Out of the Whirlwind (2013)

Dialogue for Countertenor with choir (SATB) and organ   15 minutes

I was delighted to be asked to write something out of the ordinary by Lee Dunleavy, who had the idea of commissioning a new work to match Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb.   This piece is thus, in part, a centenary tribute to Benjamin Britten, to be first performed on his birthday, St Cecilia’s Day.

I was keen for the piece to be dramatic, and I was also hoping to find a text that could, in some way, match the startling strangeness of Christopher Smart’s poetry.  My regular collaborator, Alasdair Middleton, drew my attention to the mysterious and delightful language in the King James version of The Book of Job.  After pondering what might be meant by “Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades?” or “Who can stay the bottles of heaven?” I explored the Old Testament book in earnest, and realised that it contained a powerful dialogue between Job and his creator.  God’s questions are a rebuke to Job’s presumption, but also a wonderful account – and celebration – of Creation.

The text is taken from chapters 19-42.  Job is represented by a solo countertenor, and his opening complaint provokes a divine response:  Then the LORD answered Job Out of the Whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without kNowledge?  The organ evokes the whirlwind, and the choir provides the voice of God, whose questions eventually open Job’s eyes and change his heart.

Job Alto Solo

Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard:
I cry aloud, but there is no judgement.
He hath stripped me of my glory,
and taken the crown from my head.
I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.

The Voice of God Choir

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
When the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days;
and caused the dayspring to know his place;
That it might take hold of The Ends of the earth,
that the wicked might be shaken out of it?
Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea?
or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
Have the gates of death been opened unto thee?
or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth?

Soprano solo
Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?
or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail?
Hath the rain a father?
or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice?
and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?

Baritone solo
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades,
or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?
or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?

Who can number the clouds in wisdom?
or who can stay the bottles of heaven?

Job Alto Solo
Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee?
I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.

The Voice of God Tenor solo
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow?
or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks?
or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? the glory of his nostrils is terrible.
Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?
Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?

Job Alto Solo
I know that thou canst do every thing,
and that no thought can be withholden from thee.
Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge?
therefore have I uttered that I understood not;
things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.
Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak:
I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear:
but now mine eye seeth thee.


Text: The Book of Job

Commissioned by All Saints Church, Northampton

First performance: 22nd October 2013, Choir of All Saints Church, Northampton, conducted by Lee Dunleavy, All Saints, Northampton.