A week after Vasily Petrenko’s thrilling performance of Walton’s First Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra the audience in the Royal Festival Hall was treated to another important work by a British composer of an earlier generation, Sir Hubert Parry. His oratorio Judith, conducted by the dynamic and young William Vann, was something of a revelation. A fine quartet of singers, a well-trained chorus and the committed playing of the London Mozart Players meant that this was, in some ways, as good as it is likely to get. There are moments in Judith which are heart-breaking and memorable, but this performance could not disguise some of the issues which have discouraged anything other than the occasional performance since the premiere over 130 years ago.
In a 1998 BBC broadcast the critic and biographer Michael Kennedy called Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius “the greatest choral work yet written by an Englishman and one of the greatest written by anyone.” Therein lies the essential problem facing composers of choral works in Britain following the success of Mendelssohn’s Elijah from 1846. Elgar, a one-off, self-taught, a brilliant natural orchestrator found a story in Newman’s poem that was both dramatic and deeply personal for performer and listener. The choral works by the likes of Mackenzie, Parry and Stanford were placed in the shade by this upstart and, fairly or otherwise, works such as Parry’s Judith have been eclipsed. This committed and intelligent performance of Judith therefore gave those attending the chance to make their own judgement.
In The Apocrypha, tucked between the books of Tobit and The Rest of the Book of Esther lie the sixteen chapters of Judith, one of the books outside the Hebrew canon. Any interest we might have in the ‘apocryphal’ story of Judith is largely as a result of the vivid images painted by Tintoretto, Rembrandt and, notably, Caravaggio. The blood spouting from the neck of Holofernes as Judith removes his head from his body is simultaneously compelling and revolting. To understand how Parry responds to the vivid tale it is necessary to summarise what is a complex story made more complicated by Parry’s version of the story.
Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BC) King of Babylon spent much if his reign waging war against the Medes but, angry at the refusal of neighbouring lands to offer their support he sent his leading general, Holofernes, with a great army to lay waste to these recalcitrant states. Eventually the land of Judaea and the Israelites living there came to Holofernes’s attention and he laid siege to Judaea. The elders of the city of Bethulia agreed among themselves to surrender within five days but a wealthy widow, Judith, objected to this cowardice and declared that she would deliver Israel from their enemies. She dressed herself in bright clothes and, with her servant, crossed over to the Assyrians. She offered information to Holofernes giving just enough to convince him that her intentions were honest. She kept her distance, praying nightly at a discreet distance in the open. However, on the fourth day she agreed to join a banquet at the end of which Holofernes anticipated seducing her in his tent but, by the time the servants withdrew, he was insensible from drink. Judith used his sword to cut off his head, her servant placing it in their food-bag. Then, as was by now their custom, they went to pray but, instead, returned home to general rejoicing. The following morning the Israelites hung Holofernes’s head from the walls of Bethulia and marched out as if to attack the Assyrians who, on discovering their commander’s headless body, fled in disarray.
We have a story of colour, violence and drama; a gift to most composers. There are hints of Salome and Elektra in the story but with a pure, heroic figure at the centre. However, Parry made his position clear when he wrote: “…for though her [Judith] heroism is most admirable, the sanguinary catastrophe of the story is neither artistically attractive nor suitable for introduction in the Oratorio form.” How Richard Strauss would have disagreed! Thus, we have early indications that Parry was going to avoid portraying the bloodier aspects of the tale and, thereby, any operatic aspects inherent in the drama. Parry’s biographer, Jeremy Dibble, makes the point when he wrote: “Only with Elgar’s dramatic cantatas such as King Olaf and, par excellence, in The Dream of Gerontius do we see a genuinely operatic approach in the context of English Oratorio.” One might add the more dramatic scenes from Elgar’s Caractacus and the great scene for Judas Iscariot in part two of The Apostles. It is probable that the charitable and warm-hearted Parry would have agreed, and it is Elgar’s vivid orchestration and wide musical imagination that maintains his position as the pre-eminent composer of his time.
That Parry is the composer of Jerusalem, I was glad, Blest Pair of Sirensand the great Songs of Farewell means he has a sustained and a now growing position in our musical life, but one that is based on a limited number of his many compositions. The melody which is the beloved Hymn Tune Repton to which the words of the American poet John Whittier are usually applied (“Dear Lord and father of mankind”) is also extracted from Judith. One or other of his Symphonies makes an occasional appearance as did his remarkable Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor nearly twenty-five years ago. Parry’s songs are becoming better known too, notably through the series of recordings on the SOMM label. In 1981, under the direction of the late Vernon Handley, the BBC broadcast Prometheus Unbound from 1880. This is considered by many to be the piece that began the so-called “English Musical Renaissance” but, for me, is an underwhelming work. In 1997 Hyperion released a recording of Job composed in 1892. Therefore, any opportunity to widen our understanding of Parry’s compositions should be welcomed.
