Tuesday 6 December - He Journeys to Palestine (from Saint Nicolas, by Benjamin Britten)

CD Cover

Performed by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

This fourth movement of the cantata depicts a sea voyage bringing Nicolas to Palestine. During this voyage, a mighty storm assails the ship, perhaps as punishment to the faithless sailors who have mocked the pious saint. The storm is terrifying, and the sailors despair. Amidst the violent winds, waves, and rain, Nicolas gathers the sailors in prayer, and the storm subsides.

Nicolas sailed for Palestine
Across the sunlit seas.
The South West Wind blew soft and fair,
Seagulls hovered through the air,
And spices scented the breeze.

Everyone felt that land was near:
All dangers were now past:
Except for one who knelt in prayer,
Fingers clasped and head quite bare,
Alone by the mizzen-mast.

The sailors jeered at Nicolas,
Who paid them no regard,
Until the hour of sunset came
When up he stood and stopped their game
Of staking coins on cards.

Nicolas spoke and prophesied
A tempest far ahead.
The sailors scorned his words of fear,
Since sky and stars shone bright and clear
So ‘Nonsense!’ they all said.

Darkness was soon on top of them,
But still the South Wind blew.
The Captain went below to sleep
And left the helmsman there to keep
His course with one of the crew.

Nicolas swore he’d punish them
For mocking at the Lord.
The wind arose, the thunder roared,
Lightning split the waves that poured
In wild cascades on board.

Waterspouts rose in majesty
Until the ship was tossed
Abaft, aback, astern, abeam,
Lit by lightning’s livid gleam
And all aboard cried ‘Lost!’

Lightning hisses through the night
Blinding sight with living light!
Winds and tempests howl their cry
Of battle through the raging sky!
Waves repeat their angry roar,
Fall and spring again once more!
Thunder rends the sky asunder
With its savage shouts of wonder!
Lightning, Thunder, Tempest, Ocean
Praise their God with voice and motion!

Spare us! Save us! Saviour!
Man the pumps! Lifeboats! Lower away!
Axes! Shorten sail! Reef her! Heave to!
Let her run before the wind!
Pray to God! Kneel and pray! Pray!

Nicolas waited patiently
Till they were on their knees:
Then down he knelt in thankfulness
Begging God their ship to bless
And make the storm to cease.

O God! we are all weak, sinful, foolish men.
We pray from fear and from necessity -
At death, in sickness or private loss.
Without the prick of fear our conscience sleeps,
Forgetful of Thy Grace.

Help us, O God! to see more clearly.
Tame our stubborn hearts.
Teach us to ask for less
And offer more in gratitude to Thee.
Pity our simplicity, for we are truly pitiable in Thy sight.

The winds and waves lay down to rest,
The sky was clear and calm.
The ship sailed onward without harm
And all creation sang a psalm
Of loving thankfulness.

Beneath the stars the sailors slept
Exhausted by their fear, while I
Knelt down for love of God on high
And saw His angels in the sky
Smile down at me – and wept.