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8.553955 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Job / The Lark Ascending
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Job, A Masque for Dancing
The Lark Ascending

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams belonged to a time of burgeoning cultural, aesthetic and spiritual diversity, to a generation embracing Debussy, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg, Ives, Ravel, Falla, Respighi, Medtner, Bartók, Stravinsky and Szymanowski. His years spanned two world wars, the history of England's sunset from Empire to Commonwealth. Musical revolution, the New German School of Liszt and Wagner; Stockhausen, Boulez and the Darmstadt radicals, framed his life. In the succession of major Anglo-Saxon composers, he imposingly commanded the high ground between Elgar and Britten, facing "the doubts and portents of a tragic age" where his predecessor had "proudly" summed up "the glories of the Victorian century" (Bernard Shore). He has been called "the apotheosis of Englishness", "the fountainhead of the ... English national school", a man ''as English as Morley and Purcell". In 1931, the year of Job at the ISCM Festival, Aaron Copland, fresh from Brooklyn, jazz and Nadia Boulanger, arrogantly wrote him off as "the kind of local composer who stands for something great in the musical development of his own country but whose actual musical contribution cannot bear exportation... His is the music of a gentleman farmer, noble in inspiration but dull". Fifteen years later, the critic Scott Goddard was to say: "There is no aspect of life foreign to him, none beyond the reach of his art; and that art, which is the most individual in the history of [British] music since Purcell, has reached a width of reference and a depth of comment never attained by musicians bred here... Nothing can be said conclusively about the workings of mind so protean and still magnificently active". The "corpus of Vaughan Williams's work will speak to generations of Englishmen of a great Englishman's ranging thoughts, his love of the homely countryside, his piety, his inherited poetry, his adventurous mind and lofty ideals" (Shore, 1949).

A Victorian clergyman's son from Brahmsian Gloucestershire, Vaughan William was a master of words no less than sounds. He believed that music was to be heard, not so much read or spoken about. "In our imperfect existence what means have we of reaching out to that which is beyond the senses but through those very senses? Would Ulysses have been obliged to be lashed to the mast if the sirens instead of singing to him had shown him a printed score? When the trumpet sounding the charge rouses the soldier to frenzy, does anyone suggest that it would have just the same effect if he took a surreptitious glance at Military Sounds and Signals?" (Music & Letters, April 1920). In his book National Music (published in 1934 from lectures given two years previously) he argued that fundamentally all music was a matter of nationality, and therefore nationalistic. Ruling states had identities and dialects as individual and "narrowly" circumscribed as those of their satellites. "National music is not necessarily folk-song; on the other hand folk-song is, by nature, necessarily national". Music, he believed, was "the only means of artistic expression which is natural to everybody. Music is above all things the art of the common man ... the art of the humble... Music cannot be treated like cigars or wine, as a mere commodity. It has its spiritual value as well. It shares in preserving the identity of soul of the individual and of the nation". "The great men of music close periods; they do not inaugurate them," he wrote famously. "The pioneer work, the finding of new paths, is left to smaller men... I would define genius as the right man in the right place at the right time ...we shall never know of the number of 'mute and inglorious Miltons' who failed because the place and time were not ready for them. Was not Purcell a genius born before his time? Was not Sullivan a jewel in the wrong setting?… As long as composers persist in serving up at second-hand the externals of the music of other nations," he concluded famously, "they must not be surprised if audiences prefer the real Brahms, the real Wagner, the real Debussy, or the real Stravinsky to their pale reflections. What a composer has to do is to find out the real message he has to convey to the community and say it directly and without equivocation… 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". Such was his creed.

