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There are signs of a much overdue, and very welcome, Parry revival. Apart from Blest Pair of Sirens, little of Parry's choral music has been performed—or recorded—in recent years. His star was to a large degree eclipsed by that of his slightly younger contemporary Elgar at the end of his lifetime, but there's no doubt that the latter was strongly influenced by Parry's music, especially when it came to writing his oratorios, as this recording well shows. Parry's Job, written in 1892, pre-dates all of Elgar's oratorios and it is easy to detect its influence in, for instance, The Dream of Gerontius, written ten years later.
This fine work has never been recorded before.
Birmingham’s commission, for a full-scale oratorio, placed Parry in an artistically more difficult position. In one sense the commission was a substantial boost to his confidence, as was the challenge of writing a large work; conversely, the demand for an oratorio, a form intrinsic to Birmingham’s identity (established by a long tradition beginning with Mendelssohn’s St Paul and Elijah and continuing with Costa’s Eli and Naaman, Sterndale Bennett’s The Woman of Samaria, Benedict’s St Peter, Sullivan’s The Light of the World, Gounod’s The Redemption and Macfarren’s The Resurrection), was less amenable to Parry’s creative aspirations. The commission was accepted, but he felt decidedly uneasy at the prospect. This he declared in a letter of 2 September 1887 to his friend and mentor Edward Dannreuther:
Now today comes another application from Birmingham for a work of the Oratorio order two hours long for next year’s festival. I think I ought not to let such a chance slip if I can do it. But it’s a very short time to find a subject, and get into shape and write the stuff. Moreover, I don’t like the Oratorio notion – though of course one can make a work on Oratorio lines which shall be perfectly independent of ecclesiastical or so-called religious conventions. Do you think there is anything to be made of the poetical material in the same neighbourhood as Parsifal? Do you think there are any stories of the Albigensians or some such types? It must be something with lots of chance for chorus – and just at this moment – when I haven’t thought much about it, it seems to me it might be worked by having a ‘Narrator’ as in the early Oratorios and in the Passions and Resurrections; introducing the characters in propriâ persona as well.
Dannreuther sympathized with Parry’s dislike of the traditional oratorio form and suggested that Parry look at sources of Sanskrit poetry, Simrock’s Mythologie and even the Edda; Barclay Squire, Stanford’s librettist for The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, was consulted; another friend, William Richmond the painter, put forward the idea, somewhat prophetically, that the Book of Job with Robert Browning as the librettist would be an attractive possibility. Parry gave serious consideration to all these, but in the end, under pressure from the Birmingham Festival committee, he agreed to a more traditional subject with, as he confessed to Dannreuther later in October 1887, ‘the mental reservation that there shouldn’t be much of religion or biblical oratorio beyond the name’.
What Parry was looking for was a text that could explore and develop a narrative based on human emotions and passions rather than those of religious dogma. As a Utilitarian Rationalist and disciple of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, Parry had rejected the tenets of Christianity and organized religion in the early 1870s, shortly after leaving Oxford. The commission of a conventional Old-Testament oratorio militated against his more radical outlook which looked to avoid the obvious associations with ecclesiastical conventionality and piety. Yet, not wishing to turn down the opportunity to capitalize on the success of Blest Pair, he needed to find a means of reconciling Birmingham’s demand for conformity with his own heterodoxy. In the end he came upon the story of Judith through Dean Prideaux’s speculative work The Connection of the Old and New Testaments, a subject traditional enough to satisfy the committee but one with more universal human desires and emotions to excite the composer.
Judith (or The Regeneration of Manasseh) was an instant success at Birmingham in August 1888 and helped consolidate Parry’s reputation. It was swiftly taken up by other choral societies, notably the Edinburgh Choral Union (November 1888), twice by the Novello Choir under Mackenzie (December 1888) and by the Cambridge University Musical Society under Stanford (June 1889). Other choral works followed in quick succession. The Ode on St Cecilia’s Day, a setting of Pope’s poem, became the subject for his Leeds commission (October 1889), selected verses of Milton’s L’Allegro ed Il Penseroso became the subject of a cantata for Norwich (October 1890) as did Psalm 130 (De Profundis) for Hereford (September 1891).
