Vaughan Williams wrote only one work that he called a ballet -- Old King Cole (1923) -- but turned out several masques, including Job, which is really a ballet. While it is not a repertory item with the world's ballet companies, it has received a fair measure of attention, especially in England.
The work is cast in nine scenes, with an epilogue (the last scene). The scenario is by Geoffrey Keynes and Gwendolyn Raverat, after William Blake's Illustrations of the Book of Job. Oddly, Vaughan Williams' own synopsis, which was printed in the music score, differs slightly from the one issued by Keynes. The composer's splits the fifth scene in two, thus accounting for nine scenes, whereas Keynes' scenario uses eight scenes. The story centers on Satan's menacing of Job, eventually provoking him to curse God. In the end, it is Satan, however, who is defeated, and Job, now humbled and stronger, triumphant.
The first scene, Introduction: "Pastoral Dance -- Satan's Appeal to God," features a gentle, serene opening, followed by the darker music of Satan. The next scene, "Satan's Triumphal Dance," begins menacingly and then presents a witty, diabolical dance, whose music augurs that in the colorful scherzo of Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 9 (1958), both works featuring imaginative writing for the xylophone. "Minuet of Job's Sons and Their Wives" follows, an exotic and subdued piece, which exhibits deliciously atmospheric music, in large part from the oboe and winds.
"Job's Dream -- Dance of Plague, Pestilence, Famine and Battle" begins in a subdued, but ominous mood, then powerfully fulfills that wary feeling. "Dance of the Messengers" follows, which is largely subdued and again features imaginative writing for the winds. The ensuing scene, "Dance of Job's Comforters -- Job's Curse -- A Vision of Satan," features, as one might expect, a colorful mixture of music. The opening is witty and highlights the saxophone (if used, as a bass clarinet may be substituted), whose diabolically slithering notes perfectly depict the Comforters, who are really "three wily hypocrites."
The seventh scene, "Elihu's Dance of Youth and Beauty -- Pavane of the Sons of the Morning," begins with a lovely viola solo and later features an attractive dance of rather solemn character. The next scene, "Galliard of the Sons of Morning -- Altar Dance and Heavenly Pavane," is full of drama and color, from the hopeful opening to the more celestial and triumphant music thereafter. The last scene, "Epilogue," follows without break. It is serene and gently triumphant in mood, and recalls music from the opening scene: in both scenes Job sits contentedly with his wife, though he is noticeably older in the latter.
Job has been viewed as auguring the Symphony No. 4 (1931-1934), a violent and dramatic work of profound character. While there are stylistic similarities between the two compositions, Job features less anxiety and a greater sense of repose and serenity.