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The Light of the World

Extract from The Standard Oratorios
George Upton

Sir Arthur Sullivan's second oratorio, "The Light of the World," is laid out upon a much larger scale in every way than "The Prodigal Son." It was written for the Birmingham Festival of 1873, and given for the first time on the 27th of August. The purpose of the work, as the composer explains in his preface, is to set forth the human aspects of the life of our Lord upon earth, by the use of some of the actual incidents in his career which bear witness to his attributes as preacher, healer, and prophet. "To give it dramatic force," he says,

"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 triumphal 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 by 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."

The first part has four scenes, "Bethlehem," "Nazareth," "Lazarus" (which might more appropriately have been entitled "Bethany"), and "The Way to Jerusalem." The scenes of the second part are laid entirely in Jerusalem. "Bethlehem" includes the message of the angels to the shepherds, their visit to Mary, the nativity, the warning by the angel to Mary and Joseph of Herod's design, the lament and consolation of Rachel in Rama, and the promise of God's blessing upon the child. In "Nazareth" we have a scene representing Christ in the synagogue reading from Isaiah and declaring himself the object of the prophecy, his expulsion by the incredulous crowd of listeners, and his exhortations to his disciples, when left alone with them, to bear their persecutions with meekness. "Lazarus" describes the journey to Bethany and our Lord's assurances to the bereaved sisters that their brother shall rise again. "The Way to Jerusalem" scene is indicated by its title, — the entry of the Lord into the city amid the hosannas and exultant acclamations of the people. In the second part, we have the discourse concerning the sheep and the goats, the interview between the ruler and the people, and the former's anger with Nicodemus, the sufferings and death of Christ, and the resurrection and joy of the disciples as they glorify God and sing the praises of their risen Master.

The work opens with a prologue chorus ("There shall come forth a Rod out of the Stem of Jesse"), at the close of which the "Bethlehem" scene begins. It is preluded with a quiet but effective pastoral movement for the orchestra, a tenor recitative ("There were Shepherds abiding in the Field"), and a contralto solo announcing the heavenly message to the Shepherds, which lead up to a spirited "Gloria" by the sopranos and altos, followed by a chorus of the Shepherds ("Let us now go even unto Bethlehem") for male voices. A Shepherd, in brief recitative passages, declares to Mary, "Blessed art thou among Women," followed by the soprano solo, "My Soul doth magnify the Lord." After the Virgin's expression of thanks, the Shepherds join in the chorus, "The whole Earth is at rest," which is peculiarly striking in its contrasts. A short recitative by the Angel, warning Mary to flee into Egypt, is followed by a very sombre chorus ("In Rama was there a Voice"). At its close, the tenor is heard in a tender aria ("Refrain thy Voice from weeping"), leading to a chorus full of spirited harmony, and rising to a very effective climax ("I will pour My Spirit"), which closes the scene.

The "Nazareth" scene opens with a baritone solo ("The Spirit of the Lord is upon me"), in which Jesus declares himself in the synagogue as the object of the prophecy from Isaiah which he has been reading. The Jews answer in a very dramatic chorus ("Whence hath this Man his Wisdom?"). Again Jesus interposes with the declaration, "A prophet is not without honor save in his own country;" whereupon the people break out in a still more dramatic chorus ("Is not this Jesus?"), set to a very effective accompaniment. For the third time Jesus declares himself, followed by the stirring, furious chorus, "Why hear ye him?" A tender and at times fervid solo ("Lord, who hath believed our Report?") leads to a very effective quintet ("Doubtless Thou art our Father"). After another brief baritone solo ("Blessed are they"), we come to the chorus, "He maketh the Sun to rise," which is one of the most beautifully written in the work, and closes the scene.

The third scene, "Lazarus," begins with the description of the mournful journey to Bethany, the arrival among the kindred and friends, who are trying to comfort the bereaved sisters, and closes at the still unopened grave. It includes a duet between tenor and baritone, the former a Disciple, the latter Jesus, whose music is invariably sung by the baritone voice; a solo for alto ("Weep ye not for the Dead"), with a sombre orchestral prelude, and accompanied by a chorus in its close; a dialogue between Martha and Jesus ("Lord, if thou hadst been here"); a short but very beautiful chorus ("Behold how he loved him!"); the baritone solo, "Said I not unto thee;" and a final chorus of great power ("The Grave cannot praise thee").

The last scene of the first part, "The Way to Jerusalem," is very brilliant throughout, and is in cheerful contrast with the general sombreness of the preceding numbers. It opens with a brief dialogue between Jesus and a Disciple ("Master, get thee out, and depart hence"), which leads to a charming three-part chorus for children's voices ("Hosanna to the Son of David"), with a prominent harp part in the accompaniment, and worked up to a fine climax. A brilliant soprano solo ("Tell ye the Daughter of Zion") intervenes, followed by a short dialogue between Jesus and a Pharisee, which leads to the vigorous chorus of the Disciples, "Blessed be the Kingdom." After another baritone solo ("If thou hadst known, O Jerusalem") the children's hosanna is repeated, — this time with the power of the full chorus; and the first part comes to a close.

The first part opens with a prelude of a few bars; but the second begins with a long overture, very effectively written, and intended, as the composer himself says, to indicate the angry feelings and dissensions caused by the Lord's presence in Jerusalem. At its close the baritone, in one of the most forcible solos assigned to this part ("When the Son of Man shall come in his Glory"), discourses the parable of the sheep and goats. The wondering chorus of the People, "Is not this he whom they seek to kill?" follows, and then ensues a somewhat tedious scene. A Ruler argues with the People, contemptuously asking if Christ shall come out of Galilee. The People remain unconvinced, however. Nicodemus then strives to reason with the Ruler, with the natural effect of making him very angry. All this leads up to an effective female chorus ("The Hour is come"). In a very tender and pathetic solo ("Daughters of Jerusalem") Jesus sings his farewell. The incidents of the crucifixion are avoided, as the work is intended only to illustrate the human career of Jesus. The rest of the story is told in narrative form; an unaccompanied quartet ("Yea, though I walk") and a powerful, but gloomy chorus, describing Christ's sufferings ("Men and Brethren"), bring us to the sepulchre. The scene opens with the plaint of Mary Magdalene, "Where have they laid him?" and the response of the Angel, who tells her Christ has risen, which is followed by a six-part unaccompanied chorus ("The Lord is risen"). A short tenor solo ("If ye be risen with Christ") leads directly to the final chorus ("Him hath God exalted"), which is worked up in fugal form with much spirit.

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