The Judith Project

Never Recorded, Never Performed in North America, Sir Hubert Parry’s 1888 Oratorio JUDITH Debuted in Toronto on May 3, 2015

International researchers resurrected a lost masterpiece from composer of the stirring hymn ‘Jerusalem’

An enthusiastic Toronto audience joined Pax Christi Chorale, orchestra and outstanding soloists at Koerner Hall on Sunday May 3, 2015 for the North American première of Sir Hubert Parry’s dramatic oratorio JUDITH.

This all-but-forgotten Victorian oratorio, celebrating the Apocryphal heroine, JUDITH is a musical treasure composed by Sir Hubert Parry, ranked among the most important English composers.

Known throughout the English-speaking world as the composer of the anthem I Was Glad, Parry’s music has graced coronations and recent royal weddings, and his hymn Jerusalem, an unofficial anthem of England, is an essential element of The Last Night at the Proms.

Parry was the master of large choral and orchestral forces, and JUDITH features spine-tingling choruses and a story that rivals any plot on HBO. The first performance in England left audiences ecstatic, and performers and reviewers calling for more.

So why had this major work by England’s famous composer never been performed in North America?

When Pax Christi Chorale Artistic Director Stephanie Martin embarked on this project in 2013 she quickly ran into problems. The orchestral parts and score, though in the public domain, were not available for rental or purchase, and there is no recording of the work for reference.

But sometimes adversity can be turned into opportunity.

With the help of the eminent Parry scholar Jeremy Dibble from Durham University in the UK, and research support from Canada’s Brock University, a team of York University students embarked on a mammoth task: Produce a new, digital edition of the oratorio, based on Parry’s own hand-written manuscript in the Royal College of Music in London.

The painstaking process of entering each note, articulation and expression mark from Parry’s manuscript into the Sibelius digital notation software, provided an instant reward. The students could hear Parry’s masterful orchestration leap off the page. 

Says Stephanie Martin: "Pax Christi Chorale was determined to resurrect this grand oratorio. The melodies are so memorable and the drama so stirring, JUDITH should make a welcome return to the choral repertoire. This dramatic work will delight both singers and listeners. And the availability of this new score will enable choirs worldwide to perform JUDITH in the future.”

She adds, “While Victorian music in general has unfortunately fallen out of vogue, many treasures have been overlooked. Parry's choral music sets the English language so beautifully. The Victorians were confident, passionate and exciting innovators. They stood at the apex of an age, and Parry's JUDITH expresses raw emotion and wild drama.“

The ancient story of Judith is full of twists and turns. The oratorio begins with King Manasseh about to sacrifice his children to the fiery god Moloch. The Queen tries to comfort them in a moving scene set to the familiar hymn tune Repton (Dear Lord and Father of Mankind). When the heroine Judith intercedes to stop the sacrifice, the crowd turns on her, endangering her life. The sacrifice is halted as the invading Assyrian army approaches. General Holofernes arrives and gives the Israelites three days to surrender. Judith takes matters into her own hands. She steals into General Holofernes’ tent and kills him, saving her people from certain defeat.

The story of Judith has captured the imagination of painters and writers throughout the centuries. She is a female leader in a world of men who have lost their way. Brave, intelligent, with strength of purpose, Judith triumphs over one of the most fearsome warriors of her time, redeems her King and leads her people to wisdom.

Masterfully crafted with vibrant detail, emotion and drama, Parry’s JUDITH was an overwhelming success in Victorian England, performed by some of that era’s greatest musicians. Hans Richter conducted the premiere; Charles Villiers Stanford conducted the London debut, and Elgar played violin in the orchestra under Parry’s own baton in Gloucester.

Pax Christi Chorale is known for presenting dramatic choral masterpieces like JUDITH with passion, conviction and heart. Artistic Director Stephanie Martin’s imaginative programming engages audiences with dramatic story-telling through oratorio and rarely-heard masterworks. Recent performances have included Elgar’s The Kingdom, Britten’s Saint Nicolas, and a semi-staged production of Handel’s oratorio Solomon.

A great ensemble of soloists, all excellent storytellers, includes soprano Shannon Mercer in the role of Judith, baritone Michael York, tenor David Menzies and mezzo-soprano Jillian Yeman, as well as four boy soloists from St. Michael’s Choir School.

More on Judith

Download the complete text of Judith
Read the Toronto Star’s concert review