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First notice of the First Performance from The Times
Thursday, August 28, 1873.
 
BIRMINGHAM MUSICAL FESTIVAL
(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT)

BIRMINGHAM, AUG. 27.

The Duke of Edinburgh returned to Ingestre to-day, after the performance of Mr. Arthur Sullivan’s oratorio, at which he was present from first to last. The impression left by this short visit of his Royal Highness has been most favourable. Wherever he was seen he was cheered with real enthusiasm. The doors of the Queen’s Hotel, over the roof of which the Union Jack and the Russian flag are flying, were besieged from morning to night by crowds of people anxious to obtain a glimpse of him, coming out or going in. This day the scene was almost indescribable. In the morning there was a great deal of rain; but before the Duke left the hotel on his way to the Town Hall “the rain was over and gone,” and sunshine took its place. The great thoroughfares were even more densely thronged than yesterday; and but for the careful and efficient police arrangements, passage to and fro would have been impracticable for those who went on foot. Cheers and counter-cheers resounded from all sides as the Royal carriage slowly reached its destination. This is, we believe, the first Royal visit on such an occasion, to Birmingham, and it will be long remembered. Such mutual cordiality has seldom been witnessed.

Precisely at half-past 11, the hour announced for beginning, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Earl of Shrewsbury and Talbot, and their friends arrived. Then there was another burst of cheering, to echo the cheers still heard outside the building. The hall was filled in every part, and as had been the case the day before, when Elijah was given, standing room could not be obtained for love or money after the oratorio had begun.

To-day was a proud day for Mr. Sullivan, who, to judge by the hearty and unanimous greeting that welcomed his appearance on the platform, is a great favourite in this town, where other works from his pen have obtained well-merited success. The last outgrowth of his genius, however, leaves far behind all that has preceded it. To compose an oratorio is, under any circumstances, a heavy, laborious, and responsible task; but to be able to compose a good oratorio is within the power of a very small minority. Mr. Sullivan has not only composed a good oratorio, but in many respects a great one. That The Light of the World is a work destined to live we feel convinced.

The Birmingham Festival has been lucky in its oratorios – from Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846) to Sir Julius Benedict’s St. Peter (1870) – with the Eli and Naaman of Sir Michael Costa, (1855 and 1864) to separate the two. Another decided hit, if the genuine demonstration of this afternoon may be taken into account, has been achieved.

Mr. Sullivan has selected a very difficult theme to treat. Handel dealt with it in the Messiah, and Mendelssohn touched upon it in the fragments of his oratorio, Christus. Nevertheless, the work as it stands, bears little resemblance to either of these masterpieces – the finished or the unfinished; and as the composer alone, if we are rightly informed, is answerable for the arrangement of the materials of which he has made use, it is but just that he should be allowed to speak for himself. Here, then, is the “argument”:–

“In this oratorio the intention has not been to convey the spiritual idea of the Saviour, as in the Messiah, or to recount the sufferings of Christ, as in the ‘Passionsmusik,’ but to set forth the human aspect of the life of our Lord on earth, exemplify it by some of the actual incidents in His career, which bear specially upon His attributes of Preacher, Healer, and Prophet. For this purpose, and to give it dramatic force, the work has been laid out in ‘scenes’ dealing respectively in the first part with the ‘nativity’, ‘preaching,’ ‘healing,’ and ‘prophesying’ of our Lord, ending with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem; and in the second part with the utterances which, containing the avowal of Himself as the Son of Man, excited to the utmost the wrath of His enemies, and led the rulers to conspire for his betrayal and death; the solemn recital of the chorus of His sufferings and the belief in His final reward; the grief of Mary Magdalene at the sepulchre; and the consolation and triumph of the disciples at the resurrection of their Lord and Master. After a prophetic introduction taken from Isaiah – the ‘Evangelical Prophet’ – the first scene is laid at Bethlehem.

