on 21 July 2016
Noye’s Fludde is a surprising opera adapted from an old medieval mystery collected in a printed version some time after 1450 known as the Chester Miracle Plays available at http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/drama/chester/index.html, (accessed July 21, 2016). Strangely enough this opera (of a deep Biblical nature) has attracted the attention of some scholars, like Peter Happé who seems to have captured what is most evident in the music by Benjamin Britten but missed the Romanesque symbolism that is recuperated by Benjamin Britten from his original and invested systematically in his own version.
The whole story is based on eight characters but it becomes meaningful when we analyze the composition of this set of characters. We have the Parents, Noye and his wife Mrs. Noye, and then the three sons, Sem, Ham and Jaffett, along with the three wives known as Mrs. Sem, Mrs. Ham and Mrs. Jaffett. This children’s group is an important set of three and three, David’s star, a direct allusion to the Old Testament and the Jews of course. And in the opera this set of six is clearly set aside as compared to the parents because when the order to build an ark has come from God, the original mystery has the eight characters in this order: Noye, Sem, Ham, Jaffett, Mrs. Noye, Mrs. Sem, Mrs. Ham, Mrs. Jaffett. But Benjamin Britten cuts out Mrs. Noye from this fifth position and places her at the end, thus having the parents embracing the six children. So from four men and four women with respected parental order, we shift to the father, three sons three daughters-in-law and the mother.
Eight is the symbol of the Second Coming, of Resurrection, of Doomsday, of the Last Judgment, of the Apocalypse. In the original it is the central pattern and thus the Jewish reference is erased. In Britten’s version the Jewish reference is set at the center of the opera. This of course must question us and we think of another vocal work, The Children’s Crusade (1969), where in Poland, there was a war in 1939, and a band of people, children apparently, are trying to find a city where there is peace. At one moment a Jewish boy joins the band and he is characterized as wearing a velvety collar. Then a couple of boys arrive and a Nazi boy comes too, and then a drummer boy. Altogether they are six in this band who are specified in identity: a Jewish boy, two brothers (farm looters), a Nazi boy, a drummer boy and strangely enough a dog. In fact there are more children around since two will make love, a girl of twelve and a boy of fifteen. And in the war around them there is a trial and one is condemned. So there is funeral and the one who is buried is identified by his velvet collar, the Jew. I insist on this work because it shows how Benjamin Britten had been deeply stirred, like millions of people in Europe and the world, by the Second World War and the Shoah. It is clear here that he assumes and carries the guilt of this incredible war crime that is a crime against humanity. To miss the Jewish symbolism of this opera would be to miss an important signifying and significant element.
When we have thus identified this Romanesque symbolism slightly modified to reintroduce the Jewish symbolism of modern reference, we can wonder what is God, the ninth voice? Nine is a very deep symbol in Medieval Romanesque art. It is the Beast of the Apocalypse (9-9-9 or 6-6-6=18=2x9), the time when Christ died (the ninth hour), hence the event that triggers the end of the world, Doomsday, and here in this context the flood decided by God, the ninth character that stands alone over the eight others.
Benjamin Britten goes one step further with four Gossips along with Mrs. Noye. As such they are the representatives of the crucifixion and since they build a group of eight women with the four in the family, they have to be rejected to purify the eight members of Noye’s family, to break a possible pentacle of five women who would refuse God’s authority, and indeed rejected they are, after the abduction of Mrs. Noye by her own sons on the command from her husband.
Then we could wonder where the basic Trinity is and we would find it in many places, added for some of them by Benjamin Britten. First the three hymns in which the congregation, hence the audience can take part, sing along. Then the triple Kyrie Eleison, and mind you eight instances of this triple phrase that can even be amplified and that punctuates the getting aboard of all the animals. The same way we can note the triple Alleluia in the libretto when land is reached and the animals can disembark. This triple phrase is repeated ad libitum to enable all the animals to come down from the ark, and they can be numerous.
In the same way bugles are used three times in the opera with obvious military music: when the animals are marching in, then when they are marching out and finally to punctuate and balance the final and third hymn. And we can now come back to these hymns.
The first one, at the very beginning of the opera, is dedicated to “Lord Jesus” opening four stanzas, hence repeated four times. In the third stanza (the trinity) Jesus is identified as our Savior and he can only be our Savior because he died on the cross, hence the fourth repetition of Lord Jesus at the beginning of the fourth stanza.
The second hymn, after the end of the storm and before the sending of the raven and the dove, has a first stanza opening with “Eternal Father,” a second stanza opening with “O Saviour,” hence Jesus, the son, and finally a third stanza opening with “O Sacred Spirit,” not the Holy Ghost as Peter Happé says, but the Holy Spirit, which is supposed to differentiate the two branches of western Christianity. Yet obviously you have here a direct mention of the Trinity.
