Proms 2017: Judith Weir – In the Land of Uz (World Première)

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.

Judith Weir – In the Land of Uz (World Première)

FLAC [176Mb]

Programme note
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.

1. Prologue
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.

2. Lament
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.

7. Conclusion
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’.

—Judith Weir

Full score (includes the complete sung text)
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Judith Weir – In the Land of Uz
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25 Responses to Proms 2017: Judith Weir – In the Land of Uz (World Première)

  1. Charlie Been

    Why in Job’s name should it be important how many women are commissioned to write new works? Even more, why should there be any attempt to inflate that number for non-musical reasons? Who are the women – of equal stature and accomlishment (or lack thereof) to the men so commissioned – who have been omitted? Should this socially engineered equality extend to solists, orchestral desks, and so on (presumably reversing the widespread female dominance of orchestral strings)? Should there be more black and other ethnic minority composers/solists/orchestral desks, before and beyond assessments of musical skill and accomplishment? Gay men — presumably there are far too many of them, but should there be more gay women, more transsexuals?

    • 5:4

      You’re clearly unaware of the large and increasing number of extremely talented women composers who inexplicably aren’t receiving the opportunities in bigger (and often smaller) musical festivals due to the short-sightedness and narrow vision that so many of their (usually male) directors have. How can “stature” and/or “accomplishment” – to use your terms, however one defines them – be equal if women composers aren’t given equal opportunities in the first place?

      As for the rest, yes to that too: i’d welcome seeing many more ethnic minority and LGBTQ British composers being showcased at major UK music festivals. It’s unfortunate bordering on idiotic if you believe this is all to do with “social engineering” and nothing to do with talent. You’re 100% wrong.

  2. Steven

    I would be interested, as somewhat of an outsider, if you could give a few examples of where talented female composers have been sidelined because of their gender?

    • 5:4

      Thanks for your comment Steven. I’m not making claims about any individual composers, but rather commenting on the very obvious and inexcusable discrepancy in gender representation overall.

      • Ugolino the magnificient

        If you’re unable to name “extremely talented women composers”, how do you back up your argument, if not with general assumptions ?

        • 5:4

          Take a look back through the 9½ years of writing on this blog, and you’ll find numerous extremely talented women composers that i’ve sought to promote and champion. But if lists are what you find convincing, among British composers i’d like to see Rebecca Saunders, Naomi Pinnock, Laura Bowler and Jennifer Walshe featured at the Proms, and beyond the UK, Liza Lim, Chaya Czernowin, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Galina Grigorjeva, Clara Iannotta, Helena Tulve, Chiyoko Szlavnics, Claudia Molitor, Maja Ratkje and Liisa Hirsch. All eminently worthy of the opportunity – among many, many others.

          As i wrote in the Sounds Like Now essay, Rebecca Saunders would have been perfect for this year’s Proms as she’s both one of the UK’s finest composers and it’s her 50th birthday year. Considering how much the Proms loves to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, the fact she’ll be included only in a small chamber piece that won’t even be played in the Albert Hall (while John Adams’ 70th is celebrated throughout the season), is a very sad state of affairs. Maybe by the time she’s 60 some attitudes and awareness of what’s really going on in contemporary music might have evolved and improved.

          • Steven

            But, without evidence, and with the growing numbers of celebrated female composers, how is it possible to conclude that they are neglected because of their sex? One could, I’m sure, find many worthy male composers who don’t get enough attention. I’d need something less feeble than unevidenced ‘creative myopia’ to believe there’s a systemic problem.

          • 5:4

            Do you believe the weight of emphasis on male contemporary composers at the Proms is purely an accident or coincidence? You don’t feel it strongly suggests a lack of interest/awareness in what women composers are doing? Doesn’t this count as evidence?

            The bottom line is that women remain under-represented at the Proms (and many other festivals). We can argue about causes, but that fact is unquestionable.

  3. Barry

    Okay, how about ensuring a respresenation of composers who didn’t go to a specialist music school/ public school/come from an affluent background? A disproportionate number of successful UK composers of the younger generation fall into these three.
    As with the women composers issue I’d argue that it would be ridiculous to get the quota right. Far better to tackle the underlying reasons on why the above is the case. In the case of privelidged backgrounds, this goes back to government Education policies from the early 80s. Get that right, and you’ll start to redress the balance.

    • 5:4

      Thanks for the comment Barry, but I think you’re missing the point: it’s an easy, simple thing to include more women composers when designing concert programmes – let me say that again, an easy, simple thing. If you’re hoping for more advanced “underlying reasons” than creative myopia then i suspect you’ll be disappointed.

      Regarding your first point, public schools is one thing, but what’s wrong with specialist music schools? They’re by no means the only place to learn composition, of course, but they’re hardly a poor choice for a composer to take. And as for affluence, do you propose to means-test composers prior to commissioning them?

      • Barry

        Forgive me:I wasn’t particularly clear, but I said it would be ridiculous attempt to get the quota right, so means tests prior to commissioning composers would be absurd, and on par with commissioning composers on the basis of gender. I was drawing a parallel between the two things.
        Keep gender, or whatever else out of it. Go for merit, and vigorously attack the route cause of why there are less male dancers, female composers, financially diadvantaged etc.You’ll end up with a more even balance in the end.

        ps.Specialist music schools are fine, but they (unlike the German Hochschule system) are fee paying.

