The story of Noah’s ark (Genesis 6 – 9) has been the subject of countless works of visual art from the earliest days of history to the recent publication of Mark Ludy’s gorgeous picture book.
Musical portrayals of the story are rarer, but any lack in quantity is well compensated by Benjamin Britten’s 1957 one-act opera Noye's Fludde. By turns solemn, fearful, and humorous, this is music written for community involvement: it is supposed to be performed in a church, and the congregation is called on several times to join in settings of well-known hymns; Britten’s aim in composing was “to be of use to people, to please them, to enhance their lives.” Britten in particular loved writing music for children – either as performers or audiences – and in Noye's Fludde he included parts for over one hundred children who participate both as actors and in the orchestra. Only the parts of Noah and his wife are intended to be sung by professionals, and the orchestra score similarly has core parts written for professional musicians supplemented by parts for children of a wide range of abilities: some of the violin parts require only open strings. There is also a large recorder section, bugles which announce the approaching animal pairs, and innovative percussion instruments including, to represent the rain, “slung mugs” (coffee cups hung from a string and sounded with a wooden spoon).
For the libretto, Britten used a fifteenth century text from Chester mystery play cycle. Miracle or mystery plays portrayed Bible stories and were performed by town guilds on church holidays. A full cycle would tell the whole Biblical narrative from Genesis to the Last Judgment in a series of performances over a few days. Noye’s Fludde is the third play in the Chester cycle, and was originally performed by the water-carrier’s guild.
In this excerpt, God instructs Noah that it is time for the animals to come aboard. This spectacle is described by Noah’s sons Sem, Ham, and Jaffett and their wives as the pairs of animals march in singing “Kyrie eleison.” A recording of the first production, it delightfully conveys Britten’s intentional collaboration between professional voices and those of local children, vocally untrained yet full of enthusiasm. (Don’t miss the mice squeaking their way aboard at 3:38.)
Or if you have the time, here’s the full, forty-eight minute opera:
THE VOICE OF GOD
Noye, Noye, take thou thy company,
And in the shippe hie that you be,
And beastes and fowles with thee thou take,
He and shee, mate to mate;
For it is my likinge
Fourtye dayes and fortye nightes
Raine shall fall forther unrightes,
And that I have made through my mightes
Now thinke I to destroye.
Have donne, you men and wernen alle,
Hye you, lest this watter fall,
That ich beaste were in stalle,
And into the shippe broughte.
The fludde is nye, you maye well see,
Therefore tarye you naughte.
(From the back of the church buglers herald the arrival of the animals. Noye’s children in turn point out each group to Noye as they appear marching towards the ark singing Kyrie eleison. The animals go across the stage and enter the ark.)
Sir! heare are lions, leapardes, in,
Horses, mares, oxen, swyne,
Goote and caulfe, sheepe and kine
Heare coming thou may see.
Lions, leopards, etc.
Camelles, asses, man maye fynde,
Bucke and doo, harte and hinde,
Beasts of all manner kinde
Here be, as thinketh me.
Camels, asses, etc.
See heare dogges, bitches too
Otter, fox, polecats also,
Hares hoppinge gaylie go,
Bringing colly for to eate.
The smaller animals
And heare are beares, woulfes sette,
Apes and monkeys, marmosette,
Weyscelles, squirelles, and ferrette,
Eaten ther meate.
Bears, wolves, etc.
Mrs. HAM, Mrs. JAFFETT
And heare are beastes in this howse,
Heare cattes make carouse,
Heare a ratten, heare a mousse,
That standeth nighe togeither.
Cats, mice, etc.
SEM AND Mrs. SEM
And heare are fowles lesse and_more,
Herons, owls, bittern, jackdaw.
Swannes, peacokes, them before
Ready fort his weither.
HAM AND Mrs. HAM
And heare are cockes, kites, croes,
Rookes, ravens, many rows,
Cuckoes, curlues, al¡ one knowes,
Iche one in his kinde.
JAFFETT AND Mrs. JAFFETT
And heare are doves, ducks, drackes,
Redshanckes roninge through the lackes.
And ech fowle that noises makes
In this shippe men maye finde.
(Noye and his children follow the animals into the ark, where they too sing a final chorus of Kyrie eleison.)
All the animals from inside the ark