Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Saint Nicolas is very orthodox in a music that has a strong charm


How can the simple man hiding under or behind the saint or the bishop, behind the robe, the mitre and the cross of gold be evoked, celebrated? The front of the bishop hides the secret heart of the man. But at the same time celebrating the life of a saint is always a perilous game because the humility of the saint should lead him to refuse being celebrated, and yet we all have some vanity in our hearts.

The birth of Nicolas has something mysterious and the second track is typical about this miracle that the birth of the saint is and the evocation of the miracle is punctuated by seven repetitions of “God be Glorified!” the first six sung by a child and the last, the seventh instance sung by a male tenor, like the real birth of the adult saint in the new-born. The Holy week of the creation or the Holy week of the Passion is thus realized in this final male voice crowning the whole week. This evocation of Nicolas’s birth is quite similar to that of Jesus though in a maybe less poor environment since Nicolas has a crib whereas Jesus only had a manger.

The third track shows Nicolas getting cut off and away from the worldly artifacts of life to dedicate himself to God. He is an early orphan and leaves his parents’ house early. He then sells his land to feed the poor but he wants to go beyond plain charity and reach love, meaning love for God and that leads him to cut himself off from the world: “I cast away all things that could distract my mind from full devotion to His will.” Yet this submission is not enough to satisfy God and he makes God his “only Master, friend and guide.” The music is absolute humility, softness, a soft string tune behind the voice that grows stronger, more imposing, forbidding even. And here he works on a ternary structure that is fundamental in the whole cantata. He uses a “burden” of sorts to conclude the last three (out of four) stanzas. “But Love demanded more.” “But Love desired more still.” “And Love was satisfied.” The last one is so suspended in intensity and pitch that he seems to be choking in that Love, to be out of anything real.

The fourth track that evokes the journey to Palestine shows a Nicolas who is rejected, jeered, mocked by the sailors because of his devotion. He stands apart from the rest of the crew and as such he is like a stranger and the music suggests this distance with some lines ending in mid air with a non-tonal note. But the prayers are only the preparation for the storm that is evoked by a choir of women or children and Nicolas then waits for the sailors to kneel in front of the storm begging in a way for some intercession and sure enough Nicolas gives it to them and he asks God to forgive the sailors and pacify the storm. A quasi a capella prayer with just some softly rumbling drums far away. The saint brings peace with his prayer, a peace evoked by his spelling the words out like with his “Pity our simplicity.” But then after the sailors’ “Amen” he finds some power to sing the pacified tempest and the sleeping sailors. Working like that on the tone, rhythm and tempo of Nicolas builds up a realistic man who is at the same time outlandish, different, fearless and yet of service, useful to simple men.

The next track brings up the pompous crowning of Nicolas as the Bishop of Myra. There Nicolas asserts he has only one master and he is the servant of that sole master, God and his Church. This dedication is then amplified by the Choir of women’s or children’s voices that sounds like a choir of angels, distant and high pitched. Then the choir of mixed male and female voices amplifies this angelic impression by bringing us back to earth and the whole movement is multiplied then by the hymn which the congregation is supposed to take part in or respond to. This amplification of the discourse is surprising because where is the simple man behind this pomp and glorious power? The man really disappears behind the façade of the bishop.

That’s when in the sixth track Nicolas is sent to prison by the Romans. Nicolas preaches then from his prison to humanity and his persecution is clearly evoked as the wilderness of man, a wilderness seen as a preference and then a cultivation on the side of man, but this wilderness is “desecrated” by the crucifixion of Christ. The word is surprising since this wilderness is sinful and anything but sacred, and yet it is sacred to these sinners, and Christ crucified, desecrated in his existence by the Passion, becomes the desecration of this so-to-say sacred sinful life. Strangely enough that sets Christ apart from all humans, as if he were a stranger, a foreigner, an extra-terrestrial even who comes on earth to put the whole human wilderness upside down.

