For the conductor, singing the title role in Benjamin Britten’s cantata at the age of 19 was a life-changing experience.
My first introduction to the music of Benjamin Britten was in year eight at Crows Nest Boys High School in Sydney. My music teacher thought it a good idea for me to learn some of his folksong arrangements such as Oliver Cromwell and Sally Gardens. I didn’t exactly love them at first sight – they seemed academic, a little too clever for school – but I persisted with them because they had an originality that intrigued me.
Fast forward a few years, I was taken by a friend to the (then) Australian Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw. It was a dark and brooding work brilliantly realised by Neil Armfield. While I wasn’t old enough to fully understand some of the more “adult” subplots surrounding the curious relationship of Peter Quint to the two children, I remember being quite spooked and finding it ten times more gripping than The Magic Flute or Carmen.
Then I saw Peter Grimes and suddenly Britten’s music became a life long passion for me. I still maintain that the claustrophobic nature of the work, in which a community turns on one of it’s own, is one of the best introductions to not only the power of Britten’s music but the power of opera itself.
Peter Grimes was written during the War and premiered at Sadlers Wells in 1945: hardly an optimistic piece for a London recently shocked to its core by the Blitz. Regardless of its controversial subject matter which on one level is child abuse, it made almost overnight stars of its composer, Britten and his leading man, Peter Pears. Three years later, they would start a great festival celebration of community with the first Aldeburgh Festival and, to open the season, a new work, Saint Nicolas.
How curious that at this relatively early stage in Britten’s career, he should write a work around the patron saint of children. Childhood and a yearning for the innocence of childhood, although Britten’s own early years weren’t all happy, would permeate his writing and subject matter from Billy Budd to his final masterpiece, Death in Venice. His two major preoccupations were the innocence of childhood and the role of artists in the society they live. This is the man who wrote A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, also in 1945!
It’s fascinating to look at his cantata Saint Nicolas through these two lenses, as a celebration of youth and as one of Britten’s first compositions that required a congregational response. In the first movement, the choir invokes the spirit of Nicolas accompanied by an orchestra that Britten states could be made up of amateur and student string players. In the second movement, the melodic language and rhythm of nursery rhymes is used to recount the childhood of Nicolas and is written for boy trebles and altos with “the boy Nicolas” to be sung by “the youngest boy in the choir”, according to the composer.
Only at the very end of this movement, accompanied by the boldness of the grand organ, do we encounter the fully blown and operatically trained tenor voice of Nicolas the adult. At the midway point, Britten calls on his audience to lend their voices to the Old One Hundreth, “All people that on earth do dwell.” The whole community is singing – not just the performers.
This then is a manifesto on the role of art and music in our society and on the education of children. Britten is often quoted as believing that the artist should be an active part of his community, that schools should employ artists and – as he did as an outspoken pacifist – that artists should take stands no matter how unpopular or unfashionable. It sounds much like the inspirational music educationalist Richard Gill who programmed the concert that I am conducting with the Sydney Chamber Choir.
Saint Nicolas cannot be performed without bringing together amateur musicians with professionals, children’s choruses with adult choruses and an active audience who are willing to be involved in the collective telling of the tale. It is a model he would go on to exploit in works such as Friday Afternoons and Noye’s Fludde.
So I was lucky to experience Saint Nicolas for the first time at the impressionable age of 19 when I was asked to sing the title role with the Sydney University Graduates Choir in the Great Hall of Sydney University. That experience changed my life.
I was enrolled at Sydney University not totally sure of what I wanted to do: acting, singing, conducting or to be a lawyer. That night the music director of The Song Company was in the audience and I was asked to audition. I sang, ironically, the prologue to Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Law was forgotten and I eventually graduated from Sydney University as a singer.
More than twenty years on, performing this work feels like coming full circle. Richard Gill memorably once told a workshop for music teachers that all teaching is an act of faith and that you never know whose life you might be changing. My life changed when my music teacher at high school detected a musician in me and encouraged me to sing with the Sydney Schools’ Singers.
It is so special for me that that group which opened up so many possibilities for me should be singing in this performance as well. My hope for this concert is that in that choir, now the NSW Public School Singers, or the Santa Sabina Chamber Choir, there will be a kid who has the revelation I had many years ago while singing this same piece – I want to be a musician and make music for the rest of my life. Like Saint Nicolas and his calling to God, music is a vocation rather than a profession.
Britten’s ethos in his music and music-making profoundly influenced my career and I hope will influence the careers of many more to come.
Brett Weymark conducts Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas with the Sydney Chamber Choir, Santa Sabina Chamber Choir, NSW Public Schools Singers, NSW Public Schools Percussion Ensemble at the University of Sydney’s Great Hall on July 23.