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Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten

January 2, 2013

In Medieval times, when books were more numerous than people capable of reading them, the Church had to face the problem of popularizing the Bible all over Europe, Paganism had still its followers and heresy was always lurking, it was necessary to transform the stories of the greatest book ever written into familiar characters  and events, it’s hard to be a religion of the book when none of your followers can read: the mystery play was one of the actors coming into play. A mystery play was a representation of Bible stories – or miraculous interventions by Saints – with scenes and songs: this art form went on in various modalities until the 16th century when it was substituted by the rise of literacy and professional theater, the mystery plays remained an obsolete memory until 1951 when they enjoyed a revival in the British town of Chester, this renewed tradition is still ongoing and the plays have become known as the Chester Mystery Plays, Noye’s Fludde is the most popular of the lot.

Igor Stravinsky was the first composer who was fascinated by the material of the Chester Mystery plays, but his approach – integrating and expanding the text and then writing a very modern and musically intricate score for it – completely forgot the popular origins of Noye’s Flood; in 1957 the English composer Benjamin Britten created a new score for the play, it was a music-theatre piece for community performance and it was thought to be performed by amateur singers accompanied by a small ensemble: a string quartet, a four hands piano, a recorder, bugles, organ and percussion. The small opera – circa fifty minutes – is enjoying a minor comeback thanks to the decision by American filmmaker Wes Anderson to use it – and to stage it a scene of the film – as soundtrack for his latest opus – Moonrise Kingdom – it’s hard to watch the film and remain untouched by this music. Some classical music lovers dislike the use of musical excerpts into films and they have a point, alas in these days when musical illiteracy is widespread, classical music needs its own mystery play, so in my opinion films like Moonrise Kingdom are very welcome.

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