Zoltan Kodaly: “Nobody should be above writing for children. On the contrary, we should strive to be good enough to do so.”
Boston audiences will have a chance to both hear and participate in a single singular work, Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, when Trinity Church on April 4th and 5th offers what has been described as children’s opera, pageant, church opera, miracle play, and community opera. The title page calls it “an adaptation of the Chester Mystery play,” possibly dating back 500 years; with artful construction and characteristic-style features, the work, child-centered, is remarkably effective, earning its place alongside Britten’s other operas.
David McFerrin sings Noye, Katherine Growdon sings the missus, Kirsten Z. Cairns directs, and Richard Webster conducts. Choristers and members of Trinity Church (children and adults alike) will sing and play, joined by members of the Boston City Singers and Boston Children’s Chorus.
Noye’s Fludde was the conclusion of one Britten series (intergenerational works The Little Sweep and Saint Nicolas) and the ancestor of another (the Parables for Church Performance). Listeners who subscribe to the old saw that Britten is “clever but lacking in warmth” will find both warmth and craft here. Indeed, the genre-blurring Noye’s Fludde balances finely at the point between professional and amateur, sacred and secular, ancient and modern.
Professional and amateur
In a letter to baritone Owen Brannigan recruiting him to play Noye, Britten described opera this way: “I am writing an operatic version of one of the Chester Mystery Plays, “Noah’s Deluge” .… It is not a very long affair (less than an hour). I am writing it for two grownups and six professional children, and literally hundreds of local school children in the choruses. We are doing two or three performances in a very beautiful local church (Orford), very much in the naïve mediaeval style.”
Among cast and orchestra, there are usually 13 professionals, as well as a diverse group of children including Britten’s professional children—skilled treble soloists—as well as comic teen girls, instrumentalists, and a huge chorus of animals. The animal chorus need not be highly trained; their part is repetitive, simple but memorable, allowing students of a very young age to contribute. (My 2013 production included a few five-year-olds.) The group includes some broken voices and is limited only by the number of costumes and ark space. At the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival premiere, some of the animal pairs processed right through the ark and offstage for lack of space!
Unusually, the intergenerational concept extends to the instrumental parts. Britten’s orchestration combines elements of his familiar chamber-opera scoring (string quintet, piano fourhands, recorder, timpani, organ) with the instruments of English school life in the 1950s: strings, recorders, bugles, handbells, percussion. Each professional operates in the chamber ensemble and also leads a large ripieno of children/amateurs. The ripieno parts are a masterstroke of innovation by technical limitation: in the strings, violin I includes simple doublestops and does not go above third position; violin II stays mostly in first position; and violin III has many measures of only open strings. Thus can young students sit in an opera ensemble early in their playing careers. From the many tacet sections, they even learn practical skills of ensemble playing: counting measures and following the first chair.
Sacred and secular
Britten took his libretto from the Chester Mystery Plays, medieval dramas that began as illustrative moments in worship led by the clergy. As they grew, they moved out of the church (eventually clergy were forbidden to participate) and into the streets. They became community events, each play in the cycle the responsibility of a different guild. Although sacred at heart, the Chester plays included colorful anachronism and comic relief—in this one, the cantankerous Mrs. Noye, who refuses to go along with her husband’s plan.
Britten’s choice of text was inspired. Mystery plays had a revival in the 1950s, and in 1952 Britten set one of the other Chester plays, Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac. Importantly, the Early Modern English text is archaic from the outset; there is no contemporary dialogue to go stale, a problem that plagues youth-oriented projects, like Copland’s The Second Hurricane, a direct inspiration to Britten.
Britten and his stage director John Culshaw wrote that Noye’s Fludde should be mounted “in a large building, preferably a church—but not a theatre.” Britten did not want the stage to separate players from audience and undermine the community spirit of the Chester plays. Despite the organ, handbells, and ancient sacred story, a church setting is not necessary, just the most expedient type of building. While most contemporary productions are mounted in churches, notable productions have recently been seen in outdoor pavilions, town halls, zoos, and theaters.
Britten does designate the audience as “congregation” and adds three hymns to the libretto. The hymns are the pillars of the opera, placed at the beginning, middle, and end. Their tunes are also motivic generators for Noye’s Fludde—it would not exist without them. These are not Greek choruses or Bach chorales; when the ark tosses in the storm, the panicked inhabitants and congregation sing the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The opening hymn’s prominent minor third becomes a leitmotif for impending danger through the first half of the opera. And the recessional hymn, an eight-part canon, requires hearty singing from the congregation lest Noye be overmatched by the crowd of animals going forth to multiply.
