You are here: Archive Home > Sullivan > Major Works > The Golden Legend > Leeds 1886
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Title
Review of the First Performance from The Times
Monday, October 18, 1886.


The familiar phrase “Finis coronat opus” has seldom been applied to an artistic event with more truth than to the triennial Leeds Festival, which to-day became a thing of the past. The third and last new cantata written for the occasion, and produced at this morning’s concert, not only obtained the largest share of immediate success, but has also by far the best chance of a long lease of prosperous existence.

Sir Arthur Sullivan, the conductor of the festival, with the courtesy becoming the position he occupied, had given the pas to the other composers engaged in this great undertaking, reserving his own contribution for the last day, when the receptivity of the public and the freshness of the voices might have been supposed to be exhausted by the severe strain of the preceding concerts. His modesty met with the reward it merited, for on no previous occasion had the chorus sung with more fire and delicacy, and, making due allowance even for the excitement of a festival audience, it cannot for a moment be doubted that The Golden Legend roused genuine enthusiasm. It is pleasant for the critic to be for once in full accord with the vox populi.

Omitting Mr. Stanford’s The Revenge which belongs to a different class altogether, there is no doubt that Sir Arthur Sullivan’s cantata has been, among the works produced at this festival, both the most successful and the most deserving of success. He has, indeed, succeeded for the converse reason why the two other composers have, comparatively speaking, and in various degrees, failed. Both Mr. Mackenzie and Herr Dvorak seem to have attempted writing in a style not natural to them. The former has on previous occasions grappled, and may again grapple, with high musical problems, but the gift of popularity has not been vouchsafed to him. When he speaks the language understanded of the people at a first hearing, and closely adheres to the earlier and simpler forms of the art, he loses his individuality in the process; the people understand what he has to say, and give him faint praise for “clearness,” “simplicity of form,” and similar negative qualities, but they fail to be moved or even interested to any great degree. Herr Dvorak, in Ludmila, has made the mistake of writing specially for the English market, of believing, in fact, because certain great masterpieces have become household words among us, that therefore we like other composers to imitate those works. The reverse is the case. What we want is Dvorak pure and simple, with his individuality and his Bohemian nationality in full swing; a mixture of Dvorak and Handel and Mendelssohn is not interesting.

Sir Arthur Sullivan has had the good sense to make no attempt at being what he is not; he has simply put on paper what he felt and how he felt it; hence his success. Popularity in the true meaning of the word, which is a very different thing from vulgarity and by no means incompatible with refinement of form, is this composer’s birthright. His muse does not affect the cothurnus of tragic passion, but she always moves with perfect grace and elegance, and, what is more, has the most accurate knowledge of her power and of its limits. Sir Arthur Sullivan, to speak without metaphor, is a consummate master of his craft; his instrumentation, if occasionally a little colourless, is on the other hand never loud, and in listening to his music one has the pleasant feeling of confidence which is inspired by the consciousness that the composer produces exactly the effects which he desires to produce, and never tries to fly an inch higher than his wings will safely carry him.

In the matter of declamation also he might teach a lesson to many English composers; his melodies fit the work to perfection, and when occasionally he repeats a sentence or part of a sentence it is generally done with due regard to poetic emphasis. The so-called “classical” forms he handles to perfection, and these forms being quite adequate to all he wishes to express, he wisely eschews the paths of innovation. He does not simulate any sympathy with Wagner or Liszt or Berlioz which he does not feel, and his relations to the “leitmotive” are of the most platonic kind. To a mind thus constituted the subject selected by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and ably laid out for musical purposes by Mr. Joseph Bennett, is well suited.

