Op. 59 (1957)

The Chester Miracle Play set to Music by Britten
For adults and children’s voices, children’s chorus, chamber ensemble and children’s orchestra

The text is from English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes

Duration: 50 minutes
First performance: 18 June 1958, Orford Church, Aldeburgh Festival

Cast

The Voice of God: Speaking role
Noye: Bass-baritone
Mrs Noye: Contralto
Sem, Ham and Jaffett: Boy trebles
Mrs Sem, Mrs Ham, Mrs Jaffett: Girl sopranos
Chorus of Animals and Birds
Children (SATB)
The Congregation

A page from Britten’s copy of the Chester Miracle Plays, with annotations.

Scoring

Professional ensemble
Treble recorder
Timpani
Piano (four hands)
Organ
String quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass)

Amateur/children’s orchestra
Descant recorder (2 parts)
Treble recorders
Bugles in B flat (in four parts)
12 handbells in E flat
Percussion: bass drum, tenor drum, side drum, tambourine, cymbal, triangle, whip, gong, Chinese blocks, wind machine, sandpaper, slung mugs
Strings (violin in 3 parts, viola, cello in two parts, double bass)

Publisher

Boosey & Hawkes

Buy, rent or view score

What’s it About?

After the congregation has sung the hymn ‘Lord Jesus, think on me’, the Voice of God is heard warning Noye that he has decided to destroy sinful man and all living things, save Noye and his family. They must therefore construct a boat according to God’s specifications. Noye and his family start building – all except his wife, who sits drinking with her ‘gossips’, as she calls her friends. Meanwhile Noye is instructed to collect two of all the animals. The animals duly enter, and since Mrs Noye continues to refuse to enter the ark, her sons carry her aboard just before the water sweeps away her gossips. At the height of the flood all join in the hymn ‘Eternal Father, strong so save’. After forty days, Noye sends a raven to seek for dry land but it does not return. Next he sends a dove, which returns with an olive branch in its beak – a sign of peace between God and man. When Noye and his passengers disembark, God sets a rainbow in the sky as a pledge that he will never flood the earth again. All join in the hymn ‘The spacious firmament on high’.

Did You Know?

1. The original commission came from the TV channel Associated Rediffusion who approached Britten to write an opera for schools. The idea had been to film Britten during the creative process over a number of episodes.

2. Children from all over Suffolk auditioned to take part in the opera and over 80 of them were cast as the animals.

3. Britten made a ‘demo’ record in order to help the children learn the music. The composer, Pears, Imogen Holst, Colin Graham (the producer of the original production) and Britten’s two sisters sang through the entire work. The recording exists, and is in the Archive at The Red House.

4. The opera has been widely performed all over the world and adapted to suit a huge range of different venues and circumstances, for example a production in 2013 at Belfast Zoo, and a film made by the Isango opera company which is set in a South African township featuring ‘Mama Noye’. A production of Fludde is a key moment in Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise.

5. It is the first work Britten completed after his move to The Red House in 1957.

Find out more

A short film made by the Britten-Pears Foundation in 2008.

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