“The shepherds watch their flocks by night, when an angel appears to them and brings ‘good tidings’ of the birth of the promised Saviour. They go to Bethlehem reflecting on the fulfilment of the prophecy concerning Christ. The Virgin Mary, in answer to their salutations, pours forth her gratitude to the Almighty for His favour, and they depart glorifying God. The rest of the scene embraces the warning by the angel to the parents of Jesus of Herod’s design, the lament and consoling of Rachel in Rama, and the promise of God’s blessing upon the Child.”

The succeeding scenes are disposed as follows:–

“Nazareth. – Our Lord appears in the Synagogue, and, after reading from Isaiah, presents Himself to His listeners as the object of the prophecy. Upon their expressed amazement and incredulity, He reproaches them with their continued unbelief, and, goaded to rage by His numerous instances of God’s favour to those whom they looked upon with contempt, they drive Him out of the Synagogue. Left alone with his disciples, who proclaim their faith in Him, He exhorts them to bear their persecutions with meekness, and to judge not that they be not judged, relying on God’s unfailing justice.

“Lazarus. – Being told that Lazarus is sick, Christ expresses His determination to go to him. A disciple endeavours to dissuade Him from going again to a place where He has but lately escaped further persecution; but, undeterred by this, our Lord persists in His resolve, and the disciples, after being told plainly that Lazarus is dead, accompany Him. The sad journey, and the arrival at Bethany, where the kindred and friends are endeavouring to comfort the bereaved sisters, are depicted in the music.

“The Way to Jerusalem. – Although warned by a disciple that the chief priests and scribes, alarmed at the numbers who believed on Him, were resolved upon His destruction, Christ pronounces His intention of going up to Jerusalem, indicating His foreknowledge of the fate awaiting Him by saying that no prophet could perish out of Jerusalem. Men, women, and children all welcome Him as a King – the Son of David – and after prophesying and lamenting the fate of the city, our Lord enters amid the triumph and hosannas of the crowd.

"The scenes of the second part are laid entirely at Jerusalem. After the overture, which is intended to indicate the angry feelings and dissension caused by our Lord’s presence in the city, it opens with the discourse containing the parable of the sheep and the goats. The people hearing it wonder at its boldness, and express their belief that ‘this is the Christ.’ A ruler argues with them, and contemptuously asks if Christ shall come out of Galilee; the people are still unconvinced, and, Nicodemus striving to reason with him, the ruler retorts angrily. The women, seeing that the end is at hand, come weeping and bewailing to Christ, who bids them not weep for Him, but to be of good cheer – ‘I have overcome the world,’ are His last words. The chorus describes His sufferings and death, and the next scene opens at the sepulchre in the early morning. The grief of Mary Magdalene is soothed by the angel, who tells her that Christ is risen, and, reminding her how He had foretold His death and resurrection while He was yet in Galilee, comforts her with the words ‘God shall wipe away all tears.’ The disciples acknowledge that Christ has risen, and that God has caused the light to shine in their hearts, making all things new; and after an earnest exhortation from one of them to follow in their Master’s steps and fight ‘the good fight of faith, they glorify God for the triumphant close of their Lord and Master’s earthly labours.”

We reserve what we have to say in detail about the music – the magnum opus of its author, a credit both to himself and the great meeting for which it was expressly written. The execution to-day, under Mr. Sullivan’s own direction, was, for a first essay with a long, elaborate, and difficult composition, remarkable even for the Birmingham chorus singers and the splendid orchestra usually assembled at the triennial Festivals. Three pieces were encored; and between the first and second parts the President rose to offer some explanation why several more were not called for again. Lord Shrewsbury’s observations were much to the point, and may, perhaps, lead to the ultimate abandonment of a system which, under all aspects, is a nuisance.

The principal singers in The Light of the World were Mdlle. Titiens, Madame Trebelli-Bettini, Messrs. Sims Reeves, Briggs and Santley. At the end, after another tribute paid to the Duke of Edinburgh, the composer was enthusiastically called for. The oratorio took very near three hours and a half in performance.


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