On receiving a commission for an oratorio-type work from the Gloucester (Three Choirs) Festival of 1892, Parry decided to return to an idea that had formed part of the preliminary discussions for his first oratorio. The Book of Job (one that bears the name of its hero like those of Joshua and Ruth) naturally appealed to Parry’s agnostic imagination. Richly infused with philosophical allegory and anthropocentric significance, the text of this most uncompromising of scriptural writings is the most consistently theological and intellectually demanding work of the Hebrew Bible, focusing on the human condition, on life’s meaning in the face of undeserved suffering, on wisdom, questioning and the issue of theodicy (that is, defending the attributes of God against objections resulting from physical and moral evil). To Parry, an unbeliever and a man preoccupied by matters of philosophy and ethics, Job, as a profound symbol of humanity, struck a deeper chord of sympathy than the historical figure of Judith. Furthermore, Parry was able to feel a sense of personal empathy with this ancient character, particularly with regard to his own spiritual predicament of uncertainty and dissatisfaction. The choice of this text therefore presented appreciable personal opportunities to construct an oratorio that could act as a vehicle for his individual spiritual identity while at the same time being uncontroversial in the eyes of the Three Choirs committee. The problem nevertheless remained as to how such an immense and towering text, that concentrated so fully on moral and theological questions, might be honed into a manageable libretto of balanced dramatic and reflective proportions.
The text of the Book of Job opens with a Prologue in prose (chapters 1 and 2) painting a picture of Job, a pious, ‘perfect and upright’ man, blessed by God in all the richness of his issue and estate. Then enters Satan among the angels whose object is to expose the sins of men. God points to the piety and faithfulness of Job, at which Satan sneers submitting that Job’s motives are essentially those of self-interest. ‘But put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse Thee to Thy face.’ Trusting in Job’s devoutness, God allows Satan to bring total ruin to Job’s family and belongings, and even torments him with a vile and loathsome disease. Yet in each adversity Job remains steadfast. Three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, ‘come to mourn with him and to comfort him’. The ensuing thirty-nine chapters are taken up with an extensive poetic soliloquy in which Job curses the day of his birth, longs for death and complains at the injustice of God. A further character, a young man, Elihu, the son of Barachel, enters (chapter 32) and reproves Job and his friends. In particular he accuses Job for charging God, the all-perfect, with injustice, proclaiming somewhat dogmatically: ‘Far be it from God, that he should do wickedness; and from the Almighty, that he should commit iniquity. For the work of a man shall he render unto him, and cause every man to find according to his ways’ (chapter 34:10-11). After Elihu’s speech God appears in the whirlwind (chapter 38) in answer to Job’s complaint. His response is to remind Job of the wonders of the earth, the magnitude of the universe, and of all things that lie far beyond his comprehension, though interestingly no rationale is offered for Job’s monumental suffering. The book concludes with an Epilogue in prose (chapter 42) where Job is found to be in the right while his friends are condemned. Finally Job’s wealth and possessions are restored twofold to him and a second family born to him before his death at a great age.