The third hymn, just before God’s conclusion is also representative of the same logical symbolism and Peter Happé misses it. First stanza (out of six) “the blue ethereal sky”; second stanza “the unwearied sun”; third stanza “the moon.” This is the basic Genesis: the sky, the day and the night. Genesis adds then a conglomerate of stars as a less important addendum since it is not one of the two luminaries. Benjamin Britten and this hymn is more complex. Fourth stanza a composite “all the stars. . . and all the planets”; fifth stanza “the terrestrial ball” but with a Medieval vision, pre-Galileo since “in solemn silence all [those enumerated so far] move round the terrestrial ball”; the sixth stanza gives the conclusion that all this universe that is so well balanced and organized, reveals that “the hand that made us is divine.” We thus have six stanzas with six elements: sky, sun, moon, all the stars, all the planets and the terrestrial ball, the first three are the light and glory of God and the last three are the genial hand of God. This hymn is all the more important because of the music, the bugle punctuating it and the final grand music of God’s conclusion that decides his vengeance will never be implemented again.
And that’s where we find many other elements in many other works that show there is a curse on humanity that is not able to escape from barbarity. Of course we can think of The Children’s Crusade, as we have seen, but we can also think of the vaudeville The Golden Vanity (1967) associated here to this opera. A banal ship with a cargo of silver and gold, attacked by Turkish pirates in what must be the Mediterranean Sea where the Turks and then Ottomans practiced piracy up to the 18th century with the enslavement of prisoners, women in harems and men in various work activities or armed forces. The Turks are going to win when a cabin boy proposes to sink the Turkish ship on the promise of being given the Captain’s daughter. He undresses and dives into the sea and bores three (a symbolic number) holes in the hull of the Turkish ship that sinks. But the captain and his Bosun refuse to let the cabin boy get back on their ship and they only accept to bring him back up when he is on the point of dying, and dying he does on the deck and he is then buried in the sea. This vaudeville is essential connected to the opera because it is on a ship. But it has a wider impact. God’s vengeance might be finished, terminated but man’s curse is going on. Going on with wars. Going on with sentencing people to death, Jews among others. Going on with pirates and the refusal of some men to keep their promises and their killing or causing the death of people who are across their way, even if they have been of some important service.
That should remind you of the boy who is abducted in The Curfew River and who dies as soon as he has crossed the river and is buried on the other side. Here the flood is a punishment from God but because man did not respect God’s rules. We come across then another theme that stands upside down. It is the whole humanity that is ostracized by God himself and the few who are not rejected as strangers, foreigners, unacceptable individuals are saved. Positive segregation in a way to select the few who will be saved against the many who will be condemned, sentenced to die and executed. But in this case there is another reversal. Traditionally in Benjamin Britten, it is a boy who is the victim of such a segregation, even when it is a Chimney Sweep who is undressed, bathed and then hidden and sent away to a future that is not specified, rejected then. Here it is a family that is saved including the mother who refuses to be saved and has to be saved by decision of the all-powerful father on the order from God.
But there is another work that should be quoted here, Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, that is the adaptation of another of Chester Mysteries by Benjamin Britten that tells the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham on the order from God himself with the absolute submission of the father against the son and the absolute submission of the son to his father since he is ordered to do this by God. Never at any moment is there any intended, or accidental, or even incidental element that would imply the son or the father could express any distance and refusal of such a criminal absurd order. And yet Abraham twice expresses his suffering with an image: “O! My heart will break in three” and “Thou breakest my heart even in three.” That trinity is the announcement of Christianity in the Old Testament story as it was told in the Middle Ages in Romanesque tradition. Submission then not to the Jewish God but to the Christian God. And Isaac expresses his submissive suffering that he has qualified as cheerful before by asking a last favor from his father before the knife dives into his heart:
“I pray you, father, turn down my face,
For I am sore adread.”
Once again a boy is selected to die, this time by God’s own selective segregation. But Peter Happé does not have it right when he says speaking of the last hymn: “This is not a hymn which celebrates the mystery and iconography of medieval Christianity: Addison’s climactic emphasis upon the universe working in a perceptively reasonable way is more characteristic of eighteenth-century belief.” Benjamin Britten does not express modern scientific criticism of religion. He is more in the line of Descartes who considers the scientific character of the universe that is describable, explainable and logical to be the ultimate proof of the existence of God. For Benjamin Britten It is the curse of humanity to be forever the collective carrier of hatred, violence, crime, in one word evil, though the covenant with God is a covenant after total submission, after total vengeance and after remission for those who are ready to commit the worst crime possible provided the order comes from God Himself. If there is criticism somewhere along that line it is to be found maybe in the gullible innocence of the cabin boy, in the discrete love performed as a physical intercourse among the children of the Crusade, in the naïve well-intentioned escape planned by rich white kids for the poor black chimney sweep. That does not sound very promising.
Maybe after all the hope we can cultivate is in the music itself Benjamin Britten gives us and in the practice of music and singing among children who could be, for a while at least, saved, purified, transcended from human evil to musical and choral beauty.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU