Oratorio for SATB soli, SATB chorus and orchestra


70 minutes




Commissioned by University of British Columbia with funding provided by David Lemon





SATB soli, SATB chorus, flute, alto flute (+piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A (2nd + bass clarinet in Bb), bassoon, contrabassoon, 2 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 2 trombones, *percussion (2 players), timpani, strings *percussion (2 players): marimba, glockenspiel, crotales, bell. clashed cymbals, 2 suspended cymbals (small and large), small bass drum, very large bass drum, side drum, tamtam (with plastic soap dish), bell tree, flexatone, cauca (lion’s roar), tambourine, football, rattle, thunder sheet


Part 1
Prologue in Heaven
The Tests and Job’s Responses
First Argument

Part 2
Second Argument

Part 3
Third Argument
The Unnameable


Composer Notes

Programme Notes

Short Note by David Nice

Like Vaughan Williams in his Job: A Masque for Dancing, Davies was inspired in part by William Blake’s 21 engravings for the Book of Job. His oratorio, however, is less dependent on find parallels for Blake’s visual details, given the direct poetry in David Lemon’s adaptation of the Stephen Mitchell translation from the biblical original, it is hardly surprising that the spotlight should be so much on Job’s suffering litany. The baritone has the lion’s share of the setting, though the other soloists occasionally reinforce his plea and chorale-like episodes universalize his predicament. Davies frames with work with two seminal plainsong-like passages; there is also plenty of dramatic contrast both within Job’s monologues and in the vivid orchestral writing for the smarmy Comforters, the initially shrill God who finally appears out of a dazzling orchestral whirlwind and the animal life he uses to illustrate the wonders of creation to a humbled Job.

Extended Note by David Lemon

Job – Peter Maxwell DaviesJob was a subject Maxwell Davies had long considered, and the initiative, in 1992, to ask him to write a work based on the ancient poem, only realised the composer’s own intention. Job’s fierce, brave anger, born of indignation at the injustice of his treatment, and which finally wrests a response from God, is an ideal subject for this composer, with his intuitive and experienced sense of drama, a musical idiom of suppleness and power, and a sometimes fierce and angry spirit of his own.

Maxwell Davies’ vocal works consistently turn for subjects toward the injury to the human spirit, by philistinism, commercialism and hypocrisy (Resurrection) unlovingness (Caroline Mathilde), disease (Eight Songs for a Mad King), injustice (The Martyrdom of St. Magnus), and persecution of the unorthodox, particularly out of the goading of religion (Taverner), and toward injury to the Earth itself by exploitation (Black Pentecost), and pollution (The Turn of the Tide). Always however, the objectives of music and drama are paramount; the indignation is always distilled. As the Job-poet uses language, Maxwell Davies uses a musical language, which is often very beautiful, to ask questions rather than offer answers, even when his work arises out of his most passionately held painfully pointed convictions.

In the works without text, Maxwell Davies’ music is shot through with melancholy, but the introspection is universalised. It also contains a great humour; by turns witty and ironic or, as in Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, pictorial and affectionate, without being in any sense condescending. His ability to write good tunes, as he will call his basic material, is shown at its most accessible in this popular piece, while its main theme is also subjected to complex development in Sinfonietta Accademica. Job too has its moments of sly humour.

The sheer variety of his musical expression, for all kinds of uses, such as film, dance and even revue, and in the Symphonies, where Maxwell Davies explores form above all other considerations, describes the composer as one who has no pre- conceptions about the kind of work that should or should not be done, providing it will lend itself to ideas that are true to his expressive nature.

The first performance of Job today brings another new work to life, one that uses some of Maxwell Davies’ familiar devices, such as the structurally fundamental plainsong-like opening theme, and explores the subjects which recur throughout his artistic life, but one that will have the quality of something totally unexpected, as well as enthralling and even disturbing.

