thy sight.
The winds and waves lay down to rest,
The sky was clear and calm.
The ship sailed onward without harm
And all creation sang a psalm
Of loving thankfulness.
Beneath the stars the sailors slept
Exhausted by their fear, while I
Knelt down for love of God on high
And saw His angels in the sky
Smile down at me - and wept.
comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop
Come, stranger sent from God! Come, man of God!
Stand foremost in our Church, and serve this diocese
As Bishop Nicolas, our shield, our strength, our peace!
I, Nicolas, Bishop of Myra and its diocese,
shall with the unfailing grace of God
defend His faithful servants, comfort
the widow and fatherless, and fulfil
His will for this most blessed Church.
Place the mitre on your head to show your mastery of men!
Take the golden robe that covers you with Christ’s authority!
Wear the fine dalmatic woven with the cross of faith!
Bear the crozier as a staff and comfort to your flock!
Set the ring upon your hand in sacramental sign of wedlock with
Serve the Faith and spurn his enemies!
A hymn for choirs and congregation
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice!
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell,
Come ye before Him and rejoice.
O enter then His gates with praise,
Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.
For why? the Lord our God is good:
His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.
Persecution sprang upon our Church
And stilled its voice. Eight barren years
It stifled under Roman rule:
And I lay bound, condemned to celebrate
My lonely sacrament with prison bread
While wolves ran loose among my flock.
O man! the world is set for you as for a king!
Paradise is yours in loveliness.
The stars shine down for you, for you the angels sing,
Yet you prefer your wilderness.
You hug the rack of self, embrace the lash of sin,
Pour your treasures out to pay distress.
You build your temples fair without and foul within:
You cultivate your wilderness.
Yet Christ is yours. Yours! For you he lived and died.
God in mercy gave his Son to bless
You all, to bring you life - and Him you crucified
To desecrate your wilderness.
Turn, turn, turn away from sin! Ah! bow
Down your hard and stubborn heart! Confess
Yourselves to Him in penitence, and humbly vow
Your lives to Him, to Holiness.
 Nicolas and
the Pickled Boys
Famine tracks us down the lanes,
Hunger holds our horses’ reins,
Winter heaps the roads with snow
O we have far to go!
Starving beggars howl their cry,
Snarl to see us spurring by.
Times are bad and travel slow
We mourn our boys, our missing sons!
We sorrow for three little ones!
Timothy, Mark and John
Are gone! Are gone! Are gone!
Landlord, take this piece of gold!
Bring us food before the cold
Makes our pangs of hunger grow!
Day by day we seek to find
Some trace of them - but oh! unkind!
Timothy, Mark and John
Let us share this dish of meat.
Come, my friends, sit down and eat,
Join us, Bishop, for we know
That you have far to go!
Mary meek and Mother mild
Who lost thy Jesus as a child,
Our Timothy, Mark and John
Come, your Grace, don’t eat so slow!
Take some meat...
O do not taste!
O do not feed
On sin! But haste
To save three souls in need!
The mother’s cry
Is sad and weak.
Within these walls they lie
Whom mothers sadly seek.
Timothy, Mark and John,
Put your fleshy garments on!
Come from dark oblivion!...
See! three boys spring back to life,
Who, slaughtered by the butcher’s knife,
Lay salted down! - and entering,
Hand-in-hand they stand and sing
ALLELUIA! to their King!
Small Boys (Entering)
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
 His Piety
and Marvellous Works
For forty years our Nicolas,
Our Prince of men, our shepherd and
Our gentle guide, walked by our side.
We turned to him at birth and death,
In time of famine and distress,
In all our grief, to bring relief.
He led us from the valleys to
The pleasant hills of grace. He fought
To fold us in from mortal sin.
O! he was prodigal of love!
A spendthrift in devotion to
Us all - and blessed as he caressed.
We keep his memory alive
In legends that our children and
Their children’s children treasure still.
A captive at the heathen court
Wept sorely all alone.
‘O Nicolas is here, my son!
And he will bring you home!’
Three daughters of a nobleman
Were doomed to shameful sin,
Till our good Bishop ransomed them
By throwing purses in.
‘Fill, fill my sack with corn!’ he said:
‘We die from lack of food!’
And from that single sack he fed
A hungry multitude.
The gates were barred, the black flag flew,
Three men knelt by the block.
But Nicolas burst in like flame
And stayed the axe’s shock.
‘O Help us, good Nicolas!
Our ship is full of foam!’
He walked across the waves to them
And led them safely home.