The seventh track about the Pickled Boys is more dramatic. Travelers tell us about the difficulties of the road, of the long distances they have to travel. A choir of mothers then evokes three boys, Timothy, Mark and John, a trinity immediately amplified by a ternary conclusion “Are gone! Are gone! Are gone!” This evocation of the mother’s’ loss of their children is the mirror image of the difficulties of travelers, though the loss of children is at home, in the family and in the heart, it is the deprivation of the motherly love of these mothers who lose the object of their love by losing their children. And this pain and suffering of mothers is set in parallel with Mary and her loss of her child Jesus. In this track we really have simple people and their suffering, and these simple people are connected to Jesus through his mother Mary. And that’s when Nicolas intervenes. His discourse is voluntarily pushing aside food that he assimilates to sin, so that people can try to save the three souls of the three children. But Nicolas clearly wants to bring the three boys out of oblivion, back to our consciousness.

“Timothy, Mark and John,
Put your fleshy garments on!
Come from dark oblivion!
Come! Come! Come! Come!”

And the three boys resurrect from their own death. They had been slaughtered by butchers and their  flesh had been salted, in a way like pork. This is an evocation of cannibalism. The most surprising element is the names. We could think of three apostles, but only two of them are gospel writers. It is difficult to know what motivated the author of the libretto to choose these three names, but the resurrection and the butcher’s knife that killed them before does not go towards the three apostles. The whole track ends with a long and very complicated conclusion repeating “Alleluia!” a great number of times, over and over again, to celebrate the miracle, ending up with a few measures of joyful dance music.

The eighth track is the evocation of the legend and as such is just easy going music and text and it is funny to see how he saves a man from court, three daughters from sin, how he feeds a whole crowd from a single sack, how he saves three men from execution, how he is part of the Nicaea Council that established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, how he chastises Constantine the Great into confessing his sins. But once again this is not the simple man behind the bishop or the saint. We do not really see or feel his doubts, his fears, his anxieties. He is asserted so powerfully as a perfect saint that we seem to forget he also was a man. In fact the allusion to the prodigal son of the New Testament (Luke 15:11-32) is dematerialized into some abstract elements: “He was prodigal of love! A spendthrift in devotion to us all – and blessed as he caressed.” The last remark is surprising. When he blessed people it was as if he caressed them with gentleness, but that is also treating people as if they were pets because you do not caress even children, certainly not adults.

And that leads us to the ninth track and the evocation of the Death of Nicolas. I must admit the discourse of Nicolas at this moment is bizarre in many ways. He greets Death as his liberator since he can finally move on to the Lord and he rejoices in that coming meeting and he thanks Christ who saved his soul by dying on the cross. It is extremely self-centered and where is once again the man who was supposed to serve simple people? Not one word for them. The whole Cantata then ends with a hymn that does not open any new door in the field. Yet the last image is once again a surprise:

“The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.”

This idea that the clouds dreaded in life, the clouds of various adverse events, are in fact merciful and can rain onto you in blessings. The oxymoronic nature of these clouds has nevertheless to be set in parallel with the storm during the journey to Palestine. This is slightly outlandish in the modern period, and a few years after the Second World War. How can we consider all difficulties in life are nothing but storms of mercy and blessings from God? A difficulty can only be considered as a blessing if the person concerned has chosen to go through this difficulty. In 1948 more than fifty-five million people had gone through the final difficulty of death and most of them had not chosen that fate. It is difficult to see it as a blessing. No death is a blessing. One must be ready to die any time but not because it is a blessing but because we have done all we had to do on earth properly and we can go without the regret of not having done what was supposed to be done. If our life has not been fulfilled there is no blessing in death, and if life has not been fulfilling then death can only be seen as a blessing if it is an escape from life. Eternal life is neither a reward nor a compensation: it has to be a selfless faith.

In this early work Benjamin Britten seems to be rather in line with some religious orthodoxy more than discovering something new and creative. There are some good elements in the music though but we are still far from the promise he had in him and he was to fulfill soon.


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