The affliction of Job

William Blake Job Engraving 1

The Book of Job is a musical text (30:31 suggests this): the poetry is rich in imagery and must have sounded beautiful when it was first spoken aloud.

The approach

In trying to compose some music to suit The Book of Job, at least two logical approaches to structure presented themselves. One was a scenic musical account of Job’s life – something like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony perhaps?

And then there was a character approach – individual pieces with themes for each of the speaking players in the drama – perhaps something like Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

After some thought, I decided that perhaps a combination of the two approaches might work, with themes for each of the characters but a scene-by-scene approach to structure.

Through reading the text and then sitting at the keyboard, one or two ideas emerged that helped me in my approach to structure – and so I decided then to take some of my favourite lines or phrases from the poetry in an effort to capture the drama; and then ascribe themes to the main players – the Lord, Satan, the friends and Job himself.

So there are recurrent motifs played out across the orchestra, but the overall structure is one of vignettes – snapshots – of the “action” of the story of Job.

But apart from the question of structure, there was another artistic problem presented by the story – that of balance. I didn’t want to finish up with a dirge or just a sequence of mildly distracting pieces – but rather something that hung together musically. And so I tried to “balance” the musical experience of listening to what became The Affliction Of Job.

The music on the CD

1. Blameless And Upright (1:1b)

Job’s life is blessed. He has family and a fortune, and is described in the text as “blameless and upright”. After a sudden opening on the french horn, we hear a counter melody in the violins and woodwind, then the Job Theme on the oboe. The Blameless And Upright theme begins on the tuba and trombone, and spreads throughout the whole orchestra.

2. Skin For Skin (2:4)

Satan incites the Lord against Job, so disaster hits him – his family and livelihood are wiped out, then he is afflicted with a skin condition. Satan’s Theme is first heard in the violins, then on the piano. It is later repeated when Job is tested for a second time. Satan’s Theme is then played on the woodwind as he negotiates with God for a second time. The marauders are by now in the distance, but the onslaught continues against Job, this time affecting his person.

3. Proverbs Of Ashes (13:12)

On the ash heap, after one week of silence, Job’s dialogue with himself, his friends and the Lord begins with just the strings at piano volume. The violins open with an “eastern” sounding theme. The Job theme from part one is played in harmony with this, first in the cello section, then joined by the violas as the second violins add another layer of harmony.

4. Drowned In My Affliction (10:15b)

After Satan’s arrangement with the Lord, Job bemoans his situation as the friends sit by his side. I imagined that it might have started raining (the pathetic tears of God), which then prompts an outpouring of emotion from Job. The opening pitter-patter on the piano, later echoed in the violins I heard as raindrops. A theme emerged on the piano, which is then repeated on the harp supported by the brass, before being played by the whole orchestra. One and half minutes in, the Blameless And Upright Theme in a minor key is played in the woodwinds, then in the violins.

5. Worthless physicians! (13:46)

Very difficult to capture in music the anger, the irony and the disappointment of Job’s words to his companions! I opted instead for a bold but brooding orchestral statement of the Job Theme (in the minor key) in an effort to represent Job fighting for his integrity and asserting his character over those of the “miserable comforters”.

6. The Moth (4:19b)

As we learned in class, animals do appear throughout in the poetry of Job, and I was struck by the image of the fragile moth in Chapter 4 (and later in 13:28 and 27:18). The precise phrase is “crushed more readily than a moth”, so the tentative condition of Job before God is likened to the relationship between Man and this tiny creature that can be squashed by the finger of a child.

7. O Watcher Of Men (7:20)

Yaweh’s theme begins in the violins, and is then harmonised with the rest of the strings as the French horn takes the melody. I wanted to write something that suggested Job’s grief is felt by God, that the Lord knows Job’s pain and is with him throughout his ordeal.

8. Sheol (Chs 12-14))

Job’s outpouring in Chapters 12-14 begins with a melody in the violins which is then swapped around the strings, before being joined by the woodwind. I intended for both the return of the Job theme in the mid-section and the closing brass fanfare to hint at a positive reading of the problematic 13:15 – “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him”!

9. A Companion Of Owls (30:29b)

According to Deu 14:15-16, Isa 34:11, Zep 2:14, there are six Biblical owls – the desert owl, the screech owl, the horned owl, the white owl, the little owl and the great owl. The “laughing” clarinet voice was the closest thing I could find to the call of an owl here! The phrase “A companion of owls”, in context, might mean a nocturnal creature that inhabits desolate places; so the bird here suggests loneliness and solitude, but not without a quiet wisdom and grace. The Job Theme resurfaces, played first in the strings, in a minor key. A counter melody is then introduced in the oboe and second violins, harmonised by flutes and first violins.

10. Yaweh Speaks (Chs 38-41)

Trumpets seemed appropriate for God – but with a difference. The opening fanfare is in 9/8 time, and establishes a hypnotic pulse throughout the piece. As you might expect, the O Watcher Of Men Theme reappears in the violins, viola and clarinets, but in common time over the 9/8 pulse. I introduced choirs too in order to fill out the ensemble towards the end, with harps and castanets adding (hopefully) some distinctive texture.

11: Prosperous Again (42:10)

Altered fragments of some of the original Affliction of Job themes appear in this upbeat closing piece, which was built around a piano/glockenspiel pattern in 10/8 time.