The world's oldest choral society. Making music continuously since 1817

The Holy Face

Photograph of Philip Wilby

An Oratorio

[Preface from the Vocal Score]

For the Halifax Choral Society and their conductor John Pryce-Jones in celebration of their Bicentenary

As befits a community that developed through its trade in wool, Halifax embraces St John the Baptist as its patron saint. The very name of the town is derived from an early reading of the words ‘Holy Face’ and the stylised image of St John’s Head remains the town’s emblem to this day.

Accordingly, the Halifax Choral Society and its conductor John Pryce-Jones have commissioned this musical retelling of the life of St John for its 200th Anniversary which falls in 2017.

The text has been assembled by the biblical scholar Canon Neville Boundy from various contemporary sources, including writings by Josephus, and the accounts of the four Gospels. His dramatic narrative falls into two sections, counterpointing the Birth of St John and the Baptism of Christ, with Herod’s Banquet, Salome’s Dance, and the final beheading. Additionally, he has included prophetic words from the Old Testament, and I have provided an extra text for St John’s final ‘Prayer in Prison’. As is well known, John was cousin to Jesus, and it was by his hand that Christ was baptised. His character is complex, appearing both celebrated and inadequate. It seems clear that he had links with the desert Essine sect from Qumran, and that he spent some time in the wilderness surrounding the river Jordan. He saw himself as a forerunner, preparing the way for Jesus, able to see the divinity of his Christ, but unable to emulate its majestic example. His status as a prophet is universally acknowledged, in both Bible and Koran. However, for many, it is in his human frailty that our sympathies lie.

The commissioners of ‘The Holy Face’ had clear intentions for the music. The work would be an Oratorio in the English tradition, using four soloists, a fulsome accompaniment (for orchestra, or for brass band), and providing a significant role for the chorus. I have chosen to augment the conventional instrumentation with a major part for the organ, and to supplement the singers with extra parts for the town’s excellent youth choir.

During the long period of its musical composition, it has seemed important that the work should evoke visual responses from its listeners. Like earlier examples by Handel or Walton, the music of ‘The Holy face’ aims to conjure up a sense of the reality of the narrative and the context in which the drama unfolds.

It is my hope that listeners and performers alike may find something of themselves in St John’s epic story.

Philip Wilby 2013.

Copyright © 2013 Kirklees Music, Brighouse UK. Used by permission.