Noah’s Fire (2015)
An Oratorio in 15 Parts, setting a libretto by Ben Kaye
Solo Baritone, SATB, Children’s Choir, Piano, Organ, Percussion and String Orchestra
Commissioned by the Chester Music Society for their 70th Anniversary
fp. Chester Music Society Choir, Chester Music Society Junior Choir, Robert Rice (baritone), Liverpool Sinfonia conducted by Graham Jordan Ellis, Chester Cathedral, Chester, UK, 21 November 2015
Noah’s Fire is my largest work to date, as well as the most ambitious and with the longest gestation. I had worked with the Chester Music Society Youth Choir over a two year period (2010 – 12) where I had written two works for them (Jabberwocky, 2010 and Far-Away Music, 2012) and following from this I suggested that the main, adult choir might be interested in a new work. Over the next two years a commission was slowly developed in close discussion with the choir, their committee and conductor. Various ideas were mooted, but the one that seemed to stand out more than others was a musical reaction to the famous ‘Mystery Plays’ associated with the city. This was finally decided upon and I began work shortly afterwards. It soon became apparent that a suitable text for the work would not be easy to find and after a short, unsuccessful search I approached poet and librettist Ben Kaye to see whether he would be interested in collaborating on this project. He duly did, and the finished libretto arrived in March 2014, composition beginning in earnest in August of that year.
Noah’s Fire is envisaged as an oratorio in the ‘British Oratorio Tradition’ a tradition of large-scale, choral-orchestral works, often on a sacred theme starting with Bach (not British, of course, but co-opted) and travelling through Mendelssohn, Elgar, Walton and Britten. It is a dramatic, colourful work in which the music is entirely driven by the narrative – which in this case is an important, moralistic tale which has resonances in contemporary life as well as the Medieval period in which it is set. Rather than this work be a collection of motets, or choral set-pieces I wanted the work to really tell a story – to be informed by the narrative, and for the narrative to be the reason for this piece’s very being.
The work is in 15 parts and is scored for solo baritone, large choir, children’s choir and orchestra (the same vocal and instrumental forces, in the main, as Britten’s Saint Nicholas). It tells the story of a local guild attempting to perform a mystery play, when their play materials burn down in an unexpected fire they are left crestfallen and defeated. In their darkest hour, hope is provided by the most unlikely source – the local prostitutes who offer their help in finding new materials in return for more recognition and acknowledgment from the men-folk of the guild. This bargain is met, the materials are found, the play is staged and an important lesson is learned.
My work blends three distinct types of music – the narrator, the choir and the ‘play-within-the-play’. The narrator’s music (the solo baritone) is declamatory and rhetorical and it is always the same. He sings the same phrase many times (with different rhythms to reflect the different words) and acts as both a refrain and a counterpoint to the other material. His material is much more austere than the surrounding music and has more than a hint of medieval music to it. The choir has much more vivid and immediate music, describing the emotional content of the events in a variety of styles and deliveries. The ‘play-within-the-play’ is the performance of Noah’s Flood that the guild are trying to stage – wherever this is depicted a different instrumental group (solo violin, tenor drum and chamber organ) accompanies a solo bass (from the choir) and the solo baritone in a secondary role. This material is more sustained, recitative-like and folky.
Noah’s Fire embodies much of what I am striving to do as a composer today: it works with idea of tradition (both cultural, musical and historical), with associated historical models (Mystery Play, Oratorio), with pre-existing music, with musical associations and ideas relating to local communities. It aims to fuse ideas from both the secular and the sacred into something both historical and contemporary. It is a work I’ve been wanting to write for years, in a medium I think has significance and relevance and is a piece I hope will be as enjoyable to performers and audiences as is was for me to write.