|Sullivan > Major Works > The Light of the World > Birmingham
The production of an oratorio from the pen of an English composer, and of two secular cantatas by distinguished Italian musicians long resident in England, will give historical interest to the Birmingham Festival of 1873. All three were successful, and legitimately so; but, as a composition of magnitude and elaborate development, Mr. Arthur Sullivan’s Light of the World naturally takes precedence.
The plan of this work has already been described and the argument printed in full. To criticize its musical treatment in technical detail is not our present intention, nor would it be fair, after a single hearing, to summarily pronounce judgment upon the result of some years’ earnest thought and labour. That the oratorio will be heard in London not long hence can hardly admit of doubt. Unaided by the fact that Mr. Sullivan has through previous efforts deservedly won a foremost position among the most eminent and popular composers of the day, its merits alone would suffice to insure that distinction. Eli, Naaman, and St. Peter have all been given in London, as well as at the Birmingham Festival, to which we owe the production of so many compositions of importance, not a few of which are likely to survive, and one of which, after nearly 30 years of probation in the British Isles, in Germany, and in America, is as fresh and healthy as when it first came forth, delighting every one with a soul for harmony, no less than every one who believes that the historical events and oracular prophecies of Holy Writ may be used to excellent purpose by a gifted musician inspired with a reverence for their truth and symbolic meaning. Not, however, to speak of Elijah, which, “like some serene and unapproached star,” shines apart, the other three works we have named having been introduced to the capital, the London public has fair claim to be introduced to The Light of the World, and will in all probability expect and ask for it.
Mr. Sullivan may possibly contemplate modifying certain parts, abridging others, and, by the aid of condensation, bring the incidents closer together. Upon this subject it would be superfluous to dwell, the composer being himself the best judge of what to do and how to do it. It is to be wished that he may not revise too much; for the habit of reconsidering things accomplished, instead of entering at once upon some new task, is, if too frequently indulged in, hardly to be praised without qualification.
On the whole, in our opinion, the book upon which The Light of the World is constructed requires little but the excision of certain portions to make it an unexceptionable book of its kind; but for this again Mr. Sullivan is alone answerable. When Mendelssohn, who, though occasionally taking counsel from others, was chiefly responsible for the books of his oratorios, made alterations of more or less import in Elijah, after its first performance, in 1846, at the Birmingham Festival, he was his own critic and acted accordingly. No one had either publicly or privately suggested such alterations; but, when the oratorio was reproduced, the changes Mendelssohn had devised were universally recognized as good. Mr. Sullivan will doubtless exercise similar discretion; and as his oratorio is really in want of little else than curtailment, the task will not impose upon him any very serious expense of thought or unreasonable amount of toil.
As it stands now, The Light of the World is full of interest, from the beginning of the first chorus to the end of the last. With commendable reticence its composer has endeavoured as much as practicable to steer clear of Handel, Bach, and Mendelssohn; though, occasionally, the influence of those masters (as well as that of the elder madrigal writers) is apparent – which, the nature of his theme considered, is not surprising, and, indeed, was almost inevitable.
Handel is most evident in the “Pastoral Symphony,” separating the opening chorus from “Bethlehem,” the scene of the Nativity, and in a good deal that follows – perilous ground to tread upon, but ground upon which Mr. Sullivan has trodden with firm sobriety. Bach and Mendelssohn are hinted at slightly, here and there, especially in the scene at the Synagogue (“Nazareth”), where, as in the Passion music, not to mention St. Paul, Elijah, and Christus, the people respond to the soloist in brief snatches of chorus, which increase in fury and impetuosity as they follow one upon the other. Here, nevertheless, the single voice does not represent Pontius Pilate, but Christ, as preacher and admonisher. The scene is throughout well conceived and powerfully written.
The trial of Jesus before Pilate, and the Crucifixion, which would have been still more perilous ground, are avoided, the circumstances being succinctly related in a narrative chorus, after the manner of the Greek plays – a well-imagined and well-carried-out device. To the profound feeling of reverence with which Mr. Sullivan has musically illustrated all the passages relating to the Saviour, and in which the Saviour is supposed to hold forth, no intelligent listener can be insensible.
It has been argued that the oratorio contains too much slow music, which occasionally engenders monotony. This is in some measure true, the subject, or rather certain features of it, rendering any other kind of treatment impossible. At the same time, it must be allowed that judicious compression can set all in proper order and help to exhibit the remaining parts of the work with twice the power and thrice the brightness. The final chorus to the scene at Bethlehem, “I will pour my spirit upon thy seed” – a grand chorus in the strictest sense of the phrase – is wonderfully impressive as it occurs, but would be still more impressive if it came earlier.
Not to enter further into minute particulars, what has been stated comprises absolutely all there is to say in critical disparagement of the Light of the World – a work which we cannot but regard as an honour to the English school of music, and, take it for all in all (the Woman of Samaria, of Sir Sterndale Bennett, being rather a sacred cantata than an oratorio proper), the best oratorio for which we are indebted to an English musician. In consenting to deal with such a theme Mr. Sullivan undertook a by no means easy task; he brought to it, however, an amount of intelligence, feeling, and musical acquirement which enabled him to accomplish it successfully.
There is in the Light of the World greater breadth, a richer flow of melody, more ingenious contrivance, and more fertile invention than we have remarked in his preceding works – though, in many, these qualities are observable. The orchestration throughout shows a complete acquaintance with all the instruments, a facility of combining them in harmonious groups no less than of displaying them in solo passages for special points of effect, Not the least noticeable piece in the oratorio is the introductory orchestral prelude to the scene at “Jerusalem” (Part II.), meant to portray in musical tones the troubles and dissensions created at Jerusalem by the presence, the teachings, and miracles of Christ.
In the art of writing for voices Mr. Sullivan has acquired equal proficiency. To single out one example, the peroration to Part I., beginning with a chorus of children, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” followed by a soprano air, “Tell ye the daughters of Zion,” other solos, and a chorus of men – “Blessed be the kingdom of our Father David,” – and terminating with “Hosanna in the Highest,” for full chorus and full orchestra – may be cited unhesitatingly as a masterpiece of construction and effect. This movement, or chain of movements, constitutes, perhaps, the finest number in the work; but there is much more of the kind to which attention may be called when opportunity offers.
The efficient execution of the Light of the World by chorus, orchestra, and all engaged in its performance, not forgetting the principal singers – Mdlle. Titiens, Madame Trebelli-Bettini, Messrs. Sims Reeves and Santley, with Messrs. Cummings and Briggs, of Windsor, in smaller, though by no means insignificant parts – as, also, the enthusiastic reception of the oratorio and its composer, was recorded at the time.
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