- Arnold Whittall
‘Chester miracle play’ in one act, op.59, by Benjamin Britten to his own libretto; Orford Church, Suffolk, 18 June 1958.
This 50-minute work was composed for the Aldeburgh Festival, with the aim of involving young singers and players alongside professionals. After a preludial hymn, ‘Lord Jesus think on me’, sung by the congregation, the voice of God – spoken, ‘tremendous’ – instructs Noye (bass-baritone) to build an ark. In a lively ensemble his sons and their wives appear with tools. Mrs Noye (contralto) and her chorus of gossips poke fun, but the work is soon completed. After more quarrelling between Noye and his wife the animals assemble in march time. Noye and his children also embark and Mrs Noye, after some resistance, is carried aboard by her sons – without her gossips. The flood itself is depicted in an extended passacaglia, whose theme gradually assembles all 12 notes, and striking effects of wind and storm are conjured up with minimal resources. At the climax comes the hymn ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’, the congregation joining in for the last two verses. The storm over, raven and dove bring evidence of dry land. God instructs Noye and his companions to disembark, and after an Alleluia for the animals the work ends with the hymn ‘The spacious firmament on high’, set to Tallis’s Canon. The entire score is a brilliant demonstration of how to combine the relatively elementary instrumental and vocal skills of amateurs with professionals to produce a highly effective piece of music theatre for church performance....