EXPLORING MUSIC : ''Irresistible'' Job, A Masque for Dancing
The MHS Review 399 VOL. 12, NO.3 • 1988
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David M. Greene
John Milton (1608-1674) was a great English poet--by most reckonings one of the supreme poets in the language. I tell you this because, given the state of education in this country, most high school graduates have never heard of him and there are Ph.D.s in English literature who remain ignorant of anything outside of their "field." Milton had a theory that any poet worth his salt ought to prove himself by tackling the greatest genres. Since it was not clear what the greatest genre was, at the height of his powers he produced one work apiece for the three candidates: Paradise Lost (epic), Samson Agonistes (tragedy), and Paradise Regained. This last work, he said, exemplified "short epic," the best model for which he thought to be the Book of Job (not a manual for seeking employment but one of the books of the Old Testament).
The Book of Job tells of the misfortunes of a good, pious, and wealthy man. Satan, who spends his time "going to and fro in the earth, and ... walking up and down in it," thinks his piety derives from his good fortune, and makes a deal with God to test him. As catastrophe after catastrophe rains down on him, Job is gradually reduced to a pitiful hulk, covered with sores and clad in rags, lying on an ashheap. Yet he steadfastly refuses to "curse God and die." Three "comforters" (i.e. do-gooders) arrive and try to convince him that he is being punished for his sins.
Certain that he has led an examplary life, he concludes that God is unjust if He punishes the righteous. Then a fourth "comforter," Elihu, argues that Job should be trying to justify the ways of his Creator, not himself. But here God Himself intervenes, and shows Job how limited is his view of truth, the wonders of Creation, and the mysteries of human existence. Job repents his hasty condemnation and is rewarded with twice as many good things as he had before.
Many artists besides Milton have been inspired by this work. One of them was William Blake (1757-1827). Blake was a true mystic, given to seeing visions; he was also a great poet and, by training, an artist and engraver. In 1821, John Liddell, one of a group of young artists interested in the old fellow's welfare, commissioned him to do a set of illustrations for the Book of Job. Enter (a hundred years later) Sir Geoffrey Keynes.
Sir Geoffrey was a great surgeon and professor of medicine. He was, by avocation, a distinguished literary scholar (one did not have to belong to the Ph.D. club to be one in those days) and editor of the works of Sir Thomas Browne and Isaak Walton. But his particular enthusiasms were Blake and ballet. Working on the centenary edition of Blake's Job, he was struck by the idea of turning it, pictures and all, into a ballet. He worked up a scenario and sent it, with a set of reproductions of the illustrations, to Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes.
Diaghilev pronounced the idea oldfashioned and "too English," and returned the script-but kept the pictures. Keynes had his sister-in-law, Gwendolen Raverat, design the sets and costumes, and she recommended Vaughan Williams, her cousin, to compose the music. V.W. was truly inspired and turned out one of his greatest scores. The ballet was premiered by the Camargo Society in 1931, with the great Anton Dolin (ne Sydney Healey-Kay) as Satan, and became a staple of what is now the Royal Ballet.
There have been several recordings. What about this one, which dates from 1984? I can do no better than quote the Penguin Guide, which gives it the ultimate accolade: three stars and a rosette. "The L.P .O., playing with inspired fervor under Vernon Handley ... offers sound of superlative quality, very much in the demonstration class ... One feels that had Diaghilev heard this record he would not have rejected Vaughan Williams' masterly score ... Even at full price this record would be irresistible, one of Handley's major achievements in the recording studio."