Job – An Oratorio

Maxwell Davies has called Job a comedy, as is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Northrop Frye, by the same term described the biblical poem in which Job, after a series of disasters robs him of his wealth, children and health, finally has all restored to him after his challenge to God yields a reply to his complaints, if not an answer to them. Job’s trials are dreadful, and his challenge to God implacable, but he never actually curses God to his face, as the Accusing Angel “bets” that he will. Finally he is transformed by the revelation of the Unnamable. Dante’s Pilgrim also arrives at a place of understanding that silences questions: “I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Yet God’s reply to Job seems heartlessly to fail to answer for the cause of the suffering of the righteous, and the unrighteous for that matter; a burning question for both believers and sceptics. In the poem it comes to this: “here is the universe which I made and which I am; a creation whose laws I laid down, and which I cannot break. I am not bound by your understanding of morality and justice.” The impact of Job arises out of the uncompromising challenge met by an uncompromising description of the world which the Unnamable created, and in which he is revealed. In relation to the pain that Job has endured, the response will seem unsatisfying if something clear and direct is expected.

The “Lord” of the prologue is, in his banter with the Accusing Angel, a somewhat smaller type of god than the “Unnamable” who eventually appears. Only Job’s stoic persistence rouses the Creator of the cosmos, from out of the feudal arbitrator of the prologue who is apparently willing to see his faithful servant bullied by the Accusing Angel; implicitly part of his creation. The court of The Lord vanishes at the tests of Job, never to be referred to again. The whole action has moved inward and upward.

God’s growth in stature parallels that of Job, as he evolves from a “servant” and fearing God, to one who sees him in the splendour of his creation. It is these progressions which give the piece its dramatic impulse. The whirlwind in which the Unnamable appears is not a picturesque breeze in which God can be observed making an entrance, but a storm of soul rending intensity. Only a man who has earned the right to see God by having challenged him, even to the point at which he has been accused of blasphemy by the three pious friends, can call up and withstand such an experience.

In the selection of text for the work, most of the prologue and the whole of the epilogue of the poem were excised. The listener can participate in the everyman drama without the narrative elements which work as a vital framework in the book, but would seem too literal, limited, or archaic in a musical work. It is the music which represents the emotional character of Job’s experience, from righteous assurance, through pain and loss, to hard-won understanding.

The friends’ arguments employ castigation, hectoring and almost hysterical condemnation; the usual course for those who cannot get their point across because they are hedged about by doctrine, and have no compassion or spiritual insight. Even so, their words eloquently, and with often beautiful metaphors, describe familiar arguments for the cause of suffering.

At each round, Job becomes more insistent, and his responses are all the more poignant because he speaks again and again of his pain, and he will not be fobbed off with pious shibboleths. After the first reply, Job turns directly to God (“Remember, life is a breath…”), reminding him that if the creation is destroyed, the creator loses too. In the poem, God intends to punish the friends for their error, but, as in all good comedies, Job, the person most wronged, intercedes, and his forgiveness becomes God’s also.

One of the most beautiful passages in the piece comes at the end of the Second Part, when Job recalls his life as a man of worldly wisdom and high position. Following a moment of indignant, reckless bitterness, the passage is suffused with nostalgia and the profound melancholy of the abandoned. It forms a repose from relentless argument, and takes us to a place of contemplation from which will arise the last angry exchange and Job’s splendid imprecation, at which point, the Unnamable is finally goaded into appearing. The rounds are progressively shorter and more intense each time so as to carry the listener forward to the point of the climax of the work, when the Unnamable asks his own questions.

The initiative to ask Maxwell Davies to realise this work came not directly from the book, but through William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job, which found final form in a series of twenty-two engravings; the last great work of the visionary writer and artist. In the first picture, Job is shown seated with his family under a huge tree, reading a book of scripture. In the background there is a large church. Musical instruments hang in the boughs of the tree, and doleful sheep lie in the foreground. In the last picture, the book is gone, the church has gone, and the whole family is standing and playing the musical instruments. Even the sheep look alert and cheerful. Blake’s Job is a man who endures a rebirth of the spirit when he is made to realise that his construct of goodness is made up of fearfulness, denial, religiosity, and a belief that a favoured life is the just reward for righteousness.

At the opening of Maxwell Davies’ work, the feast on earth is clearly parallelled with the concourse of Heaven. That the entire drama is internal, as the composer has said, is made clear from the start; a reflection of Blake’s work too. Pictures, music and poetry do not provide didactic answers to philosophical problems, but participate in the work of the imagination to find “the real questions”, which are, as Frye remarked, “stages in formulating better questions; answers cheat us out of the right to do this.”