In distilling the text of Job’s forty-two chapters, Parry elected to mould his scheme into the confines of four scenes. The dramatis personae were also limited to four exclusively male characters: a baritone to take the role of Narrator (an idea that had been in the composer’s mind since before the composition of Judith); a tenor for Satan; a boy treble for the Shepherd Boy (a role expanded by Parry for his oratorio); and a second baritone for the central role of Job. The first two scenes are entirely narrative in content and are based essentially on the text of chapter one. Scene I, which Parry marked ‘Introduction’, draws almost verbatim on verses 1 to 12 and acts as a form of prologue in setting up the state of contention between God and Satan. For Scene II, which depicts the destruction of Job’s family and wealth (Satan’s infliction of disease on Job is, incidentally, omitted), Parry provided much of the text himself. This was necessary first to create a dramatic contrast between the idyllic evocation of the Shepherd Boy and the havoc that is wreaked afterwards by Satan, and secondly to provide sufficient text for the set pieces sung by the Shepherd Boy, Satan and the chorus. The beginning of Scene III, which is taken by the Narrator, tells of the visit of Job’s friends (chapter 2:11-13) and of Job cursing the day he was born (3:1). This short passage was designed to serve as an introduction to a long soliloquy for Job alone which Parry titled ‘The Lamentation of Job’. The libretto for this extensive solo section was constructed from selected chapters (3, 8, 9, 10, 14, 29 and 30) involving Job’s protestation and response to his friends’ reproval. As for the friends themselves, Parry chose to omit their admonitions and those of Elihu. In 1894, in reply to a letter from Sedley Taylor, Parry gave his reasons for excluding this part of the book:
I’m sure you will believe that I gave the scheme quite the uttermost consideration I was capable of, and searched out my materials with very great pains and concentration of attendance. I altogether failed to see how to make the friends musical. No doubt there is much beautiful literature, and grand phrases which would adapt themselves splendidly to musical declamation which occur in connection with them; but in such matters the grand scheme has to be considered; and it is a most familiar experience of everyone who has to deal with making a work on a large scale that moments which in themselves seem most interesting and attractive have often to be abandoned because they cannot be brought into the scope of the whole; and won’t fit with the pressing necessities of development and balance. To introduce the friends into the scheme would necessitate an absolutely different plan and different principle of treatment.
As a counterpart to Scene III, Scene IV is dominated by an extended symphonic chorus representing God (in the third person rather than the first person of the biblical text) ‘out of the whirlwind’. The whole of this section draws selectively on chapters 38, 39 and 40, closing resolutely with the words ‘Then shall God also confess that thine own right hand can save thee’ (40:14). The latter part of the scene is drawn from the Epilogue of chapter 42 where the Narrator provides a frame for Job’s final repentance (vv. 1-3 and 5-6).
Parry began work on his oratorio on 29 August 1891; an entry in his diary reads: ‘Made a start at a first scene of Job to see how it would work.’ Progress with Job was interrupted, however, by the need to complete The Lotos-Eaters promised for Stanford and the Cambridge University Musical Society and his incidental music for Aristophanes’ The Frogs commissioned by the Oxford University Dramatic Society. Work did not properly resume until the beginning of 1892 when he made a telling remark in his diary on 10 January: ‘Worked all the morning at my experiment in Job.’ This could have only referred to ‘The Lamentation of Job’ which, as a major solo paragraph and the emotional hub of the work, created a quite new emphasis in terms of oratorio design. Later in January he took what he had written of the ‘Lamentation’ to Dannreuther, his friend and mentor. Dannreuther’s reaction was highly encouraging: ‘Never saw him so enthusiastic over anything of mine’, Parry wrote in his diary on 24 January; ‘He said Job’s lamentation was “magnificent”.’ Inspired by Dannreuther’s verdict, Parry finished the ‘Lamentation’ by 26 January after which there was another interruption while The Frogs was given at Oxford. On 13 March he was able to return to Job in order to make progress with the final scene. This section gave him considerable difficulties. By the end of June Parry had finished the short score of the work and had begun the task of orchestrating it. He also took the opportunity to go through the solo part with Plunket Greene who described it as ‘fairly promising’. On 18 August Parry’s diary breaks off so we have no personal record of the first performance of Job at Gloucester on 8 September. We do know, however, from correspondence with Dannreuther, that the rehearsals did not augur well. This was corroborated by Plunket Greene who recounted the following to Charles Larcom Graves, Parry’s first biographer:
He [Plunket Greene] was staying at Highnam [Parry’s estate just outside Gloucester], and Hubert and he had started off in the morning for Gloucester in an open carriage drawn by an ancient horse. On the way the vehicle broke down so completely that they had to complete the journey on foot. But this was only the prelude to a chapter of accidents at the rehearsal, which went badly from beginning to end, and they walked back to Highnam in stony silence, Hubert carrying the full score. (C L Graves, Hubert Parry, 1926 i, 350)
But, in spite of the initial pessimism, the performance proved to be a resounding success, as Parry related to Dannreuther in a letter of 16 September:
I came back just in time for sundry rehearsals, and got very depressed over them. I thought old master Job would come totally to grief, but somehow he didn’t this time, and everybody seemed to take to him very kindly. Plunket Greene sang his part amazingly well, and sent people into floods right and left. He went right through with it without any shade of weariness from first to last. I send you a copy in memory of all the help you gave me over it.
