Christmas in Britten

TONY COOPER An early choral work by Benjamin Britten – the cantata St Nicolas – is at the heart of the annual Christmas concert by the Britten Sinfonia in St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, on Thursday, December 9.

TONY COOPER

An early choral work by Benjamin Britten – the cantata St Nicolas – is at the heart of the annual Christmas concert by the Britten Sinfonia in St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, on Thursday, December 9 (7.30pm).

A marvellous and miraculous piece not heard in Norwich for many years, it is is a joy to hear and appropriate for this time of year.

The composer's only cantata, it was written in 1948 to a libretto by Eric Crozier to commemorate the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, of whom Britten's partner, Peter Pears, was a former member.

Unlike the other works in the programme, this work does not focus upon the birth of Jesus; the subject of this story is the life of St Nicolas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra (in Asia Minor).

It is not clear quite how much of the events represented in the text by Crozier are true, as few facts about St Nicolas' life are certain. However, it seems that he was born into a wealthy family and decided to give his money and possessions to charity when his parents died of the plague.

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The many miracles he is said to have performed include rescuing three girls from prostitution, saving three sailors from drowning in a storm and reviving three small boys who had been pickled in brine by an evil butcher!

The latter tale led to the tradition of giving presents to deserving children and, since the feast of St Nicolas falls on December 6, it's easy to see how this celebration soon became merged with that of Christmas.

The other main work in the programme is Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols and this charming piece includes four Christmas carols: The Truth Sent From Above and Come All You Worthy Gentlemen (Hertfordshire), On Christmas Night (Sussex) and There is a Fountain (Herefordshire).

In addition to these carol melodies by Vaughan Williams, fragments from other carols also appear including The First Nowell, The Virgin Unspotted and The Wassail Song. Also included in the programme is Sir Roger de Coverley by Frank Bridge, The Little Road to Bethlehem by Michael Head, Nativity Carol by John Rutter, The Three Kings by Peter Cornelius and The Holy Boy by John Ireland.

Joining the Britten Sinfonia in this concert are the BBC Singers and the choristers of Norwich Cathedral with guest soloists Timothy Robinson (tenor) and Jonathan Lemalu (baritone). The conductor is Stephen Layton.

Jonathan Lemalu will give a pre-performance talk at 6.30pm.

Tickets £25 to £5 are available from Norwich Theatre Royal on 01603 630000