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Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – Job, A Masque for Dancing

Bulging with literary drama, the Holy Bible has long been a magnet for librettists and their associate composers. However, even librettists baulk at the Book of Job because, roughly speaking, 95% of its 20,000 words consist of complex, convoluted philosophical argument. The ‘action’, such as it is, is confined to the 5% wrapped around the edges. On the strength of that, we’d expect choreographers and their associate composers to find this magnet particularly ‘unattractive’. 

However, Job – A Masque for Dancing doesn’t owe its existence to the Biblical text, at least not directly. 1928 was the centenary year of William Blake’s death, and Geoffrey Keynes was both Blake scholar and ballet fan - a happy coincidence of event and interests that led him to devise a balletic scenario based on Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job. These graphic (very graphic!) images supplied both the simplification and the visual stimulus needed for balletic application. 

Keynes had an assistant, his sister-in-law. By another happy coincidence, Gwendolen Raverat just happened to be a cousin of a certain Ralph Vaughan Williams. His absorption of the English Church tradition - in works like the Tallis Fantasia (1910) - into his individual, neo-Romantic yet unequivocally modern style virtually carved a line, from ‘now’, back through Blake’s pictures, all the way to the birth of the King James Bible. RVW was the ideal candidate for the composer’s job. 

The scenario was offered to Diaghilev who, with his unerring eye for spectacular success, promptly turned it down. It was left to the likes of Ninette de Valois (choreography), Raverat (visual design) and Constant Lambert (conductor) to bring Job to the stage where Diaghilev was pretty well proved right. RVW’s majestic music was altogether a different matter. 

Let’s remind ourselves of the gist of the story: Job has prospered. He has it all, yet gives proper thanks to God every day. God observes that Job is the very model of a truly good servant. In response, Satan sardonically suggests that Job might just change his tune if he lost out. God bets Satan that Job would remain faithful, and gives Satan leave to lay waste to firstly Job’s fortune, then his family, and finally his health. Though he loses all these, Job keeps his faith in God. Finally, three ‘friends’ come, ostensibly to comfort the devastated Job, but soon end up arguing the toss. Satan is working hard to win his bet, but Job steadfastly refuses to blame God for his misfortunes. God wins the bet, and restores his servant - who lives happily ever after, or, at least, to the ripe old age of 140. 

It’s a hair-raising tale but, although shorn of the lengthy discourses and even with the additional poetic licence of a vision of Satan on God’s throne, it doesn’t impress as particularly fertile ground for ballet, does it? Nevertheless, RVW thought long and hard about his subject, and did his level best to produce a score that would fully underpin the action, or rather inaction, of the ballet. In choosing his subtitle, A Masque for Dancing, he made a deliberate stylistic decision. Other than a couple of brief opportunities to cut loose offered by scenes 2 and 4, he opted for ancient dance forms of relatively stately demeanour, creating music for a ‘masque’ lacking only the speech and song of its traditional form. Interpreting this design in terms of a very modern orchestra (including organ), he transformed that carved line into a blazing bridge.

Job may be stony ground for ballet, but it’s a rich soil for growing music. Seeming almost an accidental by-product of his endeavours to fulfil his commission, the result is a musical masterpiece, a resonance of ancient and modern every bit as impressive as the Tallis Fantasia. In Job we can feel the shadow of his earlier style, ranging from cosy, folk-based pastoralism to those immense surges of energy that characterised A London Symphony. Yet, there are also the ghosts of things to come - pastoralism turning to desolation and energy turning to red-eyed aggression – such as we experience in later works like the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Job is not just a great work in its own right, it was also a watershed in its creator’s career.

The music falls into a continuous succession of nine scenes. The following are no more than brief signposts, that hopefully will guide the newcomer through this awe-inspiring musical landscape:

1. Introduction – Pastoral Dance – Satan’s Appeal to God – Saraband of the Sons of God. Pious contemplation yields to a gaily skipping dance. The first climactic surge accompanies Job blessing his offspring. The initial contemplation is tainted by deep stabs on bassoons and basses: Satan’s appearance. The subsequent music - by turns aggressive, serene, threatening and grandiose - relates to the exchange between God and Satan.

2. Satan’s Dance of Triumph. Nodding towards the sound-world of Holst’s Planets, RVW’s danse diabolique is a tour de force of orchestral pyrotechnics.

3. Minuet of the Sons of Job and their Wives. Tranquillity is visited by disaster: Satan’s cataclysmic intervention converts the minuet from contentment to lament.

4. Job’s Dream – Dance of Plague, Pestilence, Famine and Battle. Suddenly, all hell is let loose: Satan visits the sleeping Job with lurid nightmare visions.

5. Dance of the Three Messengers. The dawn of coiling woodwind brings bearers of tidings of great sorrow. Yet Job still lifts his gaze and blesses God.

6. Dance of Job’s Comforters – Job’s Curse – A Vision of Satan. The familiar tramp of Satan’s footsteps ushers forward the oily ‘comforters’ (saxophone), slickly insinuating rebuke. Job despairs, cursing the day he was born. Satan’s celebration is repesented by a colossal climax in which the holy Saraband is warped.

7. Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty – Pavane of the Sons of the Morning. An extended violin solo accompanies the naive exhortations of the youth Elihu. Gradually, the music merges into a tender Pavane.

8. Galliard of the Sons of the Morning – Altar Dance and Heavenly Pavane. Satan, thinking he’s won, barges in to claim victory. God summarily evicts him, and rudely robust celebration ensues (the theme of this Galliard came from a military band piece!). On Earth, to gently swaying music, the restored Job joyfully resumes his worship.

9. Epilogue. Sudden mighty surges project us to the final scene: Job sits amid his family, his greater age and humility reflected in the transformation of the opening music.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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