The Martyr of Antioch

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Review of the first performance of The Martyr of Antioch
from The Leeds Mercury, 16 October 1880.

The Festival continues to be the chief subject of local interest, and for the present week ordinary business is but of a secondary consideration. Interest in our musical doings is not, however, by any means confined to Leeds, for the occasion has attracted musicians of eminence from distant parts of the country besides bringing a throng of visitors by almost every train from the principal towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The proportion of strangers present yesterday forenoon was even larger than usual, for there was a twofold attraction in the presence of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and the production for the first time of Mr. Arthur Sullivan's new sacred drama The Martyr of Antioch.

At half past eleven o'clock Mr. Sullivan came upon the platform and, on taking his place at the conductor's desk, he was greeted with enthusiasm. The warm reception testified not