|Sullivan > Major Works > The Light of the World > Albert Hall
The tenth concert of Mr. Barnby’s choir introduced Mr. Sullivan’s oratorio the Light of the World. It is not a new work, having been produced at the Birmingham Festival in 1873, but the long interval which his elapsed since it was heard last – a striking illustration, by the way, of the neglect with which important works by English composers are too frequently treated in their own country – seems to make a few recapitulatory remarks on our part desirable.
The book is composed of scriptural texts relating to the life of Christ, but “the intention,” according to a prefatory statement, “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.” These words indicate the two chief difficulties which Mr. Sullivan had to contend with. First, he had to avoid the appearance of an intended competition with Handel or Bach, and, second, he had to realize the human presence of the Saviour without touching upon those divine qualities which, in this country at least, are not considered the subject for dramatic treatment, however reverential.
The first-named difficulty has been overcome by the composer in the most successful because in the simplest manner. After a short prologue chorus, with which Mr. Sullivan, after the manner of M. Gounod in Romeo and Juliet, prefaces his work, we are introduced to the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” The words of the narrative and the address of the angel occur, as every one knows, in the Messiah, and there was the obvious temptation for a modern composer to attempt a setting as different from Handel’s treatment as the case would allow of. Affectation and elaborate searching for effect would have been the inevitable result of such a proceeding. Mr. Sullivan, therefore, was right in simply going his own way, regardless of what had been done before, and the fact that this way led in the same direction as that of Handel proves only that it was at the same time the way of nature. Handel introduces his recitative by an orchestral prelude of a pastoral character, and Mr. Sullivan does the same; even the rhythmical principle of this prelude, the triplet, is common to both composers. The same affinity is found with regard to the choice of key; and the opening note of the recitative happens to be a G in either case. And yet no unprejudiced hearer could for a moment suspect Mr. Sullivan of plagiarism. The coincidences alluded to are nothing but the natural outgrowth of the situation. Simple themes suggest simple keys, and the tripartite rhythm has always been connected with the idea of pastoral music. Mr. Sullivan’s prelude is indeed as original as it is charming, and would have been of much better effect on the present occasion if Mr. Barnby had not hurried the tempo, and had attended more carefully to the delicate gradations of pianissimo and piano indicated by the score.
The second difficulty above alluded to has been of more serious consequences for Mr. Sullivan’s music. Christ is conceived by him as the Divine teacher and admonisher, free from suffering and fear, and inapproachable to those human passions which play so conspicuous a part in Mendelssohn’s St. Paul or Elijah. Such a conception is sublime, but it cannot be made the centre figure of a dramatic action. Hence the feeling of monotony attaching to the long and measured utterances of the baritone solo, and which even Herr Henschel’s excellent declamation could not wholly overcome. On one occasion only, in illustration of the words “For I was an hungered and ye gave me no meat,” does the part rise to real dramatic interest.
But, in spite of this fundamental defect, Mr. Sullivan’s score contains beauties of the highest order. Of these space will allow us to point out a few only. In the first part the chorus and soprano solo, “In Ramah was there heard a voice,” is a masterpiece of its kind. The sombre harmonies, beginning in A flat minor and thence proceeding to G flat major, and by means of a chromatic change to B major, are illustrative of “lamentation and weeping.” On the F sharp of the last-mentioned chord the solo voice begins, and henceforth alternates with the chorus till the end of the piece, which concludes in A flat minor. The C natural of the ensuing tenor solo, “Refrain thy voice from weeping,” appears like a message of relief after the prevailing minor third of the ensemble just referred to. It is from such contrasts that the musician gains a force of expression wholly unattainable to the poet.
In a chorus in the second scene we notice the clever way in which Mr. Sullivan has turned the art of counterpoint to realistic account. The entries of the several voices, especially that of the soprano, to the words “Is not this Joseph’s son?” convey a vivid idea of an excited crowd. In the third scene, headed “Lazarus,” the orchestral prelude, preceding the contralto solo, “Weep ye not,” deserves mention on account of its fine effects of instrumentation.
The fourth part introduces a charming chorus of children singing “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and a brilliant finale founded on the same words and partly on the same melodious materials.
In the second division, which is preceded by a regular overture, we meet with a gem of vocal writing in the shape of a quartet, sung a capella, and admirably rendered on this occasion by Mesdames Lemmens-Sherrington and Patey, and by Messrs. Lloyd and Wadmore. It is as a writer for the voice that Mr. Sullivan’s gift always shows to greatest advantage. A brilliant chorus, containing a well-constructed fugue, concludes the oratorio.
Of the performance we cannot speak in detail. Mr. Barnby was an efficient conductor of chorus and orchestra. The soloists already named, are too well known to need further commendation on our part.
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