To celebrate St Nicholas Day I’m taking a walk down Memory Lane.
I’m going back to 1968
when I sang in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s St Nicholas Cantata which has remained one of my favourite pieces of music ever since.
Here’s a quick overview:
Britten wrote the cantata Saint Nicolas in 1948 for the centennial celebrations of Lancing College in Sussex.
He scored the piece for mixed choir, tenor soloist, three or four boys, strings, piano duet, organ and percussion. Although the piece was written for Lancing College, the first performance was actually the opening concert of the first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948.
The text of Saint Nicolas was written by Eric Crozier who researched the legendary life of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, Lycia.
The cantata is written in nine sections:
The Birth of Nicolas
Nicolas Devotes Himself to God
He Journeys to Palestine
Nicolas Comes to Myra and is Chosen Bishop
Nicolas from Prison
Nicolas and the Pickled Boys
His Piety and Marvellous Works
The Death of Nicholas
I love the whole piece but particularly like the seventh section, Nicholas and the pickled boys. Nicolas finds himself in an inn where a group of travellers have paused for the night. They invite the bishop to dine with them, but Nicolas stops them from eating, realising that the meat that they eat is in fact the flesh of three boys murdered and pickled by the butcher. Nicolas calls to the boys, “Timothy, Mark, and John, put your fleshly garments on!” and the boys come back to life, singing “Alleluia!”
At school in the lower sixth, I studied ‘O’ level Music and the music teacher invited us to join the local Choral Society of which he was the conductor. Rehearsals had commenced for a performance of St Nicholas and the choir needed more high voices. With a couple of other pupils, I went along to a rehearsal and by the end of the evening was hooked.
Our teacher / conductor was also the organist of the parish church. I remember him as a marvellous teacher and a lovely person but it’s only after googling his name that I’ve realised what a well regarded musician he was.
Mervyn Byers was Australian by birth and studied at the Sidney Conservatoire. A Fellow of Trinity College, London; Associate of the Royal College of Organists; and Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music, he was appointed as organist at Bridlington Priory, Sidney Cathedral and Selby Abbey. On retirement, Mr Byers returned to Australia where he died in 2011 aged eighty six years.
The dress code for the choral society was anything black: black suits for males and black dresses for females. In 1968 I didn’t have anything black to wear so this was a great excuse to buy my first little black dress. Obviously in 1968 it had to be a mini-dress. And Chelsea Girl, the first boutique chain in the UK, was the only place to buy it. The fabric had a tiny white polka-dot all over and it was flimsy. Not really suitable for a December night in a cavernous, medieval, monastical building but I thought the dress was beautiful. My mum was not impressed and nattered on about catching cold which, naturally, I ignored. By the end of the performance I was seriously shivering but it was worth it! A lovely dress and a lovely piece of music – perfect.