David Hill, conductor
Judith Weir (b. 1954)
In the Land of Uz
- Job’s Comforters
- Where Is Wisdom?
- The Whirlwind
- God Speaks
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Mass in G Minor
Gloria in excelsis
Sanctus—Osanna I—Benedictus—Osanna II
Judith Weir, In the Land of Uz
In the Land of Uz is a dramatised reading of the biblical Book of Job, from which all the text is taken, in the musical form of a cantata, or short oratorio. The majority of the music is sung by the chorus, but there are also “obbligato” roles for a small group of instruments which appear singly or in pairs; viola, double bass, soprano saxophone, trumpet, tuba, and organ. Job appears from time to time as a solo tenor; his thoughts are also represented by the viola. Although the bulk of the storytelling is undertaken by the chorus, a speaking narrator also makes occasional appearances.
1. Prologue—In a contest of strength, God and Satan conspire to test the faith of Job, a God-fearing and comfortably settled inhabitant in the Land of Uz. First Satan destroys Job’s family, animals and possessions. When Job retains his dignity and refuses to curse God, Satan smites him with a plague of boils. The solo viola joins in his song at this point, and becomes his “alter ego”. In extreme physical discomfort, Job insists that whatever happens to us, we must take the rough with the smooth.
2. Lament—Job, together with the viola, expresses his sadness, curses the day of his birth, and longs for death. Here his words are sung by the whole chorus.
3. Job’s Comforters—Job’s friends (sung here by different groupings of the chorus) arrive at the scene, and are at first compassionate, urging an optimistic outlook. They are joined by a saxophone and double bass. Later, their argument hardens; God is always right, so Job must have done something wrong. Job continues to express his dark view of the inevitability of decay and death.
4. Where is Wisdom—This famous and beautiful biblical chapter takes the form of an interlude, inviting a discussion about the elusive nature and scarcity of wisdom. But at the conclusion (to a huge organ entry) God’s superiority is once again declared.
5. The Whirlwind— A vigorous duet for trumpet and organ.
6. God Speaks— Out of the whirlwind, God (represented by the tenor and bass voices of the chorus and the tuba) speaks and re-asserts his authority. Who was it, after all, who created the universe in the first place, he argues, citing the many wonders of the natural world? Job withdraws from the argument with continued dignity and diplomacy.
7. Conclusion—Impressed by Job’s composure, God engineers a sudden revival of his fortunes. His possessions are amply restored, making him twice as prosperous as he was before. He has a new family of sons and daughters, and sees several generations prosper, having himself lived to the age of 140. The voices quietly withdraw from the scene, concluding: “So Job died, being old, and full of days.”
Judith Weir, In the Land of Uz
Over the past four decades, Scottish composer Judith Weir has earned a reputation as a musical storyteller par excellence. Her sundry works of musical theater range from the highly condensed three-act opera King Harald’s Saga, which packs the Norse invasion of England in 1066 into ten musically eventful minutes, to the punningly titled Miss Fortune, a full-length riches-to-rags-to-riches parable based on a Sicilian folk tale. Weir’s religiously inspired music reveals a similarly eclectic sensibility. Missa del Cid, for instance, superimposes the martial exploits of the legendary Spanish warlord and scourge of the “infidel” Moors on the Latin Catholic mass, while His Mercy Endureth Forever, composed in Weir’s capacity as Master of the Queen’s Music, was premiered by the choir of Westminster Abbey in 2015 as part of a traditional thanksgiving service commemorating the seventieth anniversary of VE Day.
In the Land of Uz, which won a 2018 British Composer Award, doesn’t fit neatly into the category of either sacred or dramatic music. Weir describes it as “a dramatised reading of the biblical Book of Job, from which all the text is taken, in the musical form of a cantata, or short oratorio.” In addition to four-part choir, narrator, and tenor and viola soloists, the score calls for a five-piece instrumental combo consisting of soprano saxophone, double bass, trumpet, tuba, and organ. The libretto, fashioned by the composer herself in a notable feat of compression, depicts Job’s physical and spiritual travails as his faith in God is put to the test in a series of calamities devised by Satan. The familiar exemplary tale is laid out in seven movements, a number symbolic of the divine wisdom that Job ultimately attains by dint of suffering and patience. “Where shall wisdom be found?” the narrator asks in the fourth movement, the work’s musical and philosophical core. To which the chorus responds, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”
Ever attentive to dramatic values, Weir employs spoken narration to set scenes and move the story along, while the burden of the biblical text is borne by the singers in varying combinations. In the expository Prologue, the voice of God emerges from a confused, Babel-like susurration of Hebrew names. Job (the solo tenor) stoically endures the destruction that Satan visits upon him, his defiant wailing first nakedly unaccompanied and then paired with obbligato viola, which Weir casts as the patriarch’s “alter ego.” The viola carries its running commentary over into the second-movement “Lament” before deferring to the jazzy timbres of saxophone and pizzicato bass that underscore the upbeat pieties offered by “Job’s Comforters.” After the choir’s sobering ruminations on the source of wisdom, God demonstrates his awesome power in an energetically dancing duet for trumpet and organ (“The Whirlwind”) and an indignant peroration for male voices reinforced by a regal tuba (“God Speaks”). Showered with blessings in the finale, Job dies at the ripe age of 140, but his righteous heart continues to beat in the viola’s gentle, persistent quaverings.