The text of Maxwell Davies’ Job

My discovery of Stephen Mitchell’s remarkable translation of The Book of Job came immediately after initiation of the commission, and Maxwell Davies readily accepted it as the basis for the text of the oratorio. When I asked if, as I assumed, he would make the selection of the text himself, he surprised me by fixing me with one of his kindly but penetrating gazes, and asked if I would do it. Aware of my inexperience and a feeling of unworthiness to the task of taking scissors to one of the great books of the world, I was momentarily reluctant. Even so, I was very excited by the prospect of the work and so, the next moment, encouraged by the confidence in me that the composer implied by his request, gratefully accepted it.

After Stephen Mitchell generously permitted the use of his translation of the work, and more generously still agreed to my taking on the job of selection from it, he helped me immeasurably by commenting on successive drafts. I found the project to be part of a creative and spiritual journey that has enriched my life enormously. Even the most seemingly distant speculations on the nature of a creator and its relationship to the condition of human life and activities seem to me capable of being refracted through this book. If it does not exactly sanctify unbelief, it gives dignity to the rational questioning of the unbeliever as well as the faithful.

That Stephen Mitchell gave me enormously insightful advice on my drafts does not of course imply that he is responsible for the result of the selection and reordering of the text. Through this process and by omission, certain meanings in the poem have been significantly distorted from the poet’s intent, but the text is intended to serve as the framework of a music drama, not as an abridgement of a work of literature.

Extended Note II by David Nice

Whether the Book of Job, with its suffering man’s plea for a dialogue with God, should be among the other Old Testament Scriptures at all is a question for theologians and academics only. For creative artists, it has been a fertile source of inspiration; and a measure of its influence is surely the fact that the richest of all those offshoots, William Blake’s set of 21 engravings, has in turn inspired others. In 1927, the centenary year of Blake’s death, Vaughan Williams was approached to provide the music for a ballet based on eight of the visionary scenes; his own imagination took over and his scenario for what he preferred to call ‘a Masque for Dancing’, a masterpiece, is full of pertinent observations on the Biblical text, Blake and other great artists. Nearly seventy years later, another composer – who has, incidentally, professed admiration for Vaughan Williams’ most rigorous symphonies – accepted a commission from the University of British Columbia School of Music. David Lemon, whose gift made the commission possible and who adapted the text from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book of Job, claims the initiative came from Blake; but Sir Peter Maxwell Davies already knew the text itself, and various commentaries on it, too well to follow slavishly Blake’s sequence of tableaux.

It is hardly surprising that he should focus so rigorously on Job’s words, for which the Book of Job’s Prologue in Heaven (written in prose before the central debate flowers into image-rich poetry) is a mere pretext. After all, in the past he has spared us nothing of the thorny dialectics that lead two of his most powerful protagonists – the 16th century composer in his 1972 opera Taverner and the saint in The Martyrdom of St. Magnus – respectively to accept or resist temptation. Perhaps, too, the externals of what can be so horribly visited on an impotent victim have been too well chronicled, with the blackest of humour, in the modern ‘inverted morality’ of Resurrection (where much of the imagery is drawn from Durer’s woodcuts illustrating the Book of the Apocalypse). Although there is contrast in the language of the three ‘comforters’ who torment Job with the hypocrisy of narrow doctrine, Maxwell Davies has to find his own variety in the curses, pleas and memories of Job himself; and this he partly does by setting the baritone’s taxing role in relief against contributions from the other soloists – especially the tenor – and the chorus. Yet the very points at which he deploys them to reflect Job’s words provide in themselves a telling commentary. In 1930 the critic Richard Capell wrote of Vaughan Williams’ Job that he was ‘the one man in the musical world of today with the character, the vision and the strength of style fit to grapple with this drama of heaven and hell’; exactly the same can now be said of Maxwell Davies and his magnificently structured oratorio, first performed in Vancouver in May 1997.

