Britten at 100 Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Nov 20, 2013 concert – Britten at 100 – at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.  Notes written by music broadcaster Rick Phillips.

Before the mass popularity of television, film and the internet, radio was the main medium of communication, and plays, live concerts and combinations of music, drama and spoken word were the fare of the day. In the years leading up to and including World War II, BBC Radio aired many collaborations between composers, musicians, poets and broadcasters. The dramatic cantata The Company of Heaven by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is just one such work, first heard on a BBC Radio religious program on Sept. 29, 1937, to mark Michaelmas or the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel. Britten, in his early twenties at the time, created a work for small orchestra, chorus, soloists and narrator that tells of the various aspects of the angels of heaven and the battle with Satan. In the Christian faith, Michael is considered the greatest of archangels, commemorated for defeating Satan in the war in heaven, described in the Book of Revelation. As the leading warrior angel, Michael is often viewed as the protector against the darkness of night. Compiled by Richard Robert Ellis of the BBC, the text of Britten’s The Company of Heaven consists of poetry, scripture, speeches and sermons, some being spoken while others are set to music. The Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Ruskin, William Blake, Christina Rosetti, Theodosius and Emily Brontë are just some of the sources. The aria, “A thousand, thousand gleaming fires,” to a poem by Emily Brontë was the first music Britten composed specifically for tenor Peter Pears, one of the soloists in the original production, who had recently just met Britten and would become his longtime partner. Although Britten’s music is on a large-scale, care was taken to project the words to an original audience that would’ve been gathered around their living-room radios without the benefit of a written text. The Company of Heaven opens dramatically with the chaotic void before Creation, before the fall of the Angels and their ejection from Heaven, and the eventual battles with Satan, culminating with the devil being kicked out of heaven by St. Michael. After the 1937 premiere, The Company of Heaven fell into obscurity for decades. It was revived and heard again at England’s Aldeburgh Festival in 1989.

St. Nicolas is best known to us today as St. Nick or Santa Claus. He lived during the fourth century and much of his life appears as legend rather than fact. A ninth century biography by Methodius was largely fictitious, but helped establish St. Nicolas as a man of many miracles and good deeds to the poor and oppressed. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the legend and legacy of Nicolas continued to grow, especially in England, where, by the Middle Ages four hundred churches carried his name. He’s the patron saint of merchants, perfumiers, sailors, pawnbrokers and apothecaries. By saving three destitute young girls from prostitution, he’s the protector of unmarried girls, and by restoring the lives of three boys pickled in brine by a butcher during a famine, St. Nicolas is the patron saint of children. This last link, and his reputation for awarding presents to deserving children, is credited with creating his close association with Christmas. It’s believed that Santa Claus comes from the Dutch word “Sinterklaas,” a corruption of the transliteration of Saint Nikolaos.

The cantata Saint Nicolas by Benjamin Britten was commissioned by Lancing College in Sussex, England for its centennial in 1948. Saint Nicolas was the patron saint of this school where Peter Pears, the famous English tenor and longtime partner of Britten had been a student. But the work had its premiere at the first-ever Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948 with approval from Lancing. Music critics were requested to withhold comment until the performance at the college a month later. Both performances featured Peter Pears in the title role, conducted by the composer. The libretto was written by Eric Crozier, a close friend to Britten and Pears who had produced Britten’s operas Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia and was later to write the libretto to the opera Albert Herring and the children’s opera The Little Sweep. The story follows several episodes in the life of Saint Nicolas – from his pious birth and the call to a holy life, to his rescue of sailors on the way to Palestine, his election as bishop of Myra (today in Turkey), his imprisonment and persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, his rescue and revival to life of the three boys pickled in brine during a famine, to his confident joy in the face of death. Cleverly blending elements of opera and theatre with church music, not unlike the sacred cantatas and passions of J. S. Bach, Saint Nicolas was the first of several compositions by Britten to involve both professional and amateur forces.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, teacher, broadcaster and musical tour host.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.