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"Noye's Fludde": memories of the first production

Richard Jones took part in the first performances of Britten's "Noye's Fludde", heard that we were mounting a production in Harpenden in Britten's centenary year, 2013, and sent his recollections:

I was a pupil at the local grammar school (as it then was). Instrumental music at the school was only just beginning, but we had a very good choral tradition. The music was run by the Head of Maths; the sort of thing that often happened in rural schools in those days. He also conducted the Beccles Choral Society for many years. His wife was a music teacher; she taught part-time in our school and elsewhere. Both husband and wife were involved with the Aldeburgh Festival Chorus in its early years, and that was how we came to be asked to provide all the 11-18 singers for the chorus of 'Noye's Fludde' (two primary schools provided the youngest chorus members....I can still remember the mice being asked to squeak their 'Kyries'). The senior girls of our school of the early 1950s had already sung on the first recording of 'St. Nicolas', so we had a link with the Aldeburgh Festival. Imogen Holst was a good friend of our husband-and-wife teaching team, and in fact came to adjudicate at our local Music Festival in 1955. This was a small town non-competitive festival, with a massed singing of choirs participating at the end of most sessions! I still have my sheet of comments for a piano solo from Imogen Holst!(I was 10). Conducting the massed singing, she said (enthusiastically) she would 'tell Martin about this'....Martin being Martin Shaw, who lived near Southwold.

Imogen Holst referred to BB as her boss.... ("I mustn't fall off this table as my boss is coming home next week"...or something like that. Imogen H. was standing on a table to conduct massed choirs on a school stage! If you ever saw her conduct you would know she could have floated away!

My piano/organ/theory teacher lived in Lowestoft, not far from the house where BB was born and brought up. [My mother (b. 1916) also had piano lessons from a teacher from Lowestoft, and remembered hearing about 'young Britten' from her teacher!].

My teacher was the visiting piano teacher at St. Felix School, Southwold, then a girls' boarding school. Fortunately for me, the visiting Director of Music at that school was Douglas Hopkins....he was a senior professor at the RAM, having previously been Organist at Canterbury cathedral. He would visit the school at weekends! When career decisions had to be made, he was a great help to me. I decided to give up the science subjects I had taken at A level, then spent a year as one of the first students at the Colchester Institute. From there I went to the RCM and London University (for the B. Mus.), Herbert Howells being one of my teachers there. I'm now retired. I started teaching in 1967 at Shrewsbury School, then moved to Bristol (Director of Music at Queen Elizabeth's Hospital for many years). I also spent a year in Norwich for my PGCE.

Anyway, enough about my biography, but you can see from this context how important to those of us involved with music were experiences such as 'Noyes Fludde'. It was probably one of the first 'pro-am' events. Whoever else would have thought of putting together in such a manner a group of professional performers with young singers of various ages and young instrumentalists at different stages of development. Given the fact that this was performed in a rural area in the 1950s you can see what an enterprise it was.

There is a recording of Britten talking (to children I am sure) about how proud he was of the performance of 'our Noye's Fludde'...he had then recently heard a performance of Stravinsky's 'Flood' to which he refers! Have you heard it?

At the time of the June production in 1958, my voice was changing; this had happened at an earlier age than my contemporaries, so I sang tenor in the chorus (but wasn't really old enough to look like one!). I was therefore a reserve in the June production, which meant taking part in all rehearsals of course (they were on Saturdays at Thorpeness, just north of Aldeburgh, in the village hall). I was also present at all performances (off stage). For the London premiere in November 1958 at Southwark cathedral I sang onstage in the chorus (as Mr Ox) because somebody else had dropped out.

When I was sitting out some of the early rehearsals, I was filmed watching a rehearsal (by a BBC unit I believe). I remember that day clearly. We were told before the rehearsal that filming would take place, and that we shouldn't look at the camera. There were two men doing this: one with a small hand-held camera, and the other holding a small floodlight. I can remember the light being switched on, and hearing the whirring camera; I was studiously looking ahead, wondering how long this would take! I am sure I have seen that shot (my head in profile) on a TV programme about Britten.

For our rehearsals, Colin Graham directed, Jan Cervenka (as chorus master) conducted, and Martin Penny was the pianist. Charles Mackerras and Britten shared the June performances I believe; certainly CM conducted our first full rehearsal, and he had previously rehearsed the orchestra separately. By the following November, CM was out of favour with BB so he doesn't appear on the Southwark programme....sadly neither do I...! but you will find the name Keith Harmer (they just re-printed the same list...or perhaps he dropped out late in the day)..... that was the singer I replaced. Jan Cervenka appeared behind the ark in rehearsals to ensure we came in at the right place for 'Eternal Father'. Jan Cervenka conducted some of the Southwark performances.

In the summer, we rehearsed on the set in the village hall, and the soloists (Mr and Mrs N., their sons, and the sons' wives) were there as needed, already having rehearsed what they had to do before we were involved. I think some adjustments were probably made to the staging when the animals were added to the action as I can still remember Owen Brannigan's rich voice in conversation with Colin Graham! He was very friendly, and great with us. Gladys Parr (the first Mrs Noye) was lovely too. I have since looked up her biog. and find that her recordings include part of 'Meistersinger' with Elisabeth Schumann....goodness me! ...and there she was in a Suffolk village hall.