The reception of Job was indeed rapturous and the reviews were with few exceptions hugely enthusiastic at Parry’s achievement, though some were bemused by the decisive break with the traditional paradigms of oratorio form, particularly with regard to the unconventional scheme of the last two scenes. The critic of The Musical Times seemed on the one hand to be nervous about the shift away from the familiar, but on the other he remained impressed by the logic of Parry’s concise dramatic structure:
There are many persons in our day to whom the unconventional is dear, simply because of its unconventionality. In the domain of music such individuals should not be allowed too much influence. They tend towards extravagance and license [sic], which are dangerous in all the arts, in music more especially. While ‘Job’ has features decidedly new, I do not see that the composer has gone beyond bounds. He has written a declamatory bass solo seventeen pages long, but length is its only special peculiarity. To this a chorus equally voluminous makes reply. Then the work ends, not with a chorus, but a solo – a circumstance which may detract from musical effect, but accords with the natural treatment of the story … Dr Parry here takes a step towards what is known as ‘advanced’ music, departing to that extent from the solid and dignified classic style shown in the work immediately preceding. But taking the piece as it stands, there can be no dispute as to its masterfulness. Whether ‘Job’ will become popular is a question I shall not take upon myself to answer …
The critic need not have been so reticent. Job very soon became recognized as one of Parry’s most characteristic works and it received many performances throughout Britain in the years immediately after 1892. The London premiere was given by the Highbury Philharmonic Society on 16 January 1893 where Plunket Greene again sang the ‘Lamentation’ and Parry conducted. Other performances took place in Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff, Cambridge, Oxford, Hull, Newcastle and Gateshead, Liverpool, Sheffield and in London at the Crystal Palace and Albert Hall, while the work was accorded the rare honour of being given at the next two Three Choirs Festivals at Worcester (1893) and Hereford (1894). Only one critic, George Bernard Shaw, trenchantly anti-establishment and anti-‘academic’ to the point of prejudice, took vehemently against Job as he had done against Judith, pronouncing it acerbically as ‘the most utter failure ever achieved by a thoroughly respectworthy musician’. Though one suspects that Shaw would have remained agin Job whatever the circumstances, his encounter with the work was through a rather tentative performance by the amateur Middlesex Choral Union and a weak cast of soloists (with perhaps the exception of Robert Newman of future Queen’s Hall fame, who took the part of Job) which was hardly likely to enhance his impression. But though Shaw remained antagonistic towards Job, eminent composers, conductors and singers became stalwart advocates of its originality. Richter conducted a fine performance of it at Birmingham on 8 October 1897. ‘He praised the score very warmly’, Parry committed to his diary, ‘and we had an affectionate hug.’ Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Finzi, Hugh Allen and Sir Adrian Boult were admirers while Elgar, in the violins of the Worcester Festival Orchestra, played the work under Parry’s baton in September 1893. For the young Elgar, as yet untried in the province of large-scale choral music, the experience of Parry’s stirring language, the drama of the ‘Lamentation’ and the overwhelming architecture of the final scene, must have been deeply influential. Indeed, a reference to Job appears in the sketches of The Dream of Gerontius and we know that he referred to it during the composition of The Apostles, notably when he sought guidance on word-setting. Plunket Greene’s career was effectively made by the success of his interpretation of Job’s ‘Lamentation’ which he sang many times during his professional life, while Keith Falkner, a pupil of Plunket Greene, a specialist in English song and later a Director of the Royal College of Music in Parry’s footsteps (1960-1974), found the role of Job overwhelming. When asked by Allen to sing the role at the RCM in 1925, Falkner sought help from Plunket Greene at the instigation of Emily Daymond (Parry’s one-time amanuensis). Falkner’s recollection of the concert in his personal diary was vivid, as Julia Falkner’s recent biography of her father relates:
Job took place in the presence of Dr Brewer, although I was unaware of this at the time, who would perform the same work at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral later in the year. During the College performance I was so emotionally involved with the Lamentations and the final ‘I know that thou canst do everything’ that I had to lock myself in the lavatory for thirty minutes afterwards before I could see or speak to anyone. From that moment, I knew that singing was the joy of my life. The next day came the news that Dr Brewer had engaged me for the Festival performance on 9 September 1925 (Julia Falkner, Keith Falkner (London 1998), 25).
