The Story of Jonah
Jonah was a difficult prophet. He resisted his assignments and tried his best to wriggle out of duty and responsibility. He suffered, yes, but he also whined loudly enough to annoy even God.
After working to bring about the destruction of Nineveh, he felt cheated and angry when God had a change of heart and spared the city. He learned, in Robert Frost’s phrase, that he could not “trust God to be unmerciful.”
Dominick Argento used medieval English poetry, the Book of Jonah and several other sources to prepare the text for this composition. The alliterative phrases that occur throughout the work add dramatic and literary interest and are original to the medieval verse.
The story of Jonah, presented this weekend, goes something like this:
I. The Lesson (Chorale)
The title of the medieval poem upon which Jonah is based was “Patience, or Jonah and the Whale,” and patience is the lesson here — stated in the first and last movements, like bookends:
Patience is a princely thing, though displeasing often.
When heavy hearts are hurt, or held up to scorn,
Sufferance may assuage and salve the blazing pain:
Face woe with fortitude, and joy will follow.
II. The Charge to Jonah (Arietta and Cavatina)
Anyone who has been sent to knock on the door of the apartment upstairs and tell them to keep the noise down will recognize Jonah’s dilemma. God commands Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, denounce the wickednesss of its residents, and warn them of God’s wrath.
Jonah knows what that could mean. If he goes to Nineveh and delivers the message:
... my troubles will triple in Nineveh.
... They will sieze me at once,
Put me in prison, pin me in the stocks,
Set me in shackles and scratch out my eyes.
III. His Flight (Worksongs and Sea Shanty)
Jonah does what any reasonable person would do: He runs. He goes to the docks, finds a ship headed in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish, books passage, and attempts to outrun God on the high seas. The narrator hints at what is to come:
But our Lord looks on all things, on land or afloat.
For the Master of Mankind, wise in all matters,
Ever wakeful and waiting, works at will.
IV. The Storm at Sea (Variations on a Sea Shanty)
God sends a monster storm; the ship is going down. To save their lives, the crew heaves everything overboard: cargo, sails, rigging, masts, furniture, personal belongings. Still the storm rages on. The crew suspects someone on board has offended some god somehow somewhere, and Jonah fesses up. They heave Jonah overboard — “Let the loser be lobbed into the sea!” — and all is suddenly calm.
V. In the Belly of the Whale (Intermezzo)
Jonah’s troubles were only beginning.
A wild, wallowing whale, by God’s own will
Beaten up from the abyss, by that boat was floating.
Well aware of the man awash in the waters,
The whale swam swiftly to swallow him up;
Touching nary a tooth, Jonah tumbled down its throat.
He stays in the belly of the whale for three days, thinking things over, struck by the irony that he, who had been running away from the Lord, is now desperately trying to reach him and ask for help. The chorus sings Jonah a gentle reminder, “Face woe with fortitude, and joy will follow.”
VI. His Prayer (Aria with Chorus)
Jonah makes his case, assisted by the chorus, which sings Psalm 130 in Latin (De profundis clamavi — “Out of the depths have I cried”). “The floods compassed me about; all thy billows and thy waves passed over me,” Jonah says. “The depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.”
It works. In the words of the narrator:
Then our Father firmly commanded the fish
to spit up the sinner on some dry shore.
Jonah looked at the land that lay there before him:
It was the very same spot where his journey had started.
God asks Jonah once more whether he will go to Nineveh, and Jonah agrees to go.
VII. In Nineveh (Ostinato and Kyrie)
Jonah races to Nineveh, a huge and immoral city so large it took three days to cross. He delivers the deadly message with singular effectiveness ... and more than a little guilty glee:
This town must truly be tumbled to the ground.
God’s vengeance shall verily void this place!
Upside down you shall be plunged into the painful pit,
To be swallowed up swiftly by the swarthy earth;
For all who dwell here, by God’s decree, are doomed to death.
God’s vengeance shall verily void this place!
This speech was cited and spread all about
To the burghers and bachelors that lived in the borough;
Such fear overcame them, some fainted forthwith,
Their countenances clouded by the chill in their hearts.
Still Jonah never ceased, always saying the same:
“God’s vengeance shall verily void this place!”
Perhaps Jonah did his job a little too well. The King of Nineveh decrees that all residents of the city — “men and beasts, women, babes and children, every prince, every priest, and prelates alike” — should repent, fast, and pray to God with all their might.
Just as Jonah’s cry from the belly of the whale brought salvation, so the cries of the king and his subjects reach God’s ear. It works. God forgives them and decides not to destroy Nineveh after all.
VIII. Jonah’s Despair (Cadenza)
Jonah, cheated out of the spectacle of Nineveh’s destruction, is livid and hurls an angry prayer at God, demanding, “Take my life, for it lasts too long!”
He stalks off, climbs to the top of a hill on the eastern edge of the city, and sits back to see what will happen next. He tries to build a little hut out of hay and ferns, but it doesn’t do much to shield him from the sun.
IX. The Booth (Nocturne and Aubade)
While Jonah sleeps that night, God causes a beautiful woodbine to grow, shading the hut from the sun and filling it with gentle breezes and pleasant fragrance. When he wakes at dawn, Jonah is delighted:
As he looked all about him, he laughed and he laughed.
“Indeed, such a dwelling I never dreamed to possess.”
Then God through his grace made the vine grow more beautiful;
So fine a bower of bliss no fellow had before.
And when night neared, how he needed to sleep!
Sweetly into slumber he slipped beneath those green and gracious leaves.
But God had not finished with Jonah. Overnight he causes a worm to gnaw at the roots, and when Jonah wakes, the withered woodbine is lying in heaps and the sun is baking him like a furnace. He angrily turns on God and complains:
Ah, Maker of Man, what mastery be this,
To raise me so high, then fling me down to the depths?
Why must your mischief always fall on me?
X. God’s Rebuke (Fugal Aria and Hymn)
God reminds Jonah that he did nothing to support the woodbine while it lived and should not feel anger at its loss. He should not sulk over something so slight.
Were I as hasty as you here, harm would follow;
Were I as impetuous as my prophet, man would not prosper.
Had compassion not averted my vengeance, verily I could not be called merciful.
Be not angry my good Jonah, and go in peace.
Be patient and prudent in pain as well as joy;
For he who is so choleric that he rips his own clothes
Must then sullenly suffer to sew them together himself.
XI. The Lesson Restated (Chorale and Coda)
While the chorus reprises the hymn from the previous movement, the narrator restates the lesson God tried to teach Jonah:
Far faring afloat on swirls of pure waters,
A great fish frolicked, filled with heavenly grace;
For unlike the petulant prophet who faltered,
The whale never wavered — God’s will it obeyed.
So should we all, if we wish to be wise,
Tread patiently the path appointed by God.
Jonah, wiser and more patient now, has the last word: “Salvation is of the Lord.”