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Review of a Performance at Hereford from The Times
Friday, September 12, 1879.


What was said yesterday, with regard to the interest shown by the managers of the Hereford Festival in drawing up their programme was further exemplified to-day by the introduction of Dr. Arthur Sullivan’s oratorio The Light of the World. Originally written for, and produced at, the Birmingham Festival of 1873, this oratorio may now be said to have won the freedom of many of our important and influential towns, including among the number (added to Birmingham, its birthplace) Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, Nottingham, Dundee (a really musical city, by the way), and, last not least, our somewhat recalcitrant capital. Though it has obtained a hearing at concerts given by other institutions, Mr. Joseph Barnby’s Choral Society at the Royal Albert-hall setting the example, it yet awaits the honoured privilege of an entry into Exeter-hall, where the concerts of the Sacred Harmonic Society are held, over which Sir Michael Costa wields imperial sway – herein, be it observed, parenthetically, sharing the fate of Sterndale Bennett’s Woman of Samaria, Macfarren’s Resurrection, and Joseph, &c.

The Light of the World, nevertheless, as we have on more than one occasion endeavoured to show, is a work of the right stamp, replete with melody from the genuine source, exhibiting dramatic power where the rare incidents of the book, so admirably constructed out of scriptural texts by Mr. George Grove, offer appropriate suggestions for dramatic treatment, but mainly inspired from end to end by the purest instinct of devotional feeling. Its theme is of the highest import, the “Light of the World” being simply a convertible term for the Saviour, and it has been handled by Mr. Sullivan, as amateurs are aware, in a truly becoming spirit.

Its design differs from that of the Messiah in not intending, as the author of the book expresses it, the spiritual idea of Christ, and from the Passions-music of J. S. Bach, in not presenting the thrilling narrative of the sufferings he underwent for the sake of mankind, its sole object being the setting forth of the human aspect of His earthly life, and the incidents connected with His career as “Preacher, Healer, and Prophet.” The division into five sections – Bethlehem, where the good tidings are brought by angels to the shepherds in the fields, and the Nativity is confirmed; Nazareth, where Christ appears in the Synagogue and declares Himself the object of Isaiah’s prophecy; Lazarus, and Bethany, where the miracle of raising the dead is achieved; the way to Jerusalem, on the journey to which He is welcomed by men, women, and children as the “Son of David;” and, lastly, Jerusalem, where the final catastrophe is talked about (not brought forward), and the resurrection has been witnessed and attested to, comprise the whole in a summary as complete as it is well planned.

How and in what manner Mr. Sullivan has availed himself of these materials it is scarcely requisite to say, nor is it at all necessary to enter into a detailed analysis of his work, inasmuch as that would be merely repeating what has already been done more than once. It is satisfactory to add, however, that a new hearing strongly fortifies the impression created six years ago when The Light of the World was first produced at Birmingham. We are again impressed with the deferential manner in which an English composer has approached certain passages which, having been treated by Handel (Messiah) and others, were dangerous ground to tread upon. With shepherds in the fields, a “pastoral symphony,” was, of course, an absolute requirement, and if Mr. Sullivan, instead of adopting the somewhat epigrammatic view of Handel, rather emulates the more amply developed form of Sebastian Bach in the “second day” of the Christmas Oratorio (heard yesterday), he cannot reasonably be called to account, nor can we with fairness arraign him for having in a greater or lesser degree submitted to the influence of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul, and the fragments of the uncompleted Christmas (sic) that here and there comparatively demand analogous expression.

To avoid the pervading individuality of Mendelssohn in these times, when music, no matter what shape it assumes, must be either dramatic or nothing to speak of, is barely possible. To ignore Handel altogether is to set at naught the example which has taught us more than any other. To imitate Bach, unless it be under exceptional conditions, is beyond the scope of musicians of the actual period. Mr. Sullivan is as keenly alive to this as any musician now living.

