As i mentioned in my recent essay for Sounds Like Now, the statistics for contemporary music by women at the 2017 Proms concerts are lamentable: four-fifths of the new music heard this year is by men. Judith Weir is therefore something of an exception – doubly so, as not only is she fortunate enough to be included, but also her new piece In the Land of Uz is one of the longest new works to be heard this year, lasting nearly 40 minutes. So from this perspective, there’s an asymmetrical mix of cheering and booing to be made.
The same goes for the piece itself. Weir has turned to one of the more well-known Old Testament parables, the account of the life of Job, a man whom God happily allows to be horrendously abused by Satan, robbing him of everything, his health, his house and his family. While from a moral perspective this is all repugnant in the extreme, the story exhibits some interest in Job’s response, in which he comes to despise his existence but holds back from either accepting he has done anything to deserve this treatment, or from blaming God for his misfortunes (which, in the circumstances, would hardly have been unreasonable, or indeed unfair). You can take your pick whether Job’s convictions and endurance are deluded or admirable, but either way it’s a cornerstone of theodicy, and his emphatic reply “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” has become one of the most famous statements of stoic acceptance in the history of literature. Whereupon, with his life reduced to nothing, and having repudiated the arguments from friends who proffer suggestions as to the causes of his situation, Job is rewarded with a motherlode from God, restoring him to an even better situation than before all this sadistic nonsense began – though the Bible says nothing of the emotional trauma that would inevitably endure for the rest of Job’s (very long) life. The end justifies the means, i guess; another cornerstone of Christian belief and practice over the centuries.
Judith Weir’s approach to the text has been to construct what she calls a ‘dramatised reading’, greatly compacting the 42-chapter original story – bloated by the interminable arguments of Job’s friends that take up almost all of the book – down to its essence: disaster, response, discussion and resolution. In addition to a solo tenor and chorus, Weir has opted for a small instrumental ensemble comprising soprano sax, trumpet, tuba, viola, double bass and organ; of these, the viola has a clear, intimate relationship with the tenor part throughout, acting as a ‘familiar’ to the character of Job.
If there’s one thing that characterises Weir’s music as a whole, it’s simplicity, for the most part avoiding equivocation or convolution or ambiguity. Put simply, you know where you are with her music, and this applies entirely to In the Land of Uz. Having heard a lot of her music over the years, i find this to be a mixed blessing: she’s written some of the most spellbinding moments i’ve ever heard, as well as some of the least. In this work, one needs to bear in mind the fact that Weir appears to have set out to compose something that will have performance potential by amateur groups, so the writing throughout is simple and straightforward, eschewing subtlety in favour of an obvious underlining of important words and dramatic moments.
Primarily for these reasons, there’s an overwhelming air of Sunday School pervading the work (reinforced by the work being as unquestioning of supposedly divine action – or should that be inaction? – as Job himself was). It’s an air that establishes itself immediately, in the lengthy opening section of narrative. Throughout the work, these portions of narrative are tough to take, the avoidance of nuance resulting in an almost cartoonish depiction of disaster, the most ridiculous being the Prologue’s mawkish, over-emphatic closing words: “his suffering [pause] was very [big pause] great“. Are you paying attention, children? Did you all get that?
There’s some relief to be found once the dialogue gets going. On the one hand, Job’s lament has a dated quality to it, suggesting the mindset (though not the musical tropes) of the biblical films of the twentieth century, but the impassioned chorus that erupts midway through is an immediate swipe of razor-sharp authenticity, making the following tenor solo (“For my sighing”) all the more intense and cutting. It hurts. The discussion that ensues with Job’s ‘Comforters’ sets up an effective, polarised back-and-forth. The Comforters offer light, friendly lyricism, accessible music echoing their efforts to comfort and convince. This is met with an austere, almost ‘unlyrical’ response from the tenor, backed up by a tremulous viola – providing some subconscious insights – that brings to mind the character of Peter Grimes in its impassioned climax. The conclusion to this section is brilliant; having taken turns to express their views, Weir makes the final exchange simultaneous, turning the music into a more literal argument, the sopranos last word (“thee?”) left hanging in the wake of Job’s fierce final outburst.
