Listening to Britten – Saint Nicolas, Op.42

The Story of St. Nicholas: Giving Dowry to Three Poor Girls by Fra Angelico (1448)

Saint Nicolas, Op.42 – cantata for tenor solo, chorus (SATB), semi-chorus (SA), four boy singers and string orchestra, piano duet, percussion and organ (December 1947 – 31 May 1948, Britten aged 34)

I. Introduction
II. The Birth of Nicolas
III. Nicolas devotes himself to God
IV. He journeys to Palestine
V. Nicolas comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop
VI. Nicolas from prison
VII. Nicolas and the pickled boys
VIII. His piety and marvellous works
IX. The death of Nicolas

Dedication This Cantata was written for performance at the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, on 24 July 1948
Text Eric Crozier
Duration 50′

Audio clips

Taken from two recordings – that by the composer on Decca (1-5), and a newer version conducted by Stephen Layton on Hyperion (6-9). With thanks to both companies.

I. Introduction

II. The Birth of Nicolas

III. Nicolas devotes himself to God

IV. He journeys to Palestine

V. Nicolas comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop

VI. Nicolas from prison

VII. Nicolas and the pickled boys

VIII. His piety and marvellous works

IX. The death of Nicolas

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s honouring of the Christmas saint was timed for the centenary of Peter Pears’ old school, Lancing College in Sussex. Yet Saint Nicolas did not receive his first performance there – in fact it opened the very first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948. Critics were requested not to write about the piece until its primary function at the school had been performed. The highly acclaimed libretto is from Eric Crozier, with whom Britten wrote Albert Herring.

Donald Mitchell, in his biography of the composer, observes that ‘for a year his music continued in the blithe spirit that Albert Herring had engendered’. He also notes how the work combines professional and amateur, Britten seeking not to exclude anybody on the grounds of musical talent. ‘There are testing but rewarding parts for the amateur singers and instrumentalists; congregational hymns, and one of the catchiest of his tunes for The Birth of Nicolas.’

This gives the strong sense Britten was writing for all ages and beliefs, and is reinforced by Stephen Arthur Allen. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, he declares it as ‘not purely a work for religious digest’. Furthermore, ‘A duality of narrative may be perceived through the dilemma between Nicolas’s public and private world:

“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, Nicolas, and speak! Speak!”

He warms to his theme. ‘The transparent nescience of The Birth of Nicolas is reinforced by its A major setting. The presence of the tritone, governing the stepwise movement of the sequence in each phrase, demonstrates that Britten is able to write music that children can engage with and sing easily, while embodying sophisticated intervals and a symbolic dimension that offsets generic expectations otherwise associated with such material.’

After that, perhaps the words of Michael Kennedy are key: ‘There is little need to examine this cantata in detail; it is best experienced whole and without analytical preparation.’


The advice from Michael Kennedy to refrain from analysing Saint Nicolas too much is sound indeed, for this is a dramatic piece that works best taken on face value.

Once again it is possible to witness Britten’s ability to write dramatic sacred music, and as in The Company of Heaven he bolsters that with sympathetically set hymn tunes. There is a strong sense of progression through the life of Saint Nicolas, too, and at his birth he gets a really catchy tune, written for the boys’ choir in a joyous A major. As he journeys to Palestine Britten colours his relatively small orchestral forces with a glassy, oscillating line for the two pianos and wispy held strings.

Meanwhile the tenor soloist – Pears, of course – gets frequent opportunities to exploit his talent for legato singing, with some extremely lyrical writing that would seem to me to have a strong Italianate flavour, that of Verdi perhaps.

The hymn quotations invite the involvement of a congregation, another element in common with The Company of Heaven. However Britten cannot resist the odd piece of harmonic mischief, and All People That on Earth do dwell, so beloved of Vaughan Williams, gets some unexpected minor chords. I couldn’t help but think that was a deliberate thumbing of the nose!

There is, however, a certain amount of homage being paid here, deliberate or otherwise. I was sure in places I could detect hints of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – especially in the way the two works end, alike in key in harmony, while there are passing elements of Handel and Bach, via Mendelssohn.

Once again Britten uses the performing spaces to his advantage, positioning the children’s choir a distance away from the main action. This is especially effective after the swell of the choir towards the end of His piety and marvellous works, which cuts to the trebles singing ‘Alleluia’ in the distance. It is a magical moment.

Equally fine are the climactic closing pages, the death of the saint marked by the singing of the Nunc Dimittis chant, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in piece, which seals the deal on a very fine and enjoyable work.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), David Hemmings (treble), Girls’ Choir Of Sir John Leman School, Beccles, Boys’ Choir Of Ipswich School Preparatory Department, The Aldeburgh Festival Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Harry Briggs (treble), Choristers of St George’s Chapel Windsor, Girls of Warwick University Chamber Choir, Choirs of Sevenoaks and Tonbridge Schools, Choir of Christ Church Southgate, Penshurst Choral Society, The Occasional Choir, Corydon Singers, English Chamber Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)

Allan Clayton (tenor), Luke McWatters (treble), Holst Singers, Boys of the Temple Church Choir, City of London Sinfonia / Stephen Layton (Hyperion)

Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Sawston Village College Choir, Cambridge University Musical Society, Britten Sinfonia / Stephen Cleobury (King’s College Cambridge)

A terrific discography of recordings, even before one considers the version conducted by Sir David Willcocks on EMI. Britten’s version, so often the first point of reference, is notable for several aspects – the complete suitability of Pears for the tenor part, which he inhabits completely, and the distinctive voice of David Hemmings, his pure tones ideal for the treble solos. Perhaps unusually the recording quality is not so good, and the important spatial aspects of the work feel two-dimensional.

This is where the fine digital recordings come in. A new version from King’s College Cambridge, the first release on their new in-house label this year, has vast reverberation, but this is extremely well handled by the engineers, especially at the thunderous and thrilling end.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson is a wonderful soloist for Matthew Best, who conducts a passionate account for Hyperion, while Stephen Layton oversees an even better recording, his trebles perfectly positioned in the sonic picture.


This playlist offers the recording from Britten mentioned above, as well as that by Sir David Willcocks (EMI) in which Robert Tear is the soloist. The new King’s College Choir version is also included, as is a recording with Steuart Bedford conducting the Tallis Chamber Choir and the English Chamber Orchestra, with Philip Langridge as the Saint.

Also written in 1948: Richard Strauss – Four Last Songs

Next up: The Beggar’s Opera, Op.43

This entry was posted in Choir and orchestra, Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Radio score, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Listening to Britten – Saint Nicolas, Op.42

  1. I think that the THE COMPANY OF HEAVEN is resonating in so many of the pieces that came afterwards. All of those including choir, orchestra and soloists. So I do agree with you. Incidentially THE COMPANY OF HEAVEN was the first Britten piece I ever listened to. That was a coindicence though. Nevertheless for me it is still some kind of a footprint of Britten arranging larger scaled music. The fact that I am using the title for my website has nothing to do with it though.

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Curlew River, Op.71 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Britten en écoute | Chœur de Paris 1

  4. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Ascent of F6 | Good Morning Britten

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