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Job: A Masque for Dancing by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Michael Kennedy has described Job as one of Vaughan Williams’s mightiest achievements. It is a work which, in a full production, combines painting (the inspiration for the work came from a scenario drawn up by Geoffrey Keynes based on William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job), literature (the King James Bible), music, and dance. The idea of a ballet on the Blake Job illustrations was conceived by Geoffrey Keynes, whose mother was a Darwin and a cousin of Vaughan Williams, assisted by another Darwin cousin, Gwen Raverat whom Keynes asked to design the scenery and costumes. They decided to keep it in the family and approached Vaughan Williams about writing the music. The idea took such a hold on the composer that he found himself writing to Mrs Raverat in August 1927 ‘I am anxiously awaiting your scenario – otherwise the music will push on by itself which may cause trouble later on’.

Out of all this emerged a musical work that exhibits the composer at the height of his powers. Often ballet music can seem only half the story when it is played apart from the dancing it was written for, but in this case the composer fully realised that an actual danced production was by no means assured (Diaghilev had firmly turned down Keynes’s offer of the ballet for Ballets Russes) and wrote a powerful piece for full orchestra, including organ, which could stand independently in a concert. That was indeed how Job received its first and second performances, the first in Norwich in October 1930 and the second in London in February 1931, both under the composer’s baton. It is dedicated to Adrian Boult. The first danced production was given by the recently formed Camargo Society at the Cambridge Theatre on 5 July 1931. It was choreographed by Ninette de Valois and conducted by Constant Lambert, who (much to the composer’s admiration) adeptly reduced the orchestration because the pit at the Cambridge Theatre could not accommodate the full orchestra specified by the composer. The part of Satan was danced by Anton Dolin.

Opinion was divided at the time as to how well the work stood up to performance independently of the dance dimension, but now, with the wisdom of hindsight, we can see it as having the stature of a symphony in terms of its overall shape and length. The careful placing of different elements in the score – the heavenly, the earthly and the infernal, all characterised by a different style of music – emphasises the sense of symphonic unity. In the music for Satan we hear a foretaste of the savagery which was to cause so much astonishment in the Fourth Symphony, on which he started work almost at once after completing Job. In the music for Job and his family we find elements of the calm we have come to associate with the Fifth Symphony, while the music for God and the ‘sons of the morning’ (Saraband, Pavane, and Galliard) presents a broad diatonic sweep at the beginning and then towards the end of the work. This will become apparent to listeners of Job performed at the Promenade Concert on 13 August 2014. They will also be able to draw comparisons between the ethereal violin solo in The Lark Ascending and the violin solo in ‘Elihu’s dance of youth and beauty’ in Scene VII.

It is no accident that two of the pieces, the Pavane and Galliard, together with the calm Epilogue, were played at Vaughan Williams’s funeral at Westminster Abbey on 19 September 1958.

Headline image credit: symphony orchestra concert philharmonic hall music. Public domain via Pixabay.

Sidebar image credit: Ralph Vaughan Williams. Lebrecht Archive.

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