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Review of the first performance from The Times
Monday, September 12, 1864
 
BIRMINGHAM MUSICAL FESTIVAL

BIRMINGHAM SEPT. 10.

Mr. Arthur Sullivan’s Kenilworth opened the third and last miscellaneous concert pleasantly enough. That this new effort of the young and rising musician bears out the promise of his music for The Tempest cannot be truthfully averred; still less that in composing it expressly for the Birmingham Festival he has taken advantage of so golden a chance precisely in such a manner as those who really wish him well, and for that reason are disinclined to flatter him, might have desired.

Admitting that the subject being simply a “masque,” a large proportion of pageant-music, march, and dance was indispensable, there is still no reason why something more of pomp and dignity should not have been thrown into certain parts, instead of the almost trivial prettiness which in a great measure is its prevailing characteristic, On the other hand, it may at once be stated that had not Kenilworth been written for so exceptional an occasion – an occasion unlikely to present itself often during the lifetime of a musician, to whatever age he may survive – these objections would scarcely hold. The new masque would be welcomed as a very agreeable work, unambitious in plan, unpretending in style, but at the same time lively, tuneful, fresh, and extremely well-written both for voices and instruments.

The poem, supplied by Mr. Henry F. Chorley, was suggested by the following passage from Miss Aikin:–

“A temporary bridge, 70 feet in length, says Miss Aikin, in her careful biography, was thrown across the valley to the great gate of the castle. The Lady of the Lake, invisible since the disappearance of the renowned Prince Arthur, approached, on a floating island along the moat to recite adulatory verses. Arion, being summoned for like purpose, appeared on a dolphin 24 feet long, which carried in its belly a whole orchestra. A Sybil, a Salvage (sic) man, and an Echo, posted in the park, all harangued in the same strain. Music and dancing enlivened the Sunday evening, and a play was performed, &c.”

This tells the whole story. The “play” is the moon-light scene from The Merchant of Venice, which, it need hardly be urged, was not written till long after the famous visit of Elizabeth to Leicester. Mr. Chorley, indeed, while appropriating literatim the speeches of Lorenzo and Jessica – the rhapsody about music, the allusions to Troilus and. Cressida, Thisbe and the lion, Dido and Æneas – shields himself from the charge of anachronism under the ample shoulders of Sir Walter Scott, who, in his wonderful romance, supposes things familiar which, seeing that Shakespeare was a boy at the time, had yet to come to light. Mr. Chorley, however, by the interpolation, rash, and unwarranted, as it may seem to many, not merely places an oasis where it was greatly wanted, there being else no human interest, but does a good turn to Mr. Sullivan, the music allotted to Lorenzo and Jessica rising far above any other portion of the work.

A detailed analysis of Kenilworth being uncalled for, a word or two about each piece in the order of its occurrence will suffice. The orchestral introduction, descriptive of a “summer night,” is graceful and melodious. It opens with a sweeping prelude for the harp; the principal theme, if not strikingly new, and appearing perhaps once too often, has a tone of tranquillity befitting the subject, and the instrumentation is smooth and harmonious. What might be reproached in this introduction as monotonous was evidently designed by Mr. Sullivan as the right poetical treatment. The chorus, with contralto solos (Miss Palmer) –

“Hark! the sound that hails a king,
“Yonder cannon signalling.
She is near ! she is near!”

(surely Mr. Chorley must have conceived the second line in advance, and ended the first with “a King” instead of a Queen, for the sake of the rhyme) – is full of spirit and well conducted. The principal theme is just such a taking melody as the late Adolphe Adam would have found for the occasion; there is a telling passage of unison for the voices on the words –

“As she sweeps in maiden state,
“Through her vassal’s passage-gate,” &c. –

accompanied by a bold moving figure for the basses in the orchestra; and the whole is skilfully worked up to a climax, with “God save the Queen” (not the national tune, be it understood) at the conclusion.