The virtually unaccompanied chorus that begins the work not only goes straight under the skin of Blake’s first, happy tableau – Job surrounded by his seven sons and three daughters, an English pastoral scene and musical instruments hanging from the tree above – but also has, in the composer’s own words, ‘something of the character of plainsong, and contains the musical seeds from which the whole structure grows, and into which it finally dissolves’. A pledge of good faith in the bare essentials of the story follows. How could Maxwell Davies not be fascinated by the presence of Satan in the Book of Job not as one ‘dispossess’d, chucked out’ of Heaven but there among the company of Heaven? God is shrilly monumental through the medium of chorus, harsh wind and brass; Satan answers him, through a pair of soloists on each occasion, with music of relative dignity.

Maxwell Davies spares us any musical equivalent to Blake’s vivid twofold smiting of Job – first the extermination of his children, then the visitation of the hideous disease that makes him an outcast. Instead, highly expressive strings twice develop the opening material after the two scenes in heaven; the second purely orchestral passage reaches rich heights of anguish before sinking to the depths – cellos, basses, two muted trombones, later a lugubrious marimbaphone – as Job embarks on his litany of suffering (in which, of course, he never curses God as the ‘Accusing Angel’ bets he will). The orchestra splinters into nagging, wheedling fragments, including a violin solo marked ‘smarmy’, as the three hypocritical comforters come to tell Job that he’s been punished for wrongdoing (a claim which the ‘innocent’ Job of the Bible vigorously resists throughout); they are parcelled out among the four soloists, a fair enough point since Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite and Eliphaz the Temanite share the same imagery for their doctrinaire claptrap. But this is the briefest of interludes within Job’s monologue, which Maxwell Davies now enriches first by distant, expressive echoes from the tenor soloist and alto flute, finally by a full choral plaint which seems to universalize Job’s situation as in Greek tragedy before retreating (‘like a cat toying with a mouse’) to leave a single, wan spotlight on Job.

Part Two begins with further characterisation of the ‘comforters’, their advice reaching fever pitch with a brief bout of very high coloratura for the soprano. Job’s plaint this time falls into two distinct sections. In the first, prefaced by a majestic orchestral outburst, the vocal line climbs ever higher in its desperation, putting the baritone under a necessary degree of strain. Then, as Job remembers the days ‘when my feet were bathed in cream and oil gushed from the rock’, the dark colours of bitter memory yield to a garish orchestral evocation of strutting authority, with brilliant writing for brass. Is the composer implying a degree of hubris in this remembrance of power, however benign? Whatever the case, the climax says it all, a masterstroke expressed in a mere ten bars as the chorus seizes on the four key words of Job’s ecstatic reminiscences: ‘majesty’ – a parody of pomp expressed in a single bar – yielding to ‘courage’, ‘wisdom’ (the brass cuts out) and finally ‘silence’, repeated four times to soft percussion strokes and two solo cellos.

The comforters return to the assault in martial style at the start of Part Three, justifying the composer’s belated inclusion of two bizarre instruments in his percussion armoury, the cuaca or ‘lion’s roar’ and the wobbling, wailing flexatone. But their emphatic threat is no more effective, and at last the essential heroism (or foolishness, depending on your reading) of Job’s plaint, his wish to speak to God man-to-man, is finally granted (Maxwell Davies dispenses with the intervening discourse of the young Elihu, a possible interpolation in any case). God appears out of a magnificent orchestral whirlwind, worthy of Blake’s overwhelming vision-in-miniature at this point, and instead of giving Job an answer asks him to consider the wonders of creation. The shrill Unnamable of Part One becomes a more playful, medieval-mystery-play figure and at last the composer wins a right to vivid pictorialism: shrill oboes for the lioness and her cubs, trilling, hectic brass for the antelope, luminously divided violins and violas for the hawk. There is no need for further evocation of Behemoth or Leviathan, so humorously depicted by Blake, nor for the Book of Job’s prose epilogue, in which Job fathers a new brood and lives prosperously, in true Old Testament style, for another 140 years. The oratorio’s Job is simply, like Elgar’s and Cardinal Newman’s Gerontius, dazzled by his glimpse of the infinite and ‘comforted that I am dust’. A rich orchestral postlude between the baritone’s last utterance and the return to the opening plainsong-like chorus reaches out again to that infinite; but the work’s beginning is also its enigmatic end, dying away to nothing. Job has had his vision; that is enough.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.


First Performance

Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Sunday, 11 May 1997

Valdine Anderson  soprano