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PROGRAM NOTES by Donald Draganski

“At Christmas play, and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year.”
Thomas Tusser, 1580

The earliest reference to carol singing at Christmastime dates from 1020. On Christmas eve of that year, according to one Theodoric, twelve revelers gathered at the Church of St. Magnus in Saxony and proceeded to dance and sing in the churchyard. When the priest asked the group to stop their “profanations” they refused and the overly pious father invoked the wrath of the Lord upon them. The merrymakers discovered that they could not break out of the circle, and thus they danced for one full year, neither drinking nor sleeping, until the curse was lifted the following Christmas Eve.

Nowadays singing and merrymaking at Christmas have happily triumphed over these earlier dour dicta (with some backsliding during the Puritan ascendancy), and our midwinter festivities would be bleak indeed without the singing and conviviality that lie at the very heart of the holidays.


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote his first cantata, Saint Nicolas, for the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, England, in 1948. With a craftsman’s practical eye trained on the resources available for the occasion, he scored the work for a four-part chorus of boys, a girls’ school chorus, and an instrumental ensemble drawn from the student body. The Golden Legend, a thirteenth century collection of legends and lives of the saints, provides the story on which the text is based. This St. Nicolas is quite different from the Santa Claus into which he evolved, but they both share the same propensity for gift-giving.

The INTRODUCTION tells how the saint miraculously appears to a congregation assembled on his feast day. The chorus pleads with the saint to tell his story. THE BIRTH OF NICOLAS describes his baptism, while in the next section, NICOLAS DEVOTES HIMSELF TO GOD, the saint expresses his shock at the miseries of mankind. HE JOURNEYS TO PALESTINE is a vivid tone-painting of his pilgrimage by sea and the violent storm which he quells. NICOLAS COMES TO MYRA AND IS CHOSEN BISHOP features an elaborate chorus as he receives his episcopal staff. This section closes with the congregation joining the chorus in the singing of Old Hundredth.

NICOLAS FROM PRISON depicts an agitated saint as he speculates on the Roman persecution of the Christians. NICOLAS AND THE PICKLED BOYS, the most noteworthy section of this cantata, relates the story of three mothers who mourn their missing sons. The boys have been killed, pickled in brine, and are to be sold as meat to the hungry. (Shades of Sweeney Todd?) The saint, discovering the boys’ predicament, calls them back to life and his prayers are accompanied by an exuberant “Alleluia.” The next section, HIS PIETY AND MARVELOUS WORKS, relates several additional legends associated with Nicolas, including the famous story of the three poverty-stricken daughters who are saved from a life of prostitution by Nicolas’s timely gift of gold for their marriage dowry. The cantata closes with THE DEATH OF NICOLAS, a prayful Nunc Dimittis to the accompaniment of bells.

The North Shore Choral Society has performed Britten’s Saint Nicolas on several occasions, most recently in November 1994.


The other piece by Britten on today’s program, A Boy was born, for unaccompanied mixed chorus, represents one of Britten’s earliest successes. Written when the composer was only twenty-one, it was broadcast with great success over the BBC in 1934, as it heralded the arrival of a bright new star on the English musical scene. The text is adapted from the German hymn “Ein Kind geboren zu Bethlehem,” perhaps better known by the Latin, “Puer natus.” The entire work consists of the hymn followed by six variations. Today’s concert presents only the hymn.


Randall Thompson (1899-1984), often referred to as the dean of American choral composers, received his schooling at Harvard and received his doctorate from the University of Rochester School of Music. During his long and distinguished career he taught at a number of institutions, including Wellesley College, the University of California, the Curtis Institute of Music, the University of Virginia, Princeton University, and finally at his alma mater, Harvard. He always felt that composing and teaching were equally important in his pursuit of music as a vocation.

He wrote his Alleluia for the opening exercises of the Berkshire Music Center near Lenox, Massachusetts, and there it received its first performance in July 1940. NSCS last performed this lively and popular work in 1992.


The Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992) studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and eventually assumed the post of Professor of Music at the University College of Bangor in Wales. Although his musical output encompasses a wide variety of forms, his principal concentration has been on choral music, no doubt influenced by the rich tradition of choral singing among his Welsh countrymen. He died all too soon in his 58th year.

Mathias wrote his Salvator Mundi as a commission for the Cheltenham Ladies’ College in association with the Welsh Arts Council. First performed in 1982, it is scored for women’s voices, with a small instrumental ensemble with a piano duet at its core — including same instrumentation as Britten’s St. Nicolas. All the poems that make up the text are concerned with the Nativity and most are drawn from anonymous sources. However, the second and third movements derive from a manuscript dated 1492 (housed at Cambridge University Library). The manuscript consists of some 270 carols and lyrics relating to Christmas. It was assembled by James Ryman (fl. 1476), a Franciscan friar at Canterbury.


Phillis Margaret Tate (1911-1987) was already composing at an early age, although, like so many other composers, she subsequently destroyed most of her juvenalia. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and enjoyed her first public success in 1947 with a sonata for clarinet and cello. Throughout her professional career she always tried to direct her art to as wide an audience as possible, as evidenced by the large number of her works designed for both amateurs and children.

Carol, with Lullaby, for mixed chorus and piano, was originally included in a collection of carols published by Oxford in 1961; since then the piece has taken on an independent life of its own among choirs throughout the English-speaking world. The words were adapted by the composer from the 15th century Coventry Carol, which relates the slaying of the innocents by King Herod.

Copyright © 2003 by Donald Draganski

Donald Draganski was born in Chicago and received his Bachelor’s degree in music from DePaul University where he studied composition privately with the late Alexander Tcherepnin. He is now retired, after having served as Music Librarian at Roosevelt University for twenty-five years. He holds the chair of first bassoonist with the Evanston Symphony Orchestra and is also composer-in-residence for the Pilgrim Chamber Players. His musical compositions include works in all forms, vocal and instrumental, including his Geometry of Music, a choral piece written in 1985 to mark the 50th anniversary of the North Shore Choral Society. He has been writing program notes for the Society since 1980.

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