Proceeding, in places even anticipating, the violent Fourth Symphony, Job, A Masque for Dancing (1927-30), to a scenario by Sir Geoffrey Keynes, dates from the period between the operas Sir John in Love (Shakespeare) and Riders to the Sea (Synge). As compelling in the concert-hall (symphonically) as the theatre (dramatically), it has been claimed that "it marks the emergence of English ballet, allowing it at a crucial moment to free itself from imitative influence" (Michael Kennedy, 1964). Central to its biblical inspiration were William Blake's twenty-one watercolours for the Book of Job (1820-26), the paintings of Botticelli and Rubens, images and quotations from the Old Testament story, the English Restoration masque tradition (earlier explored in On Christmas Night, 1926), and characteristic Elizabethan and Jacobean dance types – the sarabande, minuet (stylistically "formal, statuesque and slightly voluptuous," VW imagined), pavane and galliard. "In Job," Kennedy summarises, "Vaughan Williams found satisfaction in translating Blake's drawings into sound; he was not at all concerned with their symbolism ... Job's pastoral life, Satan's machinations, and Heaven are clearly defined in music. Blake's pictures combine eloquence with simplicity. So does the music ... a perfect reconciliation of the various elements in [the composer's] style: the lyrical ('pastoral') side, the folk-dance rhythms, the aggressive 20th century harmonies [and syncopations – illustrative of Satan and Hell] the Purcellian diatonic splendour of a great tune [visions of 'Heaven and the throne of God']".

The concert version was first heard on 23 October 1930 in St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, as part of the Norwich Festival, with the Queen's Hall Orchestra under the composer. Conducted by Constant Lambert, the stage première, presented by the Carmargo Society at the Cambridge Theatre, London, 5 July 1931, had scenery and costumes by Gwendolen Raverat, wigs and masks by the dancer Hedley Briggs, and choreography by Ninette de Valois. Following a (forgotten) independent performance in New York, 25 August 1931, the Sadler's Wells Ballet company brought their celebrated Covent Garden production to America, 2 November 1949, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, with Robert Helpmann in the rôle of Satan created originally by Anton Dolin. By then the first gramophone recording of the work had already been made (produced by Walter Legge for HMV in March 1946 at the Abbey Road Studios), with Sir Adrian Boult, the dedicatee, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was Boult who had been responsible for introducing the concert version to America before and after the War – in the summer of 1939 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia Park, and in January 1946 with the Boston Symphony.

The endurance of faith over affliction, "this drama of heaven and hell" (Richard Capell), Job divides into nine heavily-mimed scenes, scored for forces including saxophone, organ and a large percussion battery. The following is a précis of the composer's extended synopsis published in the full score (1934).

Scene I Introduction – Pastoral Dance – Satan's Appeal to God – Saraband of the Sons of God (Largo sostenuto – allegro piacevole – doppio più lento – andante con moto – ­largamente). "Hast thou considered my servant Job?" Job and his family sitting in quiet conversation surrounded by flocks and herds. Dance of Job's sons and daughters. Job stands up and blesses his children, saying "It may be my children have sinned". Everyone kneels. Angels appear at the side of the stage. Enter Satan, who appeals to heaven. Heaven gradually opens and displays God sitting in majesty surrounded by the Sons of God. The line of angels stretches from earth to heaven. A light falls on Job. God regards him with affection and says to Satan "Hast thou considered my servant Job?" Satan says "Put forth thy hand now and touch all that he hath and he will curse thee to thy face" .God says" All that he hath is in thy power". Satan departs. The dance of homage begins again. God leaves his throne.

Scene II Satan's Dance of Triumph (Presto – con fuoco – moderato alla marcia – presto). "So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord". Heaven is empty and God's throne vacant. Satan alone on the stage. He dances, and climbs up to God's throne and kneels in mock adoration. The hosts of Hell enter running and kneel before Satan who has risen and stands before God's throne facing the audience. Satan in wild triumph and with a big gesture sits in God's throne. (In his entertaining sketch, A Musical Autobiography [1950], Vaughan Williams wrote: "I have never had any conscience about cribbing. I cribbed Satan's dance in Job deliberately from the scherzo of Beethoven's last quartet". First heard in Scene I, Satan's motif – an angular falling major seventh and minor ninth – relates clearly enough to the leaping figures of the Beethoven, and more especially its jolting syncopated major ninth drops. But might there also perhaps have been a further, undisclosed source, the "evil" falling major sevenths from Mussorgsky's Baba Yaga, likewise curiously centred on the same note, G?)

Scene III Minuet of the Sons of Job and Their Wives (Andante con moto). "Then came a great wind and smote the four corners of the house and it fell upon the young men and they are dead". Enter Job's [seven] sons and their wives in front of the curtain. They hold golden wine cups in their left hands. The black curtain draws back and shows an interior. Enter Satan. The dance stops suddenly. The dancers fall dead.

