Noah’s Flood Synopsis

Britten wrote this work in 1957 for combined professional and amateur performers to present in a “big building … preferably a church – but not a theatre.” His parable is based on one of the “Chester Miracle Plays,” medieval liturgical dramas performed on festival days. The Chester Miracle Plays, named for the city in which they were performed, dated from 1475 to 1500. Miracle plays were performed from sunrise to sunset in churchyards and marketplaces and acted by the city’s Guild members on a cart known as a pageant which moved about the town. In Noah’s Flood, Britten’s goal was in many ways to emulate the uncomplicated style of presentation of the original fourteen and fifteenth century pageants. A common theme in Britten’s works is the conflict between a simple man and corrupt society. This concept is dramatically present in Noah’s Flood, where innocent children and animals present strong contrast to the wickedness of the society God destroys in the flood. Added to these children’s voices are several adult parts–particularly the Voice of God, Noah and Mrs. Noah–with younger adults able to portray the sons of Noah, their wives, and Mrs. Noah’s drinking friends, the Gossips.

The unique orchestration for Noah’s Flood combines orchestral strings, piano, organ, bugles, recorders, and hand-bells, to which Britten has added a large array of unusual percussion instruments like the whip, sandpaper, wind machine, and slung mugs: cups and mugs of various size and thickness tied on a string by their handles in order to form a musical scale. They are hit with wooden spoons to produce the sound of raindrops hitting the roof of the ark. For the original production, Britten himself went to many shops throughout Aldeburgh to find the various cups and mugs that had the appropriate pitch!

The drama commences with the entire audience singing the hymn “Lord Jesus, think on me,” a prayer for purification.  Arriving at the stage, Noah is met by the Voice of God prophesying mankind’s destruction because of sin. God promises to save Noah and his family and tells him to build “a shippe.” So Noah calls upon his family for help and his sons and their wives enter with tools and materials, but Mrs Noah and her drunken Gossips mock the project. The cast then builds the ark on stage (with the hammer-blows supposedly reflecting work taking place in Britten’s house at the time he was composing Noah’s Flood.) When the ark is finished, God tells Noah to fill it with animals. Bugle fanfares sound and pairs of animals enter the ark, singing or squeaking “Kyrie eleison!” The original medieval play mentions forty-nine different species of the animals that are here portrayed by the children.

Mrs. Noah is a cantankerously comic character who stands at the gangplank arguing and chattering noisily with her drunken gossips as she refuses to enter. When her sons bodily carry her into the ark (leaving the Gossips to drown), she slaps her husband as thanks for her salvation. As the storm commences, the orchestra emulates the rising and falling of wind, waves, and the flapping of the rigging as the flood grows more and more fierce. Adrift on the sea, the ark’s passengers panic and begin to sing the naval hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” their singing soon joined by the audience in this prayer for safe deliverance. Finally the storm abates and their frightening episode closes in profound calm.

Noah sends out a raven, but the raven (solo cello) never returns, so Noah knows that it has discovered dry land. He then sends out a dove (solo recorder) which brings back an olive branch. With the rainbow as a sign, God promises a new covenant with mankind, vowing never again to send such a catastrophe. Everyone leaves the ark, singing “Alleluia.” Joined by the audience, the cast recesses to the mighty hymn, “The Spacious Firmament on High,” leaving Noah alone to enjoy the joyous sounds of bugles and celestial bells as they fade to the quiet of God’s blessing.

 

Mrs. Noye is a cantankerously comic character who stands at the gangplank arguing and chattering noisily with her drunken gossips as she refuses to enter. When her sons bodily carry her into the ark (leaving the Gossips to drown), she slaps her husband as thanks for her salvation. As the storm commences, the orchestra emulates the rising and falling of wind, waves, and the flapping of the rigging as the flood grows more and more fierce. Adrift on the sea, the ark’s passengers panic and begin to sing the naval hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” their singing soon joined by the audience in this prayer for safe deliverance. Finally the storm abates and their frightening episode closes in profound calm.

Noye sends out a raven, but the raven (solo cello) never returns, so Noye knows that it has discovered dry land. He then sends out a dove (solo recorder) which brings back an olive branch. With the rainbow as a sign, God promises a new covenant with mankind, vowing never again to send such a catastrophe. Everyone leaves the ark, singing “Alleluia.” Joined by the audience, the cast recesses to the mighty hymn, “The Spacious Firmament on High,” leaving Noye alone to enjoy the joyous sounds of bugles and celestial bells as they fade to the quiet of God’s blessing.

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