This is the work’s high point, whereafter it resumes a more narrative demeanour in a sequence asking ‘Where is Wisdom?’, its phrases initiated by the narrator and then worked through by the choir, supported by the ensemble. The earlier mixture of lyricism and austerity permeates some of the music here, yet it’s tempered by the stark qualitative outlines Weir draws around so much of it (though not exactly manipulative music, its signposts could hardly be more obviously placed). The subsequent ‘Whirlwind’ is realised via a heraldic trumpet underpinned by robust triads from the organ. Quite involving stuff, yet it’s hard to stay engaged when God speaks, and turns out to be the stereotypical brooding and menacing male figure so many of us grew up with. We’re back in Sunday School again. Weir does introduce the women’s voices into God’s words later on (appropriately enough, when the words speak of feminine aspects), but too late to carry any weight. And the work’s conclusion, narrative again, moves from innocuously uninteresting to a primary-coloured happy ending worthy of The Waltons.
Whatever you may think of its motivations and implications – or, indeed, its authenticity – the book of Job is deeply provocative. So it’s frustrating that Judith Weir’s In the Land of Uz seems content simply to paddle in the shallow end of the story, presenting for the most part a caricatured and stereotyped rendition that offers few if any insights. As always with her work, its best moments are genuinely superb, but on this occasion, there aren’t many of them, and they’re all too quickly forgotten.
The world première of In the Land of Uz was given by tenor Adrian Thompson with the BBC Singers – one member of which, Charles Gibbs, also acting as narrator – with the Nash Ensemble and organist Stephen Farr, conducted by David Hill in his last concert as chief conductor of the choir.
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Judith Weir - In the Land of Uz
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In the Land of Uz is a dramatised reading of the biblical Book of Job, from which all the text is taken, in the musical form of a cantata, or short oratorio. The majority of the music is sung by the chorus, but there are also ‘obbligato’ roles for a small group of instruments which appear singly or in pairs; viola, double bass, soprano saxophone, trumpet, tuba and organ. Job appears from time to time as a solo tenor; his thoughts are also represented by the viola. Although the bulk of the storytelling is undertaken by the chorus, a speaking narrator also makes occasional appearances.
In a contest of strength, God and Satan conspire to test the faith of Job, a God-fearing and comfortably settled inhabitant of the Land of Uz. First Satan destroys Job’s family, animals and possessions. When Job retains his dignity and refuses to curse God, Satan smites him with a plague of boils. The solo viola joins in his song at this point, and becomes his ‘alter ego’. In extreme physical discomfort, Job insists that whatever happens to us, we must take the rough with the smooth.
Job, together with the viola, expresses his sadness, curses the day of his birth, and longs for death. Here his words are sung by the whole chorus.
3. Job’s Comforters
Job’s friends (sung here by different groupings of the chorus) arrive at the scene, and are at first compassionate, urging an optimistic outlook. They are joined by a saxophone and double bass. Later, their argument hardens; God is always right, so Job must have done something wrong. Job continues to express his dark view of the inevitability of decay and death.
4. Where is Wisdom?
This famous and beautiful biblical chapter takes the form of an interlude, inviting a discussion about the elusive nature and scarcity of wisdom. But at the conclusion (to a huge organ entry) God’s superiority is once again declared.
5. The Whirlwind
A vigorous duet for trumpet and organ.
6. God Speaks
Out of the whirlwind, God (represented by the male voices of the chorus and the tuba) speaks and re-asserts his authority. Who was it, after all, who created the universe in the first place, he argues, citing the many wonders of the natural world? Job withdraws from the argument with continued dignity and diplomacy.
Impressed by Job’s composure, God engineers a sudden revival of his fortunes. His possessions are amply restored, making him twice as prosperous as he was before. He has a new family of sons and daughters, and sees several generations prosper, having himself lived to the age of 140. The voices quietly withdraw from the scene, concluding: ‘So Job died, being old, and full of days’.
Full score (includes the complete sung text)