Listening to Britten – Noye’s Fludde, Op.59


Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks (1846)

Noye’s Fludde, Op.59 – the Chester miracle play, for adults’ and children’s voices, children’s chorus, chamber ensemble and children’s orchestra (27 October 1957 – March 1958, Britten aged 44)

1 Lord Jesus, think on me (congregation)
2 I God, that all this worlde hath wroughte (God, Noah)
3 Have done, you men and wemen all (Noah and ensemble)
4 Now in the name of God I will begyne (Noah and ensemble)
5 Noye, Noye, take thou thy company (God, Noah and ensemble)
6 Wiffe, come in! why standes thou their? (Noah and Mrs Noah)
7 Ha! Children, me thinkes my botte removes (including Eternal Father, strong to save) (Noah, congregation and ensemble)
8 Now forty dayes are fullie gone (Noah)
9 Noye, take thy wife anone (God, Chorus Of Animals)
10 Noye, heare I behette thee a heste (God and ensemble)
11 The spacious firmament on high (congregation)

Dedication To my nephew and nieces, Sebastian, Sally and Roguey Welford, and my young friend Roger Duncan
Text Chester Miracle Play
Duration 50′

Audio clips

Taken from the Decca recording made in the presence of the composer, conducted by Norman Del Mar. Owen Brannigan plays Noah, while Trevor Anthony is the Voice of God. With thanks to Decca.

1 Lord Jesus, think on me (congregation)

2 I God, that all this worlde hath wroughte (God, Noah)

3 Have done, you men and wemen all (Noah and ensemble)

4 Now in the name of God I will begyne (Noah and ensemble)

5 Noye, Noye, take thou thy company (God, Noah and ensemble)

6 Wiffe, come in! why standes thou their? (Noah and Mrs Noah)

7 Ha! Children, me thinkes my botte removes (Noah, congregation and ensemble)

8 Now forty dayes are fullie gone (Noah)

9 Noye, take thy wife anone (God, Chorus Of Animals)

10 Noye, heare I behette thee a heste (God and ensemble)

11 The spacious firmament on high (congregation)

Background and Critical Reception

‘Few of Britten’s works seem as unambiguously celebratory as Noye’s Fludde‘, writes Heather Wiebe, in a chapter devoted to the opera in her new book Britten’s Unquiet Pasts. ‘While it carries listeners through a narrative of peril and destruction, the outcome is renewal, and with it, the promise of continuity, peace, and community.’

She goes on to describe how the first performance in Orford Church at the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival ‘did not simply recount this narrative; it called on ritual, childhood, the past, the everyday and the local in a compelling performance of community and regeneration.’

Wiebe is talking of a work that perhaps more than any Britten composition has the ability to bring together a community, no matter what their creed, colour, sex or musical standard. Based on an Old Testament story – the story of Noah surviving the great flood through the building of the Ark – it is a work in which anybody can take part.

There are parts for the smallest children – who if they wish can dress up as the animals entering the Ark two by two, or strike percussion instruments and blow recorders at appropriate moments in the story – and there are parts for adults, such as the male voices playing Noah and God. The wide array of percussion instruments include a wind machine and some ‘slung mugs’ (teacups that can be hit) which, as Wiebe notes, associates the work ‘with domesticity and the rituals of everyday life.’

For his text Britten turns to the Bible but through the Chester Miracle Plays, bringing an element of English heritage in to his thinking. Yet, as Wiebe points out, ‘Noye’s Fludde did not restrict itself to the medieval, looking instead to a more continuous English tradition, mainly by way of three familiar hymns from the sixteenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These invocations of community and the practices of an English religious past were inextricably yoked to the work’s central theme: the renewal of the world after destruction.’ The Second World War, in effect?

Frank Howes, reviewing the first production for The Times in June 1958, saw this fusion of old and new: ‘It is Britten’s triumph that in this musically slender piece he has brought to life the mentality of another century by wholly modern means.’

Many people have experienced Britten for the first time through a performance of Noye’s Fludde. That it doesn’t need a great amount of rehearsal to play a minor part helps also. The violinist Thomas Gould revealed to this blog that he was an owl at school, while at the other end BBC Radio 3 controller Roger Wright said he had only just recently participated in a performance. As John Bridcut points out, ‘in my experience it chokes an adult audience every time’.

