• Simon Holt
  • St Vitus in the Kettle (2008)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • 2+pic.2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/4.2.2+btbn.1/2perc/hp/6db
  • 6 min

Programme Note

Walking round the Bode Museum in Berlin at the beginning of 2008, I came upon a medieval sculpture of the fourth century martyr St. Vitus depicted bubbling away in a cauldron of boiling lead. Looking rather serene and yet not a little comical, he seemed to be some way over the age of between 7 and 12 – the age that unreliable legend tells us he was at the time of his martyrdom. He is reputed to have performed many miracles including curing the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s son of an evil spirit. However, as he was a devout Christian, he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and so his miraculous cure was put down to sorcery. He was consequently tortured in numerous ways, including being dipped into a cauldron of boiling lead from which he leapt unscathed.

In the 16th century, for whatever improbable reason, the Germans believed that by dancing in front of his statue on the saint’s feast day, they would be granted a year’s good health. Naturally the dancing became a mania and was eventually confused with a nervous disorder known as St. Vitus’ dance. According to one 19th-century commentator:

“St. Vitus’ dance attacked people of all stations, especially those who led a sedentary life, such as shoemakers and tailors. However, even the most robust peasants abandoned their labours in the fields, as if they were possessed by evil spirits. Their fury and extravagance of demeanour so completely deprived them of their senses, that many of them dashed their brains out against the walls and corners of buildings, or they rushed headlong into rivers and a watery grave. Roaring and foaming as they were, alarmed bystanders could only begin to restrain them by placing benches and chairs in their way, so that, by the high leaps they were then tempted to take, their strength might be exhausted. As early as the fourteenth century, magistrates ordered that the swarms of dancers were accompanied by minstrels playing noisy, lively melodies on fifes and trumpets, in the vain hope that the stimulating effects of the shrill sounds would produce a paroxysm vivid enough to exhaust the violence of the attack. By means of this intoxicating music a kind of demoniacal festival for the rude multitude was established, which had the effect of spreading this unhappy malady wider and wider.”
(extract from The Black Death and the Dancing Mania by J. F. C. Hecker, translated by B. G. Babington)

St. Vitus is the patron saint of actors, comedians, Czechoslovakia, epileptics and dancers; he protects against snake and dog bites, lightning and storms.

The piece is scored for wind, brass, percussion and harp with 6 double basses and is dedicated to John Fosbrook and Madeleine Bradbury-Rance as a (very) late wedding present. It lasts about five and a half minutes.



St Vitus in the Kettle