John Carol Case was another fine exponent of the role as is evidenced by a BBC broadcast conducted by Sir Adrian Boult in 1976.
The introduction to Job (track 1) begins with a majestic orchestral statement that immediately recalls the noble tone of the opening of Blest Pair of Sirens. Its broad diatonic C major sweep, replete with melodic sequence, pedal point and rich orchestration is unmistakable Parry and it never fails to stir as it recurs throughout the oratorio as a form of neo-baroque ‘symphony’. After the weighty plagal cadence of the full orchestra, we hear the first of several leitmotivs that punctuate the fabric of the four individual scenes. A descending figure in the cellos, representing the spirit of Job in his changing fortunes, ushers in the first declamatory section of the scene. Our first picture of Job is his righteousness, painted resplendently in Parry’s stirring modulation to B flat (‘and one that feared God’) and the repetition of the orchestral ‘symphony’. The tonality quickly switches to A minor as the narrator tells of the days of feasting and of Job’s doubt that perhaps his sons and daughters may have ‘cursed God in their hearts’. On this uncertain note the music becomes more animated as we are launched into the dialogue between God and Satan (2). Switching abruptly to A flat major, Satan enters to confront God (personified by the male chorus). God’s faith in Job is echoed in the orchestra by a variation of the opening ‘symphony’, but this is short-lived as Satan impatiently bursts in with ‘Doth Job serve God for nought?’, a tonally unstable episode that culminates in a strident passage for horns and Satan’s challenge ‘But put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath’ (3). With God’s acquiescence and Satan’s exit, the scene ends with a further restatement of the orchestral ‘symphony’, returning us to the pastoral depiction of Job, yet with a sense of foreboding in the knowledge that destruction and suffering are about to befall our hero.
The pastoral evocation that formed a significant portion of Scene I is further accentuated at the beginning of Scene II with the song of the Shepherd Boy (4). The simplicity of the musical ideas, the pentatonic clarinet melody, the limpid timbre of the treble voice and the uncomplicated strophic form all contribute to a vision of tender innocence; yet clouding this representation of gentle naïveté are the darker harmonies that intrude in the strings, serving to remind us of the coming storm. Here we have a demonstration of Parry’s harmonic resourcefulness as he colours his luminous G major with the minor subdominant. Moreover, this minor subdominant recurs unexpectedly, first as an unusual cadential interruption and then as means of modulating to B flat major, the flat mediant – all this before surfacing effortlessly into G major once again for the Shepherd Boy’s first verse. The tonal events of the instrumental prelude find their way into the two verses of the song: a modulation to B flat signals the end of the verse and the beginning of the refrain (‘The wind bites not’), while the interrupted cadence to the minor subdominant (‘The gentle sheep may stray’) ominously only provides a half close. The second verse behaves in the same way with but a small modification at the end in the form of a coda (‘They need no guard, God is their ward’). The pentatonic ruminations of the clarinet are expunged as Satan enters malignantly (5). As he summons the Sabean horde to destroy Job’s flocks, the tonality moves to B minor, a key which frames the whole of the chorus’s narrative description of the dreadful carnage. The episode ends with a poignant lament (‘The song of the shepherd has ceased in the land’) in which the oboe sings out a mournful transformation of the orchestral ‘symphony’ in Scene I. This is inspired music, not only in the inventive choral harmony, but also in the expressive interjections from the doleful unison cellos and low violins (how Elgar must have loved this passage!). The Shepherd Boy as messenger (accompanied by a melancholy incipit of his innocent song) recounts to Job that he is the only survivor from the holocaust meted out by the Sabeans (6). It is a terrible blow (intimated by the cello motif that answers the messenger’s woeful tale), but Job, holy man as he is, meets his loss and anguish with immovable trust in God. Parry marked this dramatic moment with a passage of restrained solemnity in G minor. Job, accompanied by muted strings (in a manner not unlike the hallowed declamatory passages of Jesus in the St Matthew Passion), accepts his lot with dignity; the musical material has a certain Brahmsian flavour, but the yearning lyricism surely betrays a more English temperament. Satan, as the author of a calamitous storm, brings yet further misery to Job in what is his main set piece (‘Arise, O wind of the sea!’). The structure of this section is in fact ‘aria and chorus’, for after Satan’s invocation (in F major) comes a further choral narrative. After a brief transition (‘See the clouds that sweep o’er the heavens’), the key of C minor is established, marking the descent of darkness (‘All the bright lights of heaven are made dark’). The whole of this part effectively constitutes a development of the leitmotiv of Job’s spirit (first heard in the cellos and basses) as further suffering is inflicted on his stricken soul. The tonal dissolution of this paragraph is resolved by a bracing choral statement (‘Lift up thy voice, O son of man, and cry!’ (7)), re-asserting C major, but the message is one of desolation and waste. Job, confused and broken, is left alone to grieve.