We didn't seem to have much contact with the sons and their wives, who floated in and out. They had come from other schools, or other parts of the country (Arts Ed.? I don't know.. I have read Janette Miller's online account, and she clearly wasn't aware as to the origins of the animals in the chorus!). I'm not sure of the acting/singing training they had had, though one of course was Michael Crawford (Jaffet), who had already performed in 'Let's make an opera'. (Does your Jaffet need any other encouragement to play the role created by Michael Crawford?!). I can remember then that the quality of his voice differed from the other two boys! (MC was then 16 after all). The Gossips came in to rehearsals quite late on, as did the 'property men' who made the waves by rippling a painted canvas (or sheet?!), and - at the end - carried the poles with sun, moon, stars, dangling from them....they probably have made the rainbow arc across the sky as well (it was spread out like a giant fan, the arc mounted on the ends of poles).

In those pre-'health and safety' days we seemed to roam as we liked at lunchtime on rehearsal days, taking our sandwiches etc; we had to take our own food but were given bottles of soft drink...full of sugar I guess....:( We went to the beach (very near the Village hall) or the mere at Thorpeness where we hired rowing boats. Fortunately the mere is not very deep...I seem to remember one boy fell into the water..

The first performances were in Orford Church, which is wide and has seats (unlike Aldeburgh which has heavy pews). The seats in Orford Church were therefore turned round, and the whole performance took place in the space at the back of the church. There is now a stone set into the floor to commemorate the premiere (and I seem to remember a small model relating to the performance when my wife and I were looking round Orford Church some years ago). Orford church has a fine acoustic and has often been used for recordings, I believe; it is very isolated, so therefore it is in a very quiet area.

In the 1950s, and for many years after, there was a USAF airbase not far from Aldeburgh (RAF Bentwaters near Woodbridge). This had been a WW2 airfield and was a principal base for the USAF during the Cold War; it was huge and very busy. (By 1960 I was learning the cello at school, taught by the lady who helped run the music..I was therefore involved in the first East Suffolk County Youth orchestra summer courses, with concert in Aldeburgh Church. One year, we were taken on a tour of was like an American town, an eye-opener for us 1960s Suffolk locals!). It was said that, during the Aldeburgh Festival, the Americans agreed to time their sorties over the North Sea in such a way so as not to disturb the music! That could be true, but is only anecdotal.

In 2008, some of us who were in the chorus had a re-union at the Red House (now a Britten museum). Charles Mackerras was there, in good form. We met children rehearsing for the 50th anniversary production (with Steuart Bedford). The animal heads that we had worn were also on display. One of those present was Brian Burrows. Brian is a few years older than I am. He went to St. John's, Cambridge as a choral scholar (quite an achievement for somebody from a country grammar school in those days I would say). He later sang in opera (I once saw him in Bristol with Glyndebourne touring opera). I don't know how many of the players in the orchestra became professional musicians; two violinists of my year-group certainly did. I can remember various of the other participants.

My mother came to see the dress rehearsal in Orford Church (invited by our teacher who accompanied us...the lady who taught me the cello and conducted the Townswomen's Guild Choir!). Of course, we didn't realise what we were taking part all sinks in later.

Before the November performances at Southwark, we rehearsed in our school hall on a Sunday afternoon (or perhaps afternoons?). Benjamin Britten brought a friend to watch the rehearsal. I think that the friend might have been Aaron Copland, but am not sure (I believe that is what I heard, but none of us had heard of him! We were out in the sticks). We didn't manage to collect his autograph....but autograph books were full of other names of course.

For the November performances, we stayed at Grange Farm, Chigwell, for a weekend. I suspect we must have travelled on a Thursday night, as I had to go later by train (i.e. after the coach) since I was taking my grade 6 theory exam in Lowestoft that same day...( I shouldn't imagine the AB has changed its theory days very often over the years?). I was on the train with a school friend who was playing in the orchestra (years later we were at the RCM together, then he became a professional player); he had friends or relations in London who transported us the last little bit to Chigwell. Grange Farm is now a holiday park I believe. In 1958 it was extremely basic, and very cold! It has an interesting history, connected with making provision for children from poorer families in London during the late 1930s I think...I have since read that the huts we stayed in were opened by the then Princess Elizabeth in 1951 for students from overseas visiting the Festival of Britain! From those very basic huts with bunk beds we went to communal eating places (the tea was like dishwater) and then by coach to Southwark. Changing facilities were also pretty basic, and I seem to remember we had to change in a church hall, or something similar, then walk to the cathedral through the foggy London November night. Trevor Anthony (The Voice of God) had a throat infection and lost his voice; Colin Graham had to deputise.

I am still in touch with another of the cast of animals; she is a great family friend (and often visited my mother when in the Beccles area). Sadly, our school was not involved in the original recording that was made in a subsequent year. There were all sorts of rumours about the festival being re-scheduled to a different part of the summer and clashing with O levels and A levels, so the HM would not allow the school to take part....I was told.

PS I have just been to Beccles to see my sister; we inevitably have a lot to do, having now lost both parents. On the train back, I was talking with another passenger about the railway line from Lowestoft to Ipswich...and I remember seeing Benjamin Britten on the train!....ideas for the song from Winter Words that recalls a train journey, perhaps?

PPS Thinking about it, we possibly travelled to London on a Wednesday in Nov. 1958, not a Thursday. That would make sense, as there were two performances on the Friday. So: arrive in Chigwell late Wednesday; rehearse at Southwark on Thursday; performances on Friday and Saturday (2 on each day); and return home Sunday. The cathedral was the Anglican cathedral in Southwark (not the RC St. George's cathedral, Southwark).

Footnote: Some interesting Britten-related observations and remarks can be found at the blog of the original Mrs Sem (Janette Miller): Another Britten Surprise and Nocturne DVD

All four pages of the programme for the Southwark performances in November 1958 are on another page of this website.

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