Pickled boys and Sublime Christmas Music

Ipswich Chamber Choir’s Christmas Concert is a joyful celebration of singing together and includes Palestrina’s Tribus Miraculis (The Wonderful Gifts), Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Britten’s delightful St Nicolas which, in its first recording in 1955 featured boy trebles from St Mary-le-Tower Choristers and Ipswich School. We are recreating this group of “Pickled boys” and the boy Nicolas from both choirs. 

Benedict Collins Rice

Stuart Grimwade, one of the boy trebles on the first recording, recalls Benjamin Britten coming to rehearse them: “I remember him saying he wanted us to sing with our mouths as wide open ‘as if you had the biggest gob-stopper in it’, especially when singing ‘alleluia’ with long emphasis on the ‘ia’ for the mouth open bit. 

“It all seemed very jolly and simple and he said it would just be a bit of fun.  At the end of the rehearsal, he just said cheerio and threw us a bag of gob-stoppers, so we would remember to sing loudly with our mouths as wide open as possible. Even on the day, we had no idea it was being recorded, let alone on a new-fangled thing called an LP, which I doubt any of us had ever seen or heard before, being used to wind-up 78rpm gramophones.” 

patron saint of children and of sailors, Nicolas’ story is divided into nine sections. The fourth tells that when Nicolas sailed to Palestine and the sailors were gambling he prophesied a tempest. Britten generates excitement with lots of percussion to depict a stormy sea and the sailors jeering at Nicolas kneeling in prayer. Finally, the frightened sailors pray and the storm ceases.

The climax of the story is the seventh movement, “Nicolas and the Pickled Boys”.  A group of weary travellers mourns three boys who have gone missing.  It is a time of famine and when they sit down in the tavern to eat, Nicolas tells them not to touch the food. It’s the boys, “slaughtered by the butchers’ knife”! Nicolas performs a miracle bringing the boys back to life to general rejoicing. The three boys enter singing “Alleluia”, then the women’s voices and finally the men join in: this is a special moment reflecting the relief and joy of the boys’ mothers.

The piece includes two hymns that the audience joins in singing. The death of Nicolas and the hymn “God moves in a mysterious way” brings the work to a moving end and reminds us how bonding it is to sing together, as we did in childhood.  

Benjamin Britten notes in the score, “The conductor must be cool-headed and should turn to the audience to conduct them in the two hymns”.

Their gifted young conductor Benedict Collins Rice can be relied on for inspirational yet sensitive and unerring guidance.

Come and celebrate with them on Saturday 4 December at 7pm in Ipswich’s beautiful St Margaret’s Church, Soane Street IP4 2BE.

Tickets £15, students free, from: choir members, Musicworld, Queen Street, Ipswich, Woodbridge Violins, Market Hill, Woodbridge or from WeGotTickets via www.ipswichchamberchoir.org.uk

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