Perception among some critics is that Noye’s Fludde is dated, but its positioning at the centre of the Southbank Centre’s Britten weekend in the festival The Rest is Noise, and at the climax of BBC Radio 3’s Britten Centenary celebrations last weekend, indicates the contrary, that its setting of one of the most famous Old Testament stories appeals to the imagination of children, young and old alike.

Thoughts

Noye’s Fludde is an unadulterated delight from beginning to end, a story of overcoming hardship that strikes home with great conviction on the very first listen. For this and many other reasons I cannot see how this is a piece ‘for children’ – everyone can take something from it, the adults surely warming to its themes of renewal and triumph over adversity. Yet if this does indeed prove to be a young child’s first experience of performing music, then they are likely never to forget it!

The singing of the congregational hymns is powerful and affirmative, bringing in anybody from the stage to the back of the venue in music that carries all before it – rather like a flood. Even the flood itself, which constantly threatens with rolling drums and an ominous four note motif, does not ultimately overwhelm the positivity of the music. The hymn choice here is especially poignant, with the refrain of O God, our help in ages past, ‘o hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea’, particularly telling. How appropriate, not just in the context of the story, but Britten’s sea-faring community.

On this occasion God has a powerful speaking voice, while Noah is a baritone – as one might imagine him. To have God speaking rather than singing works well, as it does in Paul Bunyan – the enormous being speaking from above, outside of the music itself.

Britten takes each chance for dramatic representation with glee. The moment when the dove descends to the Ark, showing Noah there is still life out there after 150 days of the earth being covered by water, is magically portrayed by flutter tonguing on the recorder, a brilliant effect to represent the dove’s cooing.

Britten brings to Noye’s Fludde the easy charm of his writing for children, too, and the lines for beginners are ideal. It does not even matter if they are performed badly, because the score allows for approximations of rhythm and pitch, recognising the fact that children in the early stages of musical development cannot be expected to have the discipline of their elders.

Despite the multi-layered references to the past, there is some forward looking music here. The beginning of The spacious firmament on high, the final section, is one of the most innovative, the struck percussion bearing more than a passing similarity to the Pagodas section in The Prince of the Pagodas. The ending is rather moving, too, with its new beginnings, the slate wiped clean.

Noye’s Fludde, then, is a work for today and tomorrow as well as yesterday, uniting a whole community in its sentiments but never preaching. That is quite some achievement in any composer’s book.

Recordings used

Trevor Anthony (the Voice of God), Owen Brannigan (Noye), Sheila Rex (Mrs Noye), David Pinto (Sem), Darien Angadi (Hem), Stephen Alexander (Jaffett), Chorus, Chorus of Animals, English Opera Group Orchestra, An East Suffolk
children’s orchestra / Norman Del Mar

Richard Pasco (the Voice of God), Donald Maxwell (Noye), Linda Ormiston (Mrs Noye), Alexander Gallifant (Sem), Timothy Lamb (Hem), Nicholas Berry (Jaffett), Schools’ Choir and Orchestra from schools of Salisbury and Chester, Coull String Quartet, Endymion Ensemble / Richard Hickox (Virgin Classics)

Norman Del Mar oversees a performance full of drama and passion, with the rolling percussion and piano of the English Opera Group playing an important part in the depiction of the flood itself. Owen Brannigan plays Noah superbly, while the voice of God is brilliantly spoken by Trevor Anthony.

Richard Hickox oversees a more ‘churchy’ performance, with greater weight to the congregational sections and a blast on the organ at key points. Yet his flood is not quite so vivid as Del Mar’s.

Spotify

This playlist contains three versions – the two mentioned above, with Del Mar on Decca and Hickox on Virgin Classics conducting, and a third version on Somm with the Benjamin Luxon, David Wilson-Johnson and the Finchley Children’s Music Group conducted by Nicholas Wilks.

Also written in 1958: Vaughan Williams – Symphony no.9 in E minor

Next up: Soldier, won’t you marry me?

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This entry was posted in Choir and orchestra, Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Radio score, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Noye’s Fludde, Op.59

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Psalm 150, Op.67 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Cantata misericordium, Op.69 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Golden Vanity, Op.78 | Good Morning Britten

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