Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ascending and descending

The orchestra in which I play, South Birmingham Sinfonia, recently gave our usual pair of July concerts. This programme was all Vaughan Williams, as many orchestras are doing in this 50th anniversary of his death: Folk Dances, The Lark Ascending, and Job: a masque for dancing. For our second concert, our soloist, a conservatoire student, was taken ill, and Michael Bochmann agreed to play with us instead. Now in youth orchestras I've played many concerti, and I've heard the Lark many times: but this was something else. Breathtaking, and so very beautiful. The depth of tone and the soul of the piece made me want to cry. At various points in the piece, strings have sustained pianissimo on one paused note while the solo climbs and circles ever upwards. I was so captivated by Michael's solo, that at one such time I glanced down at my violin, to see that the bow I was drawing so lightly across the string to sustain the note, wasn't actually touching the string at all, which is stretching pianissimo slightly! Pure joy.

As for the Job, Blake had got hold of the Biblical book and made some engravings with Biblical texts as commentary. As he stated in another work, "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's/ I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create," so it's not surprising that his work on Job was rather a reinterpretation. Blake's beefs with the church were much about self-righteousness and hypocrisy, so we have Job at the start as self-righteous, not (as God declares him), righteous; his friends as hypocrites, and in the end he is humbled. So when Vaughan Williams was commissioned to take Blake's engravings and compose a ballet, the ballet directions are strikingly different at several key points to the book of Job. We performed the piece in its orchestral format, without ballet, so added a narration based on these directions and Blake's supply of texts, and I don't think that the orchestra member who worked on the composition of the narrative was quite sympathetic with the original book either!

So we had a stunning musical score, but a plot in which God hands Job over completely to Satan, deserts His throne, Satan sits on it instead, Job's friends are sent by Satan and are entirely hypocritical in their sympathy, and Job does in fact curse God. God gives him a second chance, completely unjustly casts Satan to hell, and rewards Job - for having been humbled. It was disturbing to have this completely distorted retelling of Job performed, with narration announced from the pulpit of the church building in which we played, as if it were what the Bible says. It led to some good discussions with fellow orchestra members who were intrigued or disturbed by the picture presented, but it bothers me that so many will have the impression that the Bible reveals God in this way. I wanted to give everyone the text of the book of Job. But strangely, it's not produced as a separate evangelistic booklet as are the gospels.


dave bish said...

I'm sure you could format the text, and get the office to print it out as a booklet. Job and Ecclesisates would make fascinating evangelistic giveaways.

Chris said...

that's fascinating.
Have you come across Jeremy Begbie? He delivered an absolutely stunning lecture on natural theology and music a few weeks back, and I was spellbound. It's really opened up a whole new world for me - I'd never thought Calvin would have much to do with the music of Rousseau/Rameau. Anyway, I'd never heard of him until then, and when he suddenly unleashed some phenomenal new testament theology, I was keen to find out who he was! Turns out he's a pro musician whose just finishing up as principal of Ridley Hall to go work at Yale or something.
He wrote a book a while back, called "voicing creation's praise".
with love,chris

étrangère said...

Yes, I've come across his books before and pondered getting one, but their price outweighs my interest in them! I'm quite into thinking through a theology of music and arts, but then, I'm trying to do that with everything these days. My students have learned that I can get rather excited about most of their subjects for that reason... Music, maths and literature only more so because I spend more time in them.