The three dialogues come from British Library, Add. MS 11608, a collection of vocal music originally compiled and partially in Hilton’s hand. He copied them in a group, entitling them ‘A Dialogue of Juno. Venus. Pallas. Paris.’ (ff. 35v-39), ‘A Dialogue of King Solomon & ye 2 Harlotts / 1 Kings. 3 Chaptr ’ (ff. 39v-42), and ‘The Dialogue of Job: God. Satan. Job’s wife. & ye Messingers’ (ff. 42v-45).
It is not known who wrote the texts, though Thurston Dart suggested that the Judgement of Paris dialogue is related in some way to James Shirley’s school masque The Triumph of Beauty, which deals with the same subject and was published in 1646. The Judgement of Solomon dialogue is a versified version of 1 Kings 3:16-28, as noted by Hilton in the manuscript, while the Job dialogue is a versified précis of Job 1 and 2. They are not literary masterpieces, but they give Hilton plenty of opportunities for musical drama.
It is not easy to place these dialogues in their cultural context. There have been attempts to relate them to early Italian oratorio, and specifically to Giovanni Francesco Anerio’s Teatro armonico spirituale (Rome, 1619). Basil Smallman pointed out that the text of Richard Portman’s lost anthem ‘How many hired servants’ has some similarities with Anerio’s ‘Dialogo del figliol prodigo’, though there is no evidence that a copy of the Teatro ever reached England (there are none in English libraries today), and Anerio and Hilton approached setting Biblical scenes to music in rather different ways. It might be thought that there are obvious connections with Carissimi’s oratorios, particularly since Job and Judicium Salominis are among them, but Carissimi only became popular in England in the Restoration period, and there is no sign that Hilton knew his music. Hilton’s immediate model seems to have been Robert Ramsey’s setting of Saul and the Witch of Endor, a popular piece whose text was later set by Henry Purcell, among others; (see ‘In Guilty Night’, Green Man Press cat. ref. Pur 9). Hilton copied it in Add. MS 11608 (ff. 23v-25v). Ramsey (c.1590-1644) was organist of Trinity College from 1628 until his death, so Hilton would presumably have known him. More generally, all three pieces belong to a tradition that went back to the dialogues of Jacobean composers such as Alfonso Ferrabosco II and Robert Johnson, including some written for plays and masques. An important sub-group is the Charon dialogue, in which a variety of characters from myth or history ask the infernal ferryman to carry them over the River Styx to the Underworld; Ramsey and Hilton both contributed to the genre.
Hilton’s dialogues were written for solo voices: the word ‘Chorus’ applied to their final sections signals an ensemble of the participants rather than the entrance of a choir, though if all the characters in the Job dialogue are allocated to different voices (which is not strictly necessary) then the top line of its chorus could have been doubled by five singers – Job’s wife and four messengers; the other parts would presumably have been sung by those portraying Job, God and Satan respectively. These dialogues were almost certainly written to be performed in private, so it is possible that women sang the upper parts rather than boys, and performances with the goddesses or the harlots portrayed by boys would probably have been more hilarious than awesome – which would also be the reaction today. However, we must remember that Hilton grew up with a theatrical tradition in which boys played all female parts, including such demanding roles as Juliet, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. He would almost certainly have expected his dialogues to be accompanied by a theorbo, the normal accompaniment instrument for secular vocal music at the time, though a keyboard instrument might have been substituted. However, it is unlikely that he would have used a large continuo group, or would have varied the instrumentation according to character, as in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. A theorbo was not routinely doubled by a bass viol in vocal music at the time, though a viol might have replaced the theorbo, perhaps playing chords in places.
Basil Smallman, ‘Endor Revisited: English Biblical Dialogues of the Seventeenth Century’, Music & Letters, 46 (1965), pp. 137-45.
English Songs 1625-1660, ed. Ian Spink, Musica Britannica, 33 (London, 1971).
Ian Spink, English Song from Dowland to Purcell (London, 1972; 2/1987).
Mary Chan, ‘John Hilton’s Manuscript, British Library Add. MS 11608’, Music & Letters, 60 (1979), pp. 440-9.
-------------, ‘A Mid-Seventeenth-Century Music Meeting and Playford’s Publishing’, The Well Enchanting Skill, Music Poetry and Drama in the Culture of the Renaissance: Essays in Honour of F.W. Sternfeld, ed. John Caldwell, Edward Olleson and Susan Wollenburg (Oxford, 1990), pp. 231-44.
English Song Books 1600-1675: Facsimiles of Twenty-Six Manuscripts and an Edition of the Texts, ed. Elise Bickford Jorgens, iv: British Library Manuscripts Part IV, Add. MS 11608, Add. MS 32339 (London, 1986).
Edward Huws Jones, The Performance of English Song 1610-1670 (New York, 1989).