PROGRAMME NOTES

The Judas Tree

A musical drama of Judas Iscariot (1965)

Text: Thomas Blackburn

Actors, SATB, string quintet, brass quintet, organ, piano and four percussion

The Judas Tree is a collaboration between the poet Thomas Blackburn (1916-77) and composer Peter Dickinson. In 1965 they were both on the staff of the College of St Mark and St John, the enterprising Church of England College of Education then in Chelsea, London. In some ways The Judas Tree anticipates the kind of music theatre that became prevalent later on. Its reception in the later 1960s was remarkable and nowhere more so than at the Cathedral in Washington DC where it received rave reviews. Fortunately that performance was recorded and has been re-mastered for CD (Heritage HTGCD 263). In a characteristic way, to anyone who knows his poetry, Blackburn explores the role of Judas in the events leading up to Christ’s passion and death. The problem of evil in society, eternally present, is given a new slant in Blackburn’s often provocative treatment. The varied types of music are deliberately designed to exploit Blackburn’s telling imagery. In the words of The Washington Post: ‘No one can come away from a performance of this work unmoved by its drama, untouched by its poetry, untroubled by its meaning.’

The score of The Judas Tree reflects the complex streams of meaning with different types of music. In the original production each scene was introduced with abstract mood music, partly improvised. Two tenor soloists share the function of narrator and commentator, and the chorus, responding to the drama, communicates in straightforward terms. The performing standard required in the string and brass groups, mostly used in blocks, was geared to student performers: the percussionists use a variety of readily available instruments and one or two original ones.

© 2008-17 Peter Dickinson

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