He sat among the Bishops who
Were summoned to Nicaea:
Then rising with the wrath of God
Boxed Arius’s ear!
He threatened Constantine the Great
With bell and book and ban:
Till Constantine confessed his sins
Like any common man.
Let the legend that we tell
Praise him, with our prayers as well.
 The Death
DEATH, I hear thy summons and I come
In haste, for my short life is done;
And oh! my soul is faint with love
For Him who waits for me above.
LORD, I come to life, to final birth.
I leave the misery of earth
For light, by Thy eternal grace,
Where I shall greet Thee face to face.
CHRIST, receive my soul with tenderness,
For in my last of life I bless
Thy name, who lived and died for me,
And dying, yield my soul to Thee.
Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace,
according to Thy word.
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation
Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of
Thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
to the Holy Ghost!
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world
without end. Amen.
A Hymn for Choirs and Congregation
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Words by Henry Vaughan (1622-1695)
Awake, glad heart! Get up and sing!
It is the birthday of thy King.
The sun doth shake
Light from his locks, and all the way
Breathing perfumes, doth spice the day.
Awake! Awake! Hark how the wood rings,
Winds whisper and the busy springs
A concert make.
Man is their high priest, and should rise
To offer up the sacrifice.
I would I were some bird, or star
Fluttering in woods, or lifted far
Above this inn
And road of sin;
Then either star or bird should be
Shining or singing still to Thee.
I would I had in my best part
Fit rooms for Thee! Or that my heart
Were so clean as
Thy manger was!
But I am all filth and obscure
Yet if thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.
Sweet Jesu! will then. Let no more
This leper haunt and soil thy door!
Cure him, ease him, O release him!
And let once more, by mystic birth,
The Lord of life be born in earth.
 Sweet was
Words from William Ballet’s ‘Lute Book’, 1601
Sweet was the song the Virgin sung
When she to Bethlem Juda came
And was deliver’d of a Son
That blessed Jesus hath to name.
Lulla, lulla, lullaby,
Lulla, lulla, lullaby
Sweet Babe, sang she
My son and eke a saviour born
Who hast vouchsafed from on high
To visit us that were forlorn.
Lalula, lalula, lalulaby
And rockt Him sweetly on her knee.
Words from Christ Church manuscript
(? 17th century)
Yet if His Majesty, our sovran Lord,
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite
And say ‘I’ll be your guest tomorrow night’
How should we stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work. Let no man idle stand!
‘Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall;
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright
That without tapers they may give a light.
Look to the presence; are the carpets spread
The dazie o’er the head,
The cushions on the chairs,
And all the candles lighted in the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place.’
Thus if a King were coming would we do;
And ’twere good reason too;
For ’tis a duteous thing
To show all honour to an earthly king
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleased, to think no labour lost.
But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All’s set at six and seven;
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain him always like a stranger
And, as at first, still lodge Him in the manger.
Prince, New Pomp
Words from the Scriptures and poem of Robert Southwell (?
He spar’d not his own son, but delivered him up for us all.
The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy. James 5:11
Behold a silly tender babe,
In freezing winter night,
In homely manger trembling lies;
Alas a piteous sight.
Despise Him not for being there,
First what He is inquire;
The Prince Himself is come from Heaven
This pomp is praised there.
 Carol of King Cnut
Words by C.W. Stubbs (1845-1912)
O merry rang the hymn
Across the fenlands dim;
O Joy the day!
When Cnut the king sailed by,
I row my men, more nigh
And hear that holy cry,
It was the Christmas morn
Whereon the child was born
On lily banks among
Where fragrant flowers throng
For maiden posies sprung?
Ah nay! ah nay!
It was the winter cold
Whereon the tale was told.
O Joy the day!
What hap did then befall
To men and women all
From that poor cattle stall,
The shepherds in a row
Knelt by the cradle low,
And told the angel song
They heard, their sheep among,
When all the heavenly throng
Sing joy, my masters, sing,
And let the welkin ring,
And Nowell! Nowell! cry
The Child is King most High
O sovran victory!
Sing Joy the day!
 Psalm 150,
O praise God in his holiness: praise him
in the firmament of his power.
Praise him in his noble acts:
praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him in the sound of the trumpet:
praise him upon the lute and harp.
Praise him in the cymbals and dances:
praise him upon the strings and pipe.
Praise him upon the well-tuned cymbals:
praise him upon the loud cymbals.
Let everything that hath breath:
Praise the Lord.
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now,
and ever shall be, world without end.
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