He, the lively and humorous author of the Contrabandista, Cox and Box, the Sorcerer, and H.M.S. Pinafore, has proved in his first, it is to be hoped not his last, oratorio that on fitting occasions he can measure arms with Felix Mendelssohn, that where purpose serves he can show how thoroughly he is imbued with the spirit of Handel, and how in such exceptional circumstances as have been referred to he can turn even the grave John (sic) Sebastian to account. All this is demonstrated in the Light of the World, and happily a good deal more which speaks for itself quite independently of previous models. Examples might be cited to elucidate these facts and to show that Mr. Sullivan is not simply an eclectic, but in his way an original composer. That he has a style and manner of his own is clearly evinced by a large variety of works in almost every form. His many charming songs, his E minor (sic) symphony, which encouraged the hope that a new English composer of grand orchestral music had come to the fore and made amateurs look forward with glad expectancy to its promised successor in D major, the apparition of which has been hitherto inexplicably delayed, his sacred cantata The Prodigal Son, given with such success at the Worcester Festival of 1869, his incidental music to the Tempest, Merchant of Venice, and Henry VIII., his secular cantata Kenilworth, written for the Birmingham Festival of 1864, when Sir Michael Costa’s oratorio Naaman and the much neglected Henry Smart’s Bride of Dunkerron were also introduced, his poetical and impassioned overture In Memoriam, and other things worthy mention did space permit, are more than sufficient to establish this.

The Light of the World, however, performed to-day; under its composer’s personal direction, would of itself suffice as the convincing proof. The performance, considering that Mr. Sullivan had enjoyed no opportunity of superintending a rehearsal, either of the choral or instrumental parts, was in many respects noticeable for its excellence. What English orchestras can do under pressure was remarked with astonishment by Meyerbeer himself, when he came to assist at the last rehearsals of his Etoile du Nord (1855), and Dinorah (1859). How many preliminary trials these by no means easy operas had in Paris none who interest themselves in such matters need be told. In London, however, Sir Michael (then Mr.) Costa was restricted to three or four at the most, and Meyerbeer expressed himself more than satisfied in words of appropriate recognition to our justly renowned conductor.

That everything did not go smoothly to-day, and that points here and there were missed, it is easy to imagine; but, on the whole, there was much less to complain of than might have been expected. In Mr. Weist Hill the composer found an invaluable aide-de-camp, the “pastoral symphony” and the finely expressive overture, one of the most masterly numbers in the oratorio, going to perfection. The choruses, if not in every particular up to the desired mark, were often more than satisfactory, and, to give three instances, “I will pour my spirit” and “Hosanna” in the first part, and “Men and brethren,” one of the longest and most carefully elaborated in the second, realized everything that could be wished in regard to accuracy and spirit. The treble voices in the “Hosanna” were alone a pleasure to listen to.

In his leading vocalists Mr. Sullivan was truly fortunate. With Miss Emma Thursby as soprano, Madame Patey as contralto, Messrs. Cummings and M’Guckin as tenors, and Mr. Santley as bass, he could hardly have been better served. For these acknowledged artists, there were many and varied opportunities of display, of which it will be taken for granted that they, one and all, took the best advantage. Mr. Santley, upon whom the longest and most arduous task devolved, was admirable throughout, singing and declaiming with all the indispensable earnestness and fervour. Mr. Cummings gave the beautiful air “Refrain, thy voice from weeping” with expression as genuine as it was sympathetic, and Madame Patey’s rendering of the simply devotional allusion to the resurrection, “The Lord is risen,” was irreproachable. Miss Thursby and Mr. Barton M’Guckin also distinguished themselves in the music assigned to them.

One of the best executed concerted pieces was the quartet “Yea, tho’ I walk,” by Miss Thursby, Madame Patey, Mr. M’Guckin, and the Rev. J. H. Lambert. On the whole, although he must naturally, for reasons needless to specify, have found much that might have been improved in the general interpretation of his oratorio, Mr. Sullivan could have hardly been otherwise than satisfied with the zeal and interest demonstrated on all sides. The attendance was greatly in excess of that on the corresponding day at the Festival of 1876, and the contributions to the charity amounted to more than double. The “Light of the World” was followed by Haydn’s well-known “Imperial Mass” The miscellaneous concert in the Shire-hall to-night was conducted throughout by Mr. Sullivan.

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