The Chester Miracle Play set to Music by Britten

The text is from English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes

A quick introduction

When was it written?

27 Oct 1957 - Mar 1958. The first performance was on 18 June 1958 in Orford Church during the Aldeburgh Festival.

What’s it about?

This community opera is based on the biblical story of Noah and the Ark. Noye hears the voice of God warning of the coming floods, and creates an ark to save his family and a vast array of animals (played by children in the opera).

What does it sound like?

Britten composed the opera for a mix of amateur and professional performers, and the audience is invited to participate in the hymns. The instrumental ensemble includes a wide array of percussion – including an invented ‘slung mug’ device to mimic the sound of rainfall – as well as handbells and bugles.

Watch & listen

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.

The plot

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’.

For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.