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3, In the Land of Uz was first performed on August 12, 2017, at the BBC Proms in the majestic Gothic nave of London’s Southwark Cathedral. On the podium was our own David Hill, taking his last bow as chief conductor of the BBC Singers. Weir recalled the occasion in a blog on her website: “One aspect of the performance which delighted me, and which I never thought would be allowed for broadcasting reasons, was the fulfilment of my wish to dispose the six instrumentalists in the piece around the Cathedral, rather than having them sit in a bored-looking group in front of the chorus. But David, together with producer Jonathan Manners, was way ahead of me. So it was that Job (sung by wonderful Adrian Thompson, a plain, honest figure reacting patiently to the terrors in the text) was towered over throughout the piece by the almost Pre-Raphaelite presence of violist William Coleman, standing protectively at his side. Towards the back of the cathedral, organist Stephen Farr and trumpeter Huw Morgan were hidden amidst the complicated architecture of Southwark’s fantastical organ, thundering away at appropriate moments. Meanwhile on stage left, things appeared a little more louche with the alto ladies reposing next to soprano sax and string bass. These little ongoing tableaux seemed to add something friendly and human at the edges of the work’s intensely serious theme, the possibility and necessity of resilience in the face of evil.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mass in G Minor
Despite his outsized stature in twentieth-century British music, Vaughan Williams was something of a late bloomer. It wasn’t until just before World War I, when he was in his late thirties, that he first made his mark with a series of works steeped in England’s cultural heritage, including the song cycle On Wenlock Edge, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and A London Symphony. A lifelong student of British folk song and a key figure in the English musical “renaissance” of the early twentieth century, he considered himself a “national composer” whose primary obligation was to his fellow countrymen. “If the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything individual to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls,” he counseled younger composers.
Composed in 1922, the Mass in G Minor reflects Vaughan Williams’s engagement with the a cappella choral music of William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and other Tudor masters. As conductor of London Bach Choir from 1921 to 1928, he had a practical as well as an intellectual interest in the preclassical repertory. Moreover, his old friend Richard Terry had been systematically reviving the masterpieces of early English polyphony since the turn of the century as choir director of Westminster Cathedral, the Victorian-era seat of England’s Catholic Church. (Terry’s choir of men and boys would give the first liturgical performance of the G-Minor Mass in 1923.) Another soulmate was the composer Gustav Holst, who had long been inculcating an appreciation for early music in his students at Morley College and other schools. When Holst learned that Vaughan Williams had dedicated the Mass to him and his amateur Whitsuntide Singers, he exclaimed: “How on earth Morleyites are ever going to learn the Mass I don’t know. It is quite beyond us but still further beyond us is the idea that we are not going to do it.”
Although the Mass’s five movements lend themselves to performance as part of a church service, the music is equally at home in the concert hall; indeed, it was the City of Birmingham Choir that premiered the work on December 6, 1922. Vaughan Williams was no more conventionally religious himself. According to his first wife, “he was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” The composer testified in 1931 that “I have no real connection with anything ecclesiastical & no longer count myself a member of the Church of England.” Yet a strain of genuine religious feeling runs through a number of works he wrote in the 1920s, including the Mass, the biblical oratorio Sancta civitas, and his own dramatization of the Book of Job, which he characterized as “a masque for dancing.”
Perhaps the closest analogue to the Mass in Vaughan Williams’s oeuvre is the Tallis Fantasia of 1910. Both works create flexible, sonically rich textures through the contrast between double choirs (of singers and string instruments, respectively) and soloists. And both pay tribute to the old masters in harmonic and contrapuntal idioms that are historically evocative, yet unmistakably modern. Emulating Tallis and Byrd, Vaughan Williams uses motivic resonance to bind the sections of the Mass together. For example, the placidly intertwining lines of the opening Kyrie are echoed in the final Agnus Dei, while in the Credo the words “Patrem omnipotentem” and “Et resurrexit” are sung to the same vigorously rising phrase. The exuberant imitative entries of “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” in the Gloria, are reprised in the “Pleni sunt caeli” section of the Sanctus. The Mass abounds in antiphonal effects and unobtrusive pictorialism, as in the softly swaying lines of the Sanctus, which more than one commentator has likened to the pendulum-like motion of censers.
Terry, who was largely responsible for the “Elizabethan fever” that overtook England in the wake of World War I, recognized in Vaughan Williams’s Mass the stamp of his own conservative musical taste. “I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for,” he wrote to the composer after previewing the score. “In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.” His praise was seconded by the German choral director Karl Straube, who held Bach’s old post as cantor of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. In a letter to Vaughan Williams’s London publisher, he observed that the G-Minor Mass “possesses the charm and the finished form which have always been the hallmark of the best English music.”
Notes © by Harry Haskell
A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.