Judith, composed for the Birmingham Festival of 1888, was Parry’s first oratorio and followed Blest Pair of Sirens from the previous year. Judith, conducted by Hans Richter (no-less), was a great success as was the first London performance later in the year.
Parry, the most urbane and generous of composers was clearly challenged by the requirement to portray evil or dark characters as is clear in Job where Satan is sung by a tenor – he is no Mephistopheles. However, Elgar’s demons in The Dream of Gerontius are a challenge too. A polite chorus with rounded vowels will not work. There has to be an edge to the “Ha, Ha’s”! The worshippers of Baal in Mendelssohn’s Elijah present a similar challenge although Vaughan Williams brings it off in his Pilgrim’s Progress with the portrayal of Apollyon. Parry took as the basis of the story not just the Apocrypha’s story but added to it with the writings of the eighteenth Dean Prideaux: his The Old and New Testament connected in the History of the Jews and Neighbouring Nations. In an illuminating talk before the concert Professor Dibble made it clear that Parry wrote much of the libretto himself. By using Prideaux Parry created two conflicts in Judith, the first the Israeli worship of Moloch during the reign of Manasseh and the demands for child sacrifice, and the second the near-seduction and murder of Holofernes and Judith’s escape. Manasseh, captured by the Assyrians, repents his misguided ways and is miraculously released. How and why we are not told. This does not stop the Assyrians planning an attack on Jerusalem, where the story is set. Unfortunately, in Parry’s version, the tale of Judith and her tantalising of Holofernes becomes bowdlerised; the drama moved to Jerusalem rather than the city of Bethulia which, because of Judith’s exploits, protected the larger city and the whole of Judaea.
Notwithstanding the merits of this performance and moments such as the setting of ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’ (Repton) there is a lack of drama and impetus in Judith, a reliance on the chorus and a disproportionate dependence on Dean Prideaux’s writings. This meant that Parry’s management of his resources is uneven with the glorious voice of Kathryn Rudge as King Manasseh’s consort, Meshullemeth, underused with only a few minutes to herself in Part Two. Nevertheless, it is Meshullemeth who is given the one ‘big tune’ to sing which, because of its familiarity as Repton seemed to have been dropped into Judith rather than being a natural part of the whole. This was part of the charming scene when, as their mother, the Queen tells her children of their heritage (a chorus of twelve who appeared door left) just before their impending sacrifice is announced!
Parry’s orchestration is interesting: the only percussion being the use of two gongs that come in to their own early on and as Judith ends! The small orchestra (the strings struggled to be heard at times) nevertheless gave us great clarity with some glorious woodwind writing throughout. Toby Spence as Manasseh and Henry Waddington as the High Priest of Moloch are given their head in Part One. Waddington I last heard in his glorious impersonation of Verdi’s Falstaff at Garsington Opera last year but, sadly, like Rudge he is later underused in Judith. The chorus of worshippers calling for child sacrifice are rather polite (not their fault – see above) but Spence gave an impassioned response when he realised it was his children who were to be sacrificed. At last Sarah Fox (in radiant voice) appears as Judith reminding the pagan worshippers of their true God. She is about to be sacrificed by Moloch’s adherents when, happily for her, the marauding Assyrians arrive and take Manasseh in to captivity. I wish Parry had concentrated on what became Part Two: the story from the Apocrypha. There was enough material there for a shorter oratorio and, immediately, we were in a new world, the organ joining in at last and the violins introducing a melody akin to that from Blest Pair of Sirens. Much lamenting precedes the arrival, not of Holofernes, but his messenger (Waddington) and Jerusalem is given three (not five) days to yield. It is then that the determined Judith takes centre-stage and scene two ends with the fine chorus ‘The God of our fathers’. But the drama is not sustained, and we drift to a predictable conclusion.
Comparisons can be self-defeating. Judith looked back to Mendelssohn and Gounod (that is meant as a compliment) and should be considered in that light rather than worrying about its lack of originality which is the benefit we have of hindsight. That would not have been the case in 1888 when the Birmingham committee commissioned Parry. Judith is, however, far too long, the drama sapped by Parry’s refusal to engage directly with what was going on. The murder of Holofernes is only mentioned when Judith instructs his head to be hung from the city walls! Then a long aria from Manasseh further delays the climax when Judith praises God and the Chorus sings of Jerusalem’s deliverance. All the same there is enough good music in Judith to convince me, a doubter, that its resurrection was overdue and worthwhile. Elgar admired Parry and his music and hearing Judith helped explain this admiration. Parry did not orchestrate like Elgar, his musical imagination was not as great, but he wrote some fine music (see above) and, if Judith is not a continuously inspired work there is much within to admire and enjoy.
If the evening was not the triumph for Parry for which many of us had hoped it was for the performance: meticulously planned and rehearsed by Vann who had assembled a fine quartet of soloists and the Chorus (brilliantly trained by David Temple) and Orchestra who gave of their all. We will be hearing much more from William Vann: it was his evening!