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Review of the First London Performance from The Times
Tuesday, November 16, 1886.
 
ALBERT HALL

The first performance in London of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s new cantata The Golden Legend, which took place at the Albert Hall last night, assumes almost the importance of a musical event. Seldom, except perhaps on Patti nights, has the vast building been crowded by a larger or more animated audience, and that audience, moreover, included what may without exaggeration be called “all musical London.”

It will be remembered that The Golden Legend was written for, and produced at, the Leeds festival in October, when, by a singular consensus of popular and critical opinion, it was pronounced to be by far the most successful of the numerous new works heard at that important gathering. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s well-deserved success could not have given more cordial satisfaction to himself than it did to his admirers and to all interested in the reputation of English art at home and abroad. Formerly the intelligent foreigner, inquiring curiously into the exalted position of a composer chiefly known for his operettas, would not have been easy to satisfy. Even such more serious works as The Martyr of Antioch, or The Prodigal Son would scarcely have explained the phenomenon. The Golden Legend undoubtedly does. It is not an effort of the highest class – Longfellow’s modernized and sentimentalized version of a beautiful old tale could scarcely have given rise to such; but it is undoubtedly the work of a consummate master of his craft, fully conscious of his aims and as invariably sure of the ways and means by which those aims may be accomplished.

Sir Arthur Sullivan has the rare gift, reserved only to perfection of technical skill, of placing the critical mind at rest. Listening to him one feels that, what he does is from his own point of view infallibly right; one accordingly ceases to argue and merely listens and enjoys. Tennyson in poetry has the same power of conveying a sense of what one may call absolute security to the intelligent reader which Shelley, for example, has not; by which remark we are far from wishing to imply that Tennyson is a greater poet than Shelley, or that Sir Arthur Sullivan in his own branch of art can be compared to either. Perfect balance of the artistic faculties need not always be commensurate with depth of inspiration.

Not that The Golden Legend is by any means without inspiration. The opening chorus, in which the bells of Strasburg Cathedral become as it were articulate in the words of an old Latin hymn to frighten away the spirits of the air headed by Lucifer, is conceived in a truly poetic vein, and so is the idea of making the devil a pedantic creature surrounded by all the formulas of contrapuntal device, which idea the composer, by the way, may have borrowed from a line in Goethe’s Faust, where Mephistopheles, the palpable model of Longfellow’s fiend, is addressed in this wise:–

“Auch was geschrieb’nes forderst du Pedant!”

These genuinely original features of the score have been previously pointed out in The Times, as have also been its feebler sides – the almost total loss of the only dramatic situation in the poem, and the sweetness, a little too long drawn out, of the lovers’ converse. Dramatic force is not within this composer’s grasp, or, at least, he has not as yet displayed it; for after the agreeable surprise of The Golden Legend, it is not easy to say what further revelations he may still have in store for us, provided the allurements of Princess Ida, Patience, and other mock-æsthetic maidens do not prove too powerful.

The good fortune which accompanied the birth of the new work at Leeds has not forsaken its entrance into London life. In this respect also it has left all its competitors far behind. For reasons already explained, Dvorak’s Ludmila, another of the Leeds novelties, could not under any circumstances have expected a long or prosperous career when once removed from the hothouse atmosphere of a provincial festival. At the same time it would have had a better chance of at least temporary vitality had not its first appearance in London taken place under the auspices of a recently-formed and, therefore, comparatively speaking, inexperienced choir, which dealt with the music in a manner decidedly creditable in the circumstances, but far from perfect.

Sir Arthur Sullivan was fortunate enough to conduct an excellent orchestra and a body of singers which, under Mr. Barnby’s careful and energetic tuition, has attained a rare degree of efficiency. That to such executants the music presented no difficulties, and that every nuance was brought out with unfailing certainty amounts almost to a truism The soli, Madame Albani, Madame Patey, Mr. Lloyd, and Mr. F. King, being the same who materially contributed to the success of the work at Leeds, we only need refer the reader to our account of that festival for a full appreciation of their merits. The Golden Legend was preceded by Hiller’s Song of Victory, a work little adapted to spoil the audience for what was to follow. Mr. Barnby conducted, and Miss Pauline Cramer sang the soprano solo in impressive style.


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