Edward Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest of the generation of English composers which followed the so-called English Musical Renaissance of the early 20th c., was born in 1913 in the North Sea coastal town of Lowestoft, East Anglia. An original and prolific composer throughout his 63 years, Britten began composing as a child, encouraged by his mother. In addition to his operas, several of which have become fixtures in modern opera houses, Britten wrote a large repertoire of orchestral music, chamber music, songs and song arrangements, secular and church cantatas and non-operatic music dramas, concerti for violin and piano, works for solo instruments, and incidental music for films, radio dramas, and plays. His Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is an extremely popular work which effectively combines musical education with pleasant, melodious listening, and demonstrates Britten's skill as an arranger of other people's themes (the Young Person's Guide is based on the music of Henry Purcell, one of Britten's favorite early English composers). The War Requiem, set to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a young poet killed in World War I, remains one of the most searing of all musical denunciations of war and its tragic aftermath.
Britten came to Aspen in July, 1964, to receive the first-ever Aspen award, a $3,000.00 prize given by the chairman of the Institute of Humanistic Studies to honor "the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities." This award was inscribed: "to Benjamin Britten, who, as a brilliant composer, performer, and interpreter through music of human feelings, moods, and thoughts, has truly inspired man to understand, clarify and appreciate more fully his own nature, purpose, and destiny." In 1976, the year of his death, Queen Elizabeth II elevated Britten to a life peerage, honoring his service to British music.
Because he was a life-long pacifist and a conscientious objector, Britten moved to America in 1937 in an attempt to escape the war which was obviously approaching in Europe. Nevertheless, love of his homeland remained constant and deep, and he continued to write music concerned with Britain and British subjects. In 1943 he returned home to finish work on his opera Peter Grimes, the first post-war production at Covent Garden in London, and one of the most popular of all twentieth century operas.
In 1947 Britten and Peter Pears, the tenor for whom Britten wrote most of his major roles and his lifelong friend, toured with the English Opera Group (which they had helped found), a small group dedicated to the performance of chamber operas, in performances of Albert Herring. During a tiring period of travel between festivals someone remarked, "Why not make our own Festival?" Thought turned quickly to substance, and the Aldeburgh Festival was born. Aldeburgh served primarily as a showcase for English operas, as well as the place where many of Britten's own works were given their premières. From the opening in June, 1948, until the end of his working life Britten focused his efforts primarily toward the Festival, composing music of all sorts, as well as performing, and undertaking administrative duties.
In his published response to the Aspen award, Britten said he believed in "occasional music … Almost every piece I have ever written has been composed with a certain occasion in mind, and usually for definite performers." In 1957, after hearing a concert performed by several hundred East Suffolk children in Aldeburgh Church, Britten decided to write a work for school children to sing and play and act in a "big building, … preferably a church – but not a theatre." He chose to base his church parable on a Chester Miracle play, a form of medieval drama based on church liturgy with the addition of dialogue and dramatic action, originally performed in Latin. Miracle plays, which lasted from sunrise to sunset, were performed by one of the Guilds on a cart known as a pageant, which moved about the town. The plays were given in churchyards and marketplaces on church festival days. The Chester Miracle Plays, so named because of the city in which they were performed, dated from 1475 to 1500. Britten frequently based his work on the conflict between a simple man and corrupt society and this theme is dramatically present in Noye's Fludde, where the innocent children and animals present a strong contrast to the wickedness of the society God destroys in the flood. Noye's Fludde, featuring children as performers, also contains an adult speaking part – the Voice of God, and Noye and Mrs. Noye are sung by a bass-baritone and contralto, respectively. The original Chester Miracle play contained forty-nine different species of animals; Britten used thirty-five kinds of animals in pairs in the first production of Noye's Fludde. All of the animals are played by children.
The orchestration for Noye's Fludde was written for amateur players as well as for some professionals. Britten added unusual instruments to a large percussion section, i.e., handbells and slung mugs: cups and mugs of various size and thickness which were slung on string by their handles in order to form a rough scale. They were hit with wooden spoons to produce the sound of the first raindrops hitting the roof of the ark.
The drama commences with the entire congregation (including the audience) singing the hymn "Lord Jesus, think on me," which Britten has set as a rather wild march. Noye makes his way to the stage and hears the Voice of God accusing mankind of sin, declaiming that man has thrown away God's blessings. God's Voice prophesies destruction but because of Noah's righteousness God promises to save Noah and his family. Noah summons the family to assist in building an ark to escape the approaching flood and we hear a work theme with hammer-blows, which reflected work taking place in Britten's house at the time he was composing Noye's Fludde.
When the ark is finished, we hear the sound of bugle calls as the animals enter. This pacifist composer was not thinking of military bugles – instead, he was emulating those he heard so frequently as summonses in the public schools he attended as a boy. The animals themselves sing repetitions of Kyrie eleison as they enter the ark, passing through the congregation to do so.
In the Chester Miracle play Mrs. Noye is a comic character, perverse and cantankerous, and Britten maintains these qualities. We see her standing at the foot of the gangplank, arguing and chatting noisily with her gossips as she refuses to enter the ark. Finally her sons carry her bodily into the ark (she boxes her husband's ears as thanks for her salvation) and the storm commences. Britten has the orchestra emulate the rising and falling of the wind, the waves, and the flapping rigging as the storm comes nearer and nearer, and finally the sounds of the first raindrops fall heavily as the wooden spoons hit the slung mugs. The animals panic as the storm increases, but gradually they and they people begin to sing the hymn "Eternal Father, strong to save." The sounds of the storm continue, but begin slowly to abate as the singing grows stronger and stronger, joined by large orchestral forces. Now the storm incidents grow shorter until the episode closes in profound calm, with spattering raindrops still played on the slung mugs and the piano.
Noah sends out two birds, a Raven and a Dove, to spy on the land and the waters. The music of the birds is closely related as the Raven dances off to a fast waltz, and the Dove flies after the Raven in a graceful G Major waltz. The Dove returns with an olive branch as Noah sings a simple song in which he tells us that it is "a signe of peace." Now we heard God's Voice speaking quietly, offering forgiveness, telling the creatures of the ark to go forth and multiply. Once again we hear bugle calls, muted this time, as the animals and humans leave the ark two by two. We are reminded of the work theme, which metamorphoses into the joyous music of ritual, with tolling bells. God's benediction is given and the congregation sings the final hymn, "The spacious firmament on high" as man is united with God in peace. The music swells to joyous sounds of the bugles and the bells, gradually ending in the quiet of a protracted G Major triad.
NB: "a signe of peace" is a quote from the score, and is not misspelled.
Copyright © 1996 by Jane Erb, All Rights Reserved.