Scene IV Job's Dream. Dance of Plague, Pestilence, Famine and Battle (Lento moderato – allegro). "In thoughts from the visions of the night ...fear came upon me and trembling". Job is quietly sleeping. He moves uneasily in his sleep and Satan enters. Satan stands over Job and calls up terrifying visions of plague, pestilence, famine, battle, murder and sudden death who posture before Job. The dancers headed by Satan make a ring round Job and raise their hands three times. The vision gradually disappears.

Scene V Dance of the Messengers (Lento – andante con moto – lento). "There came a messenger". Job wakes from his sleep and perceives three messengers, who arrive one after the other, telling him that all his wealth is destroyed. A sad procession passes across the back of the stage, culminating in the funeral cortège of Job's sons and their wives. Job still blesses God. "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord".

Scene VI Dance of Job's Comforters. Job's Curse. A Vision of Satan (Andante doloroso – poco più mosso – ancora più mosso – Tempo I andante maestoso). "Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth". Satan introduces in turn Job's three Comforters (three wily hypocrites [Blake's supposition]). Their dance is at first one of pretended sympathy, but develops into anger and reproach. Job stands and curses God. "Let the day perish wherein I was born". Heaven gradually becomes visible, showing mysterious veiled, sinister figures moving in a sort of parody of the Sons of God in Scene I. Heaven is now lit up. The figures throw off their veils and display themselves as Satan enthroned, surrounded by the hosts of Hell. Satan stands. Job and his friends cower in terror. The vision gradually disappears. (In Keynes's scenario, Scenes V and VI were originally linked as one.)

Scene VII Elihu's Dance of Youth and Beauty. Pavane of the Sons of the Morning (Andante tranquillo (tempo rubato) [with solo violin] – allegretto – andante con moto). "Ye are old and I am very young". Enter Elihu, a beautiful young man. "I am young and ye are very old". "Then the Lord answered Job". Heaven gradually shines behind the stars. Dim figures are seen dancing a solemn dance [pavane]. As Heaven grows lighter, they are seen to be the Sons of the Morning dancing before God's throne.

Scene VIII Galliard of the Sons of Morning. Altar Dance and Heavenly Pavane (Andante con moto – allegro pesante – allegretto tranquillo – lento). "All the Sons of God shouted for joy". Enter Satan. He claims the victory over Job. God pronounces sentence of banishment on Satan and the Sons of Morning gradually drive him down. Satan falls out of Heaven. "My servant Job shall pray for you". Enter (on earth) young men and women playing on instruments; others bring stones and build an altar. Others decorate the altar with flowers. Job must not play on an instrument himself. He blesses the altar. The Heavenly dance [pavane] begins again, while the [altar] dance on earth continues.

Scene IX Epilogue (Largo sostenuto). "So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning". Job, an old and humbled man, sits with his wife. His friends come up one by one and give him presents. Job stands and gazes on the distant cornfields. Job's three daughters enter and sit at his feet. He stands and blesses them.

Quintessentially English, the idyllic, dreaming pastoral romance The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra (1914, rev 1920) is among the best known of Vaughan Williams's shorter occasional pieces. In its orchestral form it was first given in the old Queen's Hall, London, on 14 June 1921, played by the dedicatee, Marie Hall, with the British Symphony Orchestra under Boult. The music is prefaced by extracts from the poem of the same name by George Meredith (1828-1909): "He rises and begins to round, / He drops the silver chain of sound, / Of many links without a break, / In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake. / For singing till his heaven fills, / 'Tis love of earth that he instils, / And ever winging up and up, / Our valley is his golden cup, / And he the wine which overflows / To lift us with him as he goes. / [MS of violin and piano score, British Library: "He is the dance of children, thanks / Of sowers, shout of primrose banks / And eyes of violets while they breathe; / All these the encirling song will breathe..."] Till lost on his aerial rings / In light, and then the fancy sings." The cadenza-like blossoms and raptures of the Lark's infinitely variable song, Andante sostenuto, enfold a quicker folk-like section, Allegretto tranquillo (quasi andante).

1997 Atefş Orga


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