Ancient and Modern
All who work in church music are familiar with the proliferation of disposable kids’ music. Anthems and musicals, slapped together with little thought, feature recorded accompaniment and language that will grow stale before Easter. Such materials are published, bought, and performed in the service of attracting children into church and music. Durable and musical, Noye’s Fludde is the opposite, an intergenerational reenactment of an ancient story; the opera is at once BCE and medieval and mid-20th century. Britten displays considerable skill in order to operate within the technical limitations without diluting his compositional style. Despite his own description of Noye’s Fludde as “naïve medieval,” it becomes a little primer on 20th-century techniques.
Take the final hymn. While the strings and voices play the G major canon in eight voices, the rest of the orchestra plays an unusual ostinato. The bugles (limited to the B-flat harmonic series) play in G-mixolydian to accommodate F-natural, joined by the recorders. The handbells peal in B-flat pentatonic, assisted by the pianos, who also operate in C pentatonic. With a canon and an ostinato operating simultaneously, Britten has somehow created an environment where F, F-sharp, B, and F-flat coexist, and accompany congregational singing. And the recessional is not the only element of polytonality. Earlier, Mrs. Noye and her gossips (played by teenage girls) are given a bitonal tune. With the memorable instruction “slow and lumpy,” the orchestra lumps along in E minor while the cast sings all along the dominant chord. The opening hymn is surrounded by semitonal clashes and cross-rhythms.
Britten was a master of passacaglia (Peter Grimes, the “Dirge” from Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Cello Symphony) and here the storm passacaglia is mighty. The serpentine ground bass, representing the inexorable rising waters, uses all 12 tones. More referential than actually dodecaphonic, the ground bass remains audibly in C through the repetition of G. Every four-bar phrase includes seven minor thirds, reflecting both the leitmotif of danger and the large-scale tonal journey from E minor (sinful humanity) to G major (a re-created world). Other demonstrations of compositional techniques are straightforward but heartwarming, such as the dove’s return flight in exact retrograde of its departure. The first fat raindrops of the storm are played by slung mugs (a specially constructed instrument) and piano; their inversion marks the very end of the danger and brings palpable sweetness. Halfway through the 20th century, here was the generally tonal composer putting polytonality, dodecaphony, retrograde, and inversion into the ears of the next generation of performers/listeners/consumers … and in a manner more artful than didactic. It is a lovable work: the cheery syncopations of treble soloists, the building of an ark onstage, the summoning of the animals by the bugles, and the unveiling of the rainbow with bell tones often profoundly affects adults as much as children.
Models of performance
By 1981, Christopher Headington wrote of Noye’s Fludde’s frequent performance in England, calling it “an institution like Messiah, and one that is arguably still more involving, and more personal.” In this country, about 800 known productions have gone up since the American premiere, at Union Theological Seminary. Since the 1980s, the number of performances has declined sharply. Perhaps a renewal of interest will follow from the Britten centennial year and the film Moonrise Kingdom, which features Noye’s Fludde as both soundtrack and plot point.
Culshaw, the original director, spoke admiringly of the piece as attainable by nearly any community according to their resources. A great deal of flexibility is written into the score, with targets (“four or more,” “at least a dozen”) instead of requirements. Written for a specifically English community, it mostly translates to contemporary American productions, with a few exceptions. The hymns are still familiar to American churchgoers, the bugle parts easily played on a B-flat trumpet. The recorder parts, however, are a challenge; since most American students play recorder only as a pre-band instrument, the seating of a young section to execute the parts of Noye’s Fludde is very difficult. My small church production used four professionals and two amateurs with reduced parts; Trinity will use a mixture of children and adults in their orchestra, including the recorder section.
New England has a history with Noye’s Fludde: Revels founder Jack Langstaff was a champion, and Cantata Singers allied with PALS Children’s Chorus performed the opera five years ago. The First Congregational Church of Greenwich CT presents the work quadrennially. In the last year, a variety of institutions have taken it up: Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, Opera Theater of Weston in Vermont, and my own three-church collaboration in Westwood MA. I am especially excited for this upcoming production, because Trinity Church and its partners have the population to mount a full production, a magnificent space to utilize, and the audience to inspire further productions at the parish level.
See related review here.
Joshua Hawkins Nannestad is a choral conductor for Milford Public Schools, First Parish of Westwood, and Gordon College. He is also a doctoral student at Boston University.