If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Desert Island Discs 3

In 1980 or 81, I was teaching in a secondary school near to Hull. It was my first teaching post, and I enjoyed working there a great deal. I was good friends with the Music teacher, Brian Hayes, and when he decided to put on a production of Britten's Noye's Fludde, I willingly agreed to join in - perhaps a part in the Chorus, or something. What I didn't know was that the work was written for a choir of children, with the main parts being sung by adults. He wanted me to be Noye. Urk!

I'm not a great fan of modern music, and the little I had heard of Britten didn't impress me a great deal, but I was willing to have a go. Of course, as with any good music, the more you know it, the better it gets. And I found I could 'tune in' to Britten and came to love it, and the unfamiliar melodies made perfect sense. The production was remarkable. We had a choir of perhaps 30 young children, with the main singing parts taken by older students and staff. The plan was to perform in each of six local churches, one every day for a week. The set, therefore, had to be carefully constructed to fit all six, with the minimum of alterations between locations. The Art Department did a brilliant job of constructing a set which could be broken down in 20 minutes, and re-erected in another church in about an hour. Careful measurement meant that, wherever the altar or the pulpit were, it would fit.

For those who don't know the work, it is a simple re-telling of the Noah story, with lots of little animals, an Ark, a massive storm in the middle, and a marvellous ending with sun, moon, and a rainbow. The music is simple and direct, but the melody is pure Britten, with a lot of unexpected leaps and intervals, and the harmony is wickedly complex, although not for the kids, who get some lovely lines to sing. The text is from one of the mediaeval mystery cycles. Even for a cynical old agnostic like me, the moment when the rain stops and the rainbow (constructed like a lady's fan) unfurls creakily over the stage was utterly magical and brought a tear to the eye every time.

The piece I have chosen is at the very end. The storm is over; with the help of a dove, dry land has been found; and God has promised Noye:

That man, woman, fowle, ney beste
With watter, while this worlde shall leste
I will noe more spill
My bowe betweyne you and me
In the firmamente shalbe
By verey tocken that you shall see
That suche vengeance shall cease.

Then comes a modern hymn ("The Spacious Firmament On High"), sung first by the children and then gradually by the whole cast. The crucial moment for me comes just before the last verses. Up to now, the hymn has been sung in normal tempo, with a gradual crescendo as the cast and animals join in. The fourth verse is sung as a lovely canon and then, just before the final verses, the organ plays a huge cadenza, followed by a heavy pause. Then the song continues, with all the congregation, but at half the previous speed. For some reason, this has a huge emotional power for me - the silence for a breath, and then the music moving majestically and remorselessly forward. The slowing of the tempo is sheer genius.

If anything could turn me on to religion, it would be music.

Benjamin Britten, Noye's Fludde op. 59, 1989 Chester and Salisbury Festival, Richard Hickox.


  1. You can appreciate the music without being one iota "religious" - the high level chanting of the choirs in an Orthodox church is quite magical and coupled with the smell of incense is quite emotionally intoxicating and I can't understand a word of it (be it Russian or Greek)!

  2. I agree that you can appreciate the music without necessarily following the belief system that underpins it - good music is good music, after all. But the closest I ever get to truly religious feelings in real life is either through music, or landscape. There are a couple of religious pieces I am going to post later which will illustrate this. Perhaps it would be better to say that music is the thing which comes closest to breaking down my disbelief.


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