“The song of the Lady of the Lake” has a pretty ritornello for the orchestra, a very pretty tune for a leading theme, with a neatly contrived accompaniment, and, indeed, is altogether an attractive trifle. So well, too, was it sung by Madam Lemmens Sherrington that it obtained the first hearty round of applause from the audience.

The chorus of “Sylvans and Echo” – “Let Fauns the cymbal ring” – for male voices (with solo quartet) Madam Lemmens, Miss Palmer, Messrs. Cummings and Santley), is lively and not devoid of character; but the leading theme, it must be allowed, approaches near to the brink of vulgarity. The best part of this is an episode for the four solo voices (“Like Summer’s beauteous noon”), beginning unaccompanied. (To “ring” the cymbal, by the way, is a bold expression.)

The next piece, a slow dance in minuet time, with choral burden (“Fa, la, la, la, la”) is tuneful and engaging from end to end – and amid the rest of the pageant-music shines like a gem.

Arion’s song – “I am a ruler on the sea” – is a patriotic claptrap, indebted exclusively for the encore it received to the vigorous and effective delivery of Mr. Santley. Words and music are alike “stagey.”

The following scene – Shakespeare’s scene – is, as has been hinted, superior to all the context. The beautiful speech of Lorenzo –

“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” –

is given in recitative, accompanied much in the rich and dreamy manner of M. Gounod. There is a vagueness about it by no means inappropriate, and at the termination, when, by an enharmonic transition, we are transported into another key, while the tenor voice sustains a high A flat, a melody creeps in, identical with the first two bars of the theme so charmingly varied by Beethoven in his A major quartet (Op. 18). Whether intentional or not, the effect is good.

The duet, in which Jessica takes part, is almost entirely built upon the overture. We have again the floating harp arpeggios, with other incidental passages, and the leading theme – first by Lorenzo (Troilus and Cressida), next by Jessica (Thisbe and the Lion), and lastly by the two voices in unison (Dido), and always in the same key, which, soothing, graceful, and cleverly written as the duet undoubtedly is, creates a sense of weariness that incurs the risk of falling into dull monotony. That the scene, however, is not dull, although we have already been made acquainted, at the commencement of the masque, with the larger portion of the materials of which it is composed, is attributable to the fact of the music being really expressive of the sentiment of the words.

The “Brisk March” which comes after it, with a theme in the minor key, the first section constructed upon a “drone base,” contrasts forcibly but not happily with the foregoing. Nor – to be for an instant technical – is the sudden transition from the key of the duet (D flat major) to that of the dance (A minor) so thoroughly well devised as it might have been, and as Mr. Sullivan could readily have devised it. The dance quand même is “brisk” certainly; but except in its pretty trio (major key) not over alluring.

It is well, nevertheless, that this same brisk interlude should come between the duet and the finale. The sudden transition from that exquisite bit of poetry about Dido –

  “In such a night
“Stood Dido, with a willow in her hand,
“Upon the wild sea-banks, and waved her love
“To come again to Carthage.”

to such verse as the subjoined:–

“After banquet, play, and riot,
  “Cometh timely hour of quiet.
“Bower and hall and corridor
  “Are with poppy-leaves bespread,
“Morpheus stayeth by the door
  “Of the guest so cherishèd”

would have been more startling and less grateful than the transition of Mr. Sullivan.

The finale opens with a solo for contralto, accompanied in the orchestra [by] the Adolphe Adam-like theme which plays so important apart in the introduction. This leads to a chorus (“Sleep, great Queen”), clear, sonorous, and well conducted, containing a new reference to the same pretty theme, and terminating with a coda, which dies away effectively to pianissimo, the chorus (like Morpheus “at the door”) whispering “God save the Queen,” in unison.

That Mr. Sullivan will take what has been said of his new work in the sense in which it is meant, there can be little doubt. He is a young man, full of promise, and a future before him which rests entirely with himself to make brilliant.


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