Longfellow’s “The Golden Legend” is neither a very deep nor a very powerful poem. It may be ranked among the conspicuous and numerous literary failures for which Goethe’s Faust is responsible. In the beautiful old story which he has treated and dubbed “The Golden Legend” – a name pertaining in reality to Jacobus de Voragine’s “Legends of the Saints.” Englished by Caxton, there is no mention of any diabolic or angelic influences – a rather remarkable circumstance in a mediaeval poem. Hartmann von der Aue, the famous Minnesinger, simply relates how a great nobleman, “des arme Heinrich,” as he comes to be familiarly called, is stricken down with leprosy, and journeys to the famous doctors of Montpellier and Salerno to find a cure for the fell disease. At the latter place he is informed that only one remedy will save him – the blood of an innocent maiden shed voluntarily for his sake. Hopeless of ever finding such a maiden he journeys home, and being shunned by his noble kinsmen and retainers seeks shelter in the house of one of his tenants, where he lives for several years in retirement. This tenant has a little daughter eight years old, to whom the Count, or Prince, as Longfellow calls him, attaches himself, playfully calling her his little bride. Growing up to the years of early maidenhood, she is casually informed of the remedy which alone can save her friend, and immediately determines on self-sacrifice. Her parents at first oppose her plan; but, finding her steadfast, they discover the hand of Providence, and even persuade “poor Henry” to accept their daughter’s offer. The two accordingly journey to Salerno, and there the great doctor himself, struck by the maiden’s innocence and beauty, demurs at taking her blood; but she still persists, and retires with the doctor to his chamber ready to die. Now, however, the Prince’s better nature is awakened; he batters in the door and interrupts the sacrifice, although, as the old poet naïvely expresses it, “the girl prayed and cursed, and even scolded.” On his way home the Prince suddenly discovers, to his delight, that he is cured; the troubles of both are over; Providence, having tried them in the fire of misfortune and found their natures to be of pure gold, has given them their reward. They are duly united in matrimony, and the “little bride” becomes a great Princess and lady of the land. The moral and psychological keynote of the story is thus explained by Hartmann von der Aue, whose idiom, it will be seen, differs as much, from modern German as does the language of Chaucer from the language of Tennyson:–

“Do erkande ir triuwe und ir not
Cordis speculator,
“vor dem dekeines herzen tor
“fürnames niht berlozen ist.
“Sit er durch sinen suëzen list
“an in beiden des geruochte,
“daz er si versuochte;
“da erzeigte der heilige Krist
“wie liep im triuwe und erbermde ist,
“und schiet si dô beide
“von allem ir leide,
“und machete in dô zestunt
“rein unde wol gesunt.”

With this simple and lovely story – of which, by the way, an excellent but unpublished translation exists from the pen of the late Mr. D. G. Rossetti – Longfellow was not satisfied. Besides surcharging it with a variety of irrelevant incidents and descriptions, he must needs create a devil in the image of Mephistopheles. A more insipid copy of a great model has never been invented. Longfellow’s Lucifer is very prosy and very stupid. He achieves absolutely nothing besides tempting the sick Prince with the “spirit alcohol” – an idea at which American teetotalers, but few persons besides, will rejoice. But the devil even in the silliest of disguises remains an intensely musical as well as picturesque personage; witness the works of some of the greatest composers and painters.

That after Berlioz, Gounod, Liszt, Massenet in his Eve, and many others Sir Arthur Sullivan has succeeded in showing him in a new light is worthy of record. He has taken his cue from the fact that Longfellow’s Lucifer enters at first in the guise of a learned doctor. Very learned accordingly is the musical garb in which he appears; counterpoint of the strictest kind accompanies him at every step, and that counterpoint is in one of the most effective scenes of the work represented by the pious chants of wayfaring pilgrims. The idea of a contrapuntal devil is indeed a novelty and should be hailed with delight in an age of formulas and well-worn devices.

Longfellow’s supernatural “machinery,” ill-advised in itself though it is in a poetic sense, has given rise to another musical conception of singular, fantastic beauty. This is the prologue, in which the spirits of the air, commanded by Lucifer, attempt to wrench the cross of iron from the top of Strasburg Cathedral and are baffled by celestial agencies. Storm and thunder and lightning are here vividly depicted in the chromatic roll of the orchestra, but above the din is heard a powerful peal of bells going in unison with the tenors and basses who chant the words of an old Latin hymn. Nothing could be more poetic than this contrast; it is as if the brazen voices of the great church had become articulate, dispelling the powers of evil with their powerful sounds.

Later on the tone of the music becomes gentler, the scenes having been judiciously selected with regard to the composer’s essentially lyrical gift. It is not my present purpose to enter into the details of the score, which will be soon and frequently heard in London. I may, however, refer to an unaccompanied evening hymn for chorus, to which at last the Prince’s voice joins its “Amen,” and the duet, or rather group of duets and choruses which mark the progress of Henry and Elsie on their way to Salerno. Structurally the weakest part, although effective enough in sonorous quality, appeared after a first hearing the epilogue with its inevitable fugue.

Of the only dramatic situation in the book, the rescue of Elsie from the hands of Lucifer, also comparatively little has been made. Needless to add that the solo music is eminently vocal, and was admirably sung, by Madame Albani, Madame Patey, Mr. Lloyd, and Mr. King, who dealt with the difficult part of Lucifer in a very spirited manner. The Leeds Festival may boast of having given life to a work which, if not one of genius in the strict sense of the word, is at least likely to survive till our long-expected English Beethoven appears on the scene.

The second part of the morning was occupied with the first portion of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, and in the evening the same master’s Elijah was performed at an extra concert.

Archive Home | Sullivan | Major Works | The Golden Legend

   Page modified 4 January, 2010 Copyright © 2010 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.