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