        • 5:4

          Thanks for this Barry. Ultimately, i agree about a composer’s merit being the key consideration, but until there’s some balance between the sexes, when festivals offer a skew-whiff representation they need to be challenged about it.

          Specialist music schools: i don’t know from which country you’re writing, but in England at least all higher education institutions are fee paying!

  4. Steven

    No, I don’t feel that. I feel that there are simply more male composers than female composers. But what does it matter what I or you ‘feel’, anyway? The question is whether it’s true. If it’s not, we are arbitrarily preferencing some female composers on the basis of their sex.

    • 5:4

      Actually, my point in this article was simple about under-representation, rather than the causes thereto.

      • Steven

        Yes — and I don’t mean to go round in circles — but you would surely only have a problem with under-representation if it were because of gender preference ? If it’s simply that fewer women, for whatever benign reason, go on to become composers, then there’s really no issue.

        • 5:4

          So you’re saying that if there are fewer women composers (and how we’d count that i’m not sure), then you’re happy for them to be correspondingly less present in the concert hall?

          • Chris L

            In Steven’s defence, and the spirit of evenhandedness, if, say, the composers in a hypothetical Group A (who all happen to be female) have written 1 million works, and those in hypothetical Group B (who all happen to be male) have written 4 million works, then, provided that those figures truly represent all the works that they’ve ever wanted to write, been encouraged to write, etc., a 20/80 split doesn’t seem unreasonable on its face. However, that said, until it can be proved (and, like you say, how would one even begin to go about proving it?) that the 1 million are just as much in the public eye as the 4 million, then such representation can’t possibly be shown to be genuinely proportional. Like I said, conjecture, not evidence.

          • 5:4

            Precisely. It’s a way of trying to deflect and distract away from the central inequality we’re really talking about and which is patently obvious for anyone caring to look. i simply cannot get my head around the desire to engage in this kind of senseless (un-)thinking, it’s unfair, unkind and just stupid.

  5. Barry

    Specialist, as in Purcell School, YMS etc. These are pre-Conservatoire and fee paying. To be fair, scholarships are available in some instances.

    I adjudicated a composition competition once, and gave the first prize to a composer who *happened to be* female. Had I not done so on the basis of gender it would have been despicable.
    of course, confidence is sometimes an issue with composers, but this is not necessarily exclusive to female.

    • Charlie

      All places at the Purcell School, other major specialist music schools, and junior departments, are means tested, and supported by the government’s Music and Dance Scheme, meaning very few students actually pay the full fee, with many attending free of charge. There are no merit based scholarships ‘in some circumstances’ as you suggest.

      I have always wondered what gives some men the audacity to state factual errors so confidently, especially in arguments against women and their oppression.

      Anyway, in my humble opinion some of the most exciting composers alive, e.g. Tandy Davies, Chaya Czernowin, Unsuk Chin, Rebecca Saunders, Anna Meredith etc etc were woefully neglected in the Proms this year, especially considering the lack of musical diversity in the new music this year..

      • Barry

        For a more cogent argument than mine, or anything else on here regarding this area please see “Inspiring Women in Music : Zoe Martlew” available on BBCRadio3 iplayer. It makes for a bracing 15minutes listen.
        Gill Graham, of Music Sales is also very level headed here.

  6. Chris L

    Charlie Been, Ugolino the magnificient and Steven, when asked for evidence (stats, names, etc.) to back up his position, Simon provided it, but I’ve yet to see anything beyond conjecture from you in your efforts to cast reasonable doubt on it. The Devil seriously needs to consider hiring some different advocates, because it appears that none of you can cross-examine for toffee.

    I also have yet to see any female commentators rushing to back you up, and a quick glance across at the pop music sphere is all that is required to demonstrate why: there, female composers (because that, in the broad sense, is what songwriters are) share much more proportionate billing with their male counterparts, and, to continue the analogy, the notion that this results from some kind of positive discrimination would be summarily laughed out of court.

    Why, then, is it OK to posit such an argument when it comes to “serious” composition? Particularly when those voicing it seemingly have nothing to offer on this post’s principal subject-matter, i.e. the appreciation of Weir’s new piece?

    • 5:4

      Thanks very much for this, Chris – particularly for noticing that no-one in this discussion has had anything at all to say about the Weir piece, which was, after all, the entire point of this article. It’s extremely revealing about what gets some people most quickly exercised, isn’t it? And believe me when i say there were quite a few more potential comments that i simply had to delete due to their aggressively unpleasant tone, a couple of which went way beyond mere misogynism into homophobia and even borderline misanthropy. We may be living in the age of the troll, but their vapid voices won’t ever get a chance to speak here.

      • Chris L

        this post’s principal subject-matter, i.e. the appreciation of Weir’s new piece

        To wit: on first listening, its treatment of its source material was more nuanced and equivocal than I was expecting after reading your description, and I enjoyed the quirkiness of some of the scoring (I’d like to hear more of that soprano-sax-plus-organ texture!), but I must confess that I didn’t exactly find it gripping, and I agree with you that one is unlikely to glean any more insight into that material from a 10th or even 100th listening.

        • 5:4

          Regarding the quirky scoring, perhaps i undersold that in my article, as i also found it to be one of the most engaging aspects of the piece. It occurred to me how right that sort of small-scale instrumental environment was to the tale of Job which, for the most part, is all pretty intimate and conversational. But then, pace RVW, not all composers would agree with that…!

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