Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934) The Judas Tree - Poetry and Prose by Thomas Blackburn
Judas Iscariot – Chris Saradon; Pontius Pilate – Peter Vogt; A Domincan Monk – David Richards; A Nazi Commandant – Carl Schurr; Simon Peter – Phillip LeStrange; Narrator – William A Brown; Matthew – Robert Betts; Caiaphas – Richard S Dirksen; Soprano – Myra Tate
Camerata Chorus and Orchestra/Richard W Dirksen
rec. March 1967, Washington National Cathedral, USA HERITAGE HTGCD263 [69:56]
This historical American performance of Peter Dickinson’s The Judas Tree was given in the production at Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC in March 1967. The work’s premiere had been in London in student productions in May 1965, the work being heard some months later in Edinburgh and Liverpool. The text was written by Thomas Blackburn (1916-77), poet, novelist and critic.
The first thing to note is that this is not a professional recording. It was made in mono in a big cathedral acoustic and there is some distortion at a few points. There are also moments when soloists are decidedly off-mike and a very small amount of tape damage that’s accrued over the intervening years. However, the restoration work of Julia Blackburn, Thomas’s daughter, Dickinson and Peter Newble has addressed a number of these issues. Listened to as a very rare never-before-issued live performance, such considerations can be put into the appropriate context.
The Judas Tree is a tough and controversial work. It’s music drama that demands close textual scrutiny and concerns the nature of evil in society as projected through the role of Judas. To Blackburn’s texts, some provocative, some oratorical, Dickinson responds with apposite music. In the drama, Pontius Pilate refers to himself as an ‘executive’ in the Roman Empire, and it is this position which confers on him, in this role, the quality of legal detachment. As a self-serving functionary Blackburn gives him lines that resonate with modernity – ‘’and my wife gave me hell about this’ is just one of many. He holds the stage for much of Part One but then leaves, at which point successively the characters of the Dominican and the Commandant take the centre of the stage along with Judas himself.
If, as his daughter relates, Blackburn used to boast that The Judas Tree contains 17 different heresies, then it might be easy to see the work as nose-thumbing but it’s clearly not. It’s an often anguished reflection on the redemptive nature of Christianity, and framed in such a way that Judas must be ‘born into death’, and that his role in furthering the Kingdom of God be properly acknowledged. Judas must himself submit to an experience analogous to Christ’s crucifixion on the cross – hence the Nazi Commandant scene – in order to expiate his crime.
Dickinson’s use of fanfares and taut, terse musical gestures is unsettlingly masterful. The use of block sounds was geared to student performance but the small instrumental group of string quartet, bass, two trumpets, horn, two trombones, organ, piano and percussion aptly respond to every tight nuance demanded of them. The choral effects – there is a particularly striking use of a chorale behind Pilate’s speechifying – are the work’s particular high point. I would also cite the Rites for the Dying given to Judas by the Dominican in the work’s central part. This is in many ways the most moving music in the drama, though it also – not so paradoxically - includes the one strikingly avant-garde incident in the work.
A music drama as complex as this – especially theologically and morally – requires a far closer scrutiny than I can give in a review. It is a brave work and for all the imperfections of the recording quality, that strength of purpose – literary and musical – survives intact.