The Czech composer Petr Eben (1928-2007) grew up in the old picture-postcard city of Česky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia, where he learnt the cello, piano and organ, and absorbed the vibrant traditions of local folk music. His family were Catholics, but his father was born a Jew, and in 1943, aged just 14, Eben was expelled from school and interned by the Nazis in the notorious concentration camp at Buchenwald. He survived, and after the War he continued his musical education in Prague, where he later taught for 35 years at the Charles University. In time his compositions began to enjoy considerable international success, but his career at home stagnated. His refusal to join the Communist Party and his steadfast adherence to the Catholic church annoyed the authorities, who constantly denied him the promotions he so richly deserved. As a concert performer on both piano and organ Eben mainly played his own music, and he also loved to give concerts of improvisations on literary texts (this was the origin of Job, and several other works). Many of his works, both sacred and secular, incorporated plainchant melodies, which acted as a rallying cry to the faithful without upsetting the authorities (who didn’t recognise them!). During the unrest of the 1980s, his playing at at St James’ Church in Prague became a focus for the revival of Christianity in his country, and people longing for freedom from Communism flocked to the Sunday morning services. When democracy returned in 1989, Eben was close to retirement, but in these later years his own country (and others too) hastened to give him the honours and recognition he had previously been denied, and by the time he died in October 2007, he had become “the most loved and respected figure in Czech cultural life.”
Eben was a regular visitor to Britain, and The Independent in London published a moving obituary by his friend Graham Melville-Mason. “The War years,” he wrote, “which brought Eben face to face with life and death, man’s inhumanity to man, and human beings’ capacity for faith and sacrifice, brought an early maturity of thought and conscience. He later described the experience of arriving at Buchenwald as a teenager with his older brother Bedrich, and being taken to a ‘shower room’. He was already aware of what that might mean and held his brother’s hand, expecting lethal gas to come from the spray heads. While there was relief when water fell on them, that moment was to colour Eben’s life and the human, Christian attitude by which he was to live out his days… ‘Faith and hope cannot be killed,’ he said, ‘the spirit cannot be defeated by external events.’ It was this same philosophy, this same faith and inner strength that sustained him through a further 40 years of political oppression under Soviet rule… He was the truest, gentlest and loveliest of men.”
Job was commissioned by the Harrogate International Festival in 1987, for the British organist David Titterington. “After my previous organ cycle Faust”, the composer wrote, “I felt impelled to return to the same theme – the wager between Satan and God on the fate of a human being – this time an Old Testament subject. Faust relied on his own human strength and failed; Job humbly accepted his misfortune and triumphed. The Book of Job interested me for three reasons: firstly for the social and theological revolution it represented in its own time; until then every poor, sick or unfortunate being was regarded as forsaken and punished by God. Secondly, I was deeply impressed by the profound drama of this Book, which gives men once and for all the key to overcome a trial of faith. Finally, I find this Book extremely topical. It answers one of the most difficult questions on life asked to this day: why do good people have to suffer? The story of Job demonstrates not only the insignificance of personal sorrow in relation to world events, but it reveals the essential nature of God, who stands by the side of the sufferer; who does not ask Job to approve his sufferings, but just to accept them, who suffers with Job and carries the pain with him, and helps him to overcome it. I have divided this material, so rich in contrasts, into eight movements, each inspired by a passage from the Book of Job.”
1 DESTINY ‘Then Satan said to the Lord: Put forth thine hand and touch Job and all that he hath, and he will curse Thee to thy face.’ The pedal trombone announces the ‘Motif of Job’s Destiny’, accompanied by majestic trumpet fanfares, and this motif is then ‘spread over the entire sound spectrum of the organ’ in music of exotic, barbaric splendour: Job was, after all, ‘the greatest of all the men of the east’.
2 FAITH ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Job humbly sings praises to God, in the form of a quotation from the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil. His song is repeatedly interrupted by the resounding strokes of misfortune that descend on him and his family. As the calamities increase, the Job motif’ sails above the tumult on the solo trumpet. As the final hammer-blow dies away, we find Job still unbowed, quietly singing Gloria in excelsis Deo.
3 ACCEPTANCE OF SUFFERING ‘Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil also?’ As his sufferings increase, Job still remains steadfast in his faith. After the initial outcry, this movement takes the form of a lyrical fantasia on a Lutheran chorale, familiar from its use by Bach, Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten:
‘If thou but suffer God to guide thee, And hope in him through all thy ways, He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee, And guide thee through the evil days. Who trusts in God’s unchanging love, Builds on the rock that nought can move.’
4 LONGING FOR DEATH ‘Why died I not from the womb? Wherefore is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?’ For this dramatic movement Eben uses the form of a passacaglia – variations on a repeated sequence of chords which gradually increase in intensity, producing an atmosphere of claustrophobic oppression. The overwhelming climax dissolves in a final pianissimo variation in which Job is crushed to the ground.
5 DESPAIR AND RESIGNATION ‘Now shall I sleep in the dust, and thou shalt seek me in the morning, but I shall not be.’ This movement is in two parts. The first section reflects a despairing Job’s rising reproaches against God. Amid an eerie stillness, he lies writhing in the dust. The motif of Job’s Destiny is heard deep in the bass, and then high in the treble, alternating with spasms of agitation. They erupt into a frenzy of despair and then subside in the second part into a tragic lament, Job’s ‘ plaintive song of submission’.
6 THE MYSTERY OF CREATION ‘Then the Lord answered Job: Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’ The movement opens with a series of soft, mysterious chords, contrasted with a questioning flute phrase. This leads into a vivid picture of the creation as God describes it to Job, ‘when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy’. Ater an immense climax, the movement ends quietly with a return of the opening question.
7 PENITENCE AND REALISATION ‘I have uttered that which I understood not; wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.’ The first section is an agitated song of penitence, which again echoes all Job’s doubts, and rises to an anguished climax. But in the ecstatic, quiet second section his understanding finally shines through, in the plainsong Veni creator spiritus, accompanied by ardent flute arabesques.
8 GOD’S REWARD ‘And the Lord turned the captivity of Job and blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.’ The finale is a set of chorale variations on a 15th-century Lenten hymn of the Bohemian Brothers, Kristus, príklad pokory (Christ, the model of humility) – ‘for Christ’, said Eben ‘is truly the personification of the innocent sufferer to the very end.’ In the final pages he combines the hymn with some more quotations from the Easter Exsultet to bring the whole work to a triumphant conclusion.
“It is truly right and just,with ardent love of mind and heart to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father, and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten. Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father, and, pouring out his own dear Blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness…”
DG, February 2016