The opening twenty-six bars of Scene III (8) take us back to the declamatory style of Scene I. Job’s cello leitmotiv is once again in evidence but now all sense of well-being has been expunged from it as it now emerges as an agent of tragedy and despair. Job finally curses his day. Staunch acceptance of God’s ways is replaced by the need for answers, a change of heart at once felt in the faltering strains of Job’s ‘faith’ motif immediately before the ‘Lamentation’.
‘The Lamentation of Job’ has rarely been matched in terms of length or emotional tension in the history of oratorio. Elgar also produced extended solo paragraphs – one thinks of Judas’ soliloquy in The Apostles (1903) and ‘The sun goeth down’ sung by Mary in The Kingdom (1906) – but Parry’s scena, running to some fourteen pages of vocal score, must rank as one of the most sustained and physically exacting essays ever attempted in British choral music. For Parry, who had largely failed to come to terms with the theatrical (and hence external) demands of opera, it was an opportunity for him to bring his assimilation of Wagnerian declamation and leitmotivic transformation to bear on an internalized dramatic situation of truly symphonic scope. (In this sense the manner and technique of the ‘Lamentation’ has much in common with Wotan’s agonized soul-searching in Die Walküre and the ‘Wahnmonolog’ of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger.) The scena, based in A minor, is constructed in six distinct parts, beginning with Job’s bitterness of spirit and desire for death (9), a mood communicated by the stark and austere material in rigid, parallel thirds (a metamorphosis of Job’s cello theme). Job’s questioning is passionate: ‘Why died I not from the womb?’ (10), he asks imploringly. In death at least he should have ‘lain still and been quiet’. In the second section Job reflects, with some exasperation, on the notion of justice and the omnipotent Deity (‘How should a man be just with God?’ (11)), aware of his own insignificance. Yet, in his weariness, he has the courage to demand answers from his Creator (12). These fundamental questions – ‘show me wherefore thou contendest with me. Is it good unto Thee that Thou shouldest oppress?’ – constitute the third section in a more lyrical A flat major which in turn leads to D flat and Job’s powerful meditation on the transitoriness of life (section four). The words ‘Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble’ (13) are familiar from the Order for the Burial of the Dead and from Purcell’s immutable setting used at the funeral of Queen Mary. Parry’s setting retains the same level of pathos as that of Purcell but in an entirely romantic context. Supported by the velvet tones of three trombones, the cellos sing a melody charged with melancholy. This lyrical gesture recurs with increased ardour throughout Job’s arioso and also closes off the section in the manner of a baroque set piece. In what is actually a short episode, Parry manages to achieve not only great pathos, but also an extraordinary intensity which leaves behind the impression that this part constitutes the very heart of the work. From here Job attempts to stage some kind of emotional recovery as he remembers the God of past experience (‘O that I were as in the months past, as in the days when God preserved me’ – section five (14)). As the tonality gravitates towards C major – a tonal memory of his once happy life – Job sings more buoyantly in a neo-Handelian vein (‘I put on righteousness, and it clothed me’). The memory, however, is short-lived, for he quickly realizes that his predicament is one of hopelessness (‘But now my soul is poured out upon me’ (15)). The sixth section restores both the key of A minor and the opening austerity as Job bitterly accepts his lot. Stoically he looks forward to the time of his death (at which point Parry masterfully reintroduces the cello melody of section four) without knowing the cause of God’s displeasure (16).
Scene IV, representing God in the whirlwind, creates an appropriately massive symmetry to Scene III and is for the most part a scena in choral form. It serves also to reaffirm the home key of the oratorio, C major. Like the ‘Lamentation’, the chorus is composed of six large architectural structures, though crucially, at the end, Parry provides a more extensive coda for the Narrator and Job. The opening choral statement, ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’ (17), is highly striking, both for its unusual harmonic progression of root-position chords and its dramatic gradation of dynamics from pianissimo to forte. God’s demand (‘Gird up thy loins like a man, and answer’) is marked by the imposing timbre of the horns who present a bold ritornello idea to punctuate the entire section. After the exultant conclusion of the first part, an orchestral transition takes us to the flat mediant (E flat) for a spacious choral paragraph imbued with sea imagery (‘Who shut up the sea with doors?’ (18)). Especially impressive here is Parry’s use of the trombone which becomes even more conspicuous in the animated bridge to section three. ‘Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days?’ (19) is by contrast a lyrical effusion that, in its breadth and rapture, looks forward linguistically to the choral works of Elgar. The imagery of section two is continued in the fourth section (‘Who hath divided a watercourse’) but this time with a much wider pictorial range. In depicting the rain, dew and hoary frost, Parry exhibits considerable sensitivity in his choice of orchestration, but most remarkable of all are the unearthly timbres of low tuba, trombones, horns, cellos and basses that portray the frozen deep. The fifth section, ‘Hast thou given the horse strength?’ (20), is a brisk scherzo in F major which culminates with a repeat of the horn ritornello first heard in section one (now with full brass). This gesture anticipates God’s initial demand (‘Gird up thy loins like a man, and answer’) which now acts as a link to section six. With the mention of judgment and majesty (‘Wilt thou disannul judgment?’ (21)), Parry creates an atmosphere of epic grandeur by means of a neo-Bachian style replete with walking-bass and French ‘double-dotted’ figurations. Architecturally this becomes even more immense as the end of the chorus builds to a broad climax by way of a series of weighty imitative entries (‘Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath’); but perhaps most affecting is the last choral utterance (‘Then shall God also confess’ (22)) which, in its manipulation of a higher diatonic dissonance, looks forward to the sumptuous vocal textures of the late Songs of Farewell.
The conclusion of Job brings together all the most important thematic elements and in so doing operates as both a dramatic and symphonic resolution to the oratorio. Job’s reappearance is signalled by the return of his cello leitmotiv, while his deeply moving act of repentance (‘I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear’) is marked by a recapitulation (in D flat) of the ‘Lamentation’ theme elided subtly with the final phrase of the ‘meditation’ idea. The work closes, as it began, with the Narrator whose brief but profoundly uplifting music tells of Job’s end (23). It is then left to the orchestra to restate in a glorious blaze of C major the opening ‘symphony’ as an apotheosis of Job, the holy man and hero, restored to God’s favour.
After the success of Job Parry attempted one further oratorio, King Saul, which he composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1894. The central bass role was written for the celebrated singer George Henschel. Being a Birmingham commission, the work naturally conformed, like Judith, to the much larger evening-long model of oratorio, rather than the compact design of Job (which, incidentally, was labelled ‘Cantata’ in the programme at its first performance). Moreover, though King Saul contained a major role for the male soloist comparable in stature with that of Job, and a fine libretto (indeed one of the composer’s finest achievements), it nevertheless reverted to a more traditional concept of organization. Job therefore occupies a special place in Parry’s output of oratorios. Not only is the work considerably shorter than its counterparts, but it is also organized in a new and exciting way. Soloists and chorus are used in a quite different manner from the more stereotypical post-Mendelssohnian design that had become entrenched in British choral music of the time. Added to which, there is a sense of symphonic continuum in Job (in fact one might easily see the work as a kind of four-movement symphony) which simply had not been attempted in earlier oratorios. Just as Parry had privately intimated, the work is one of bold experimentation, symptomatic of a composer who wished to transform the very nature of oratorio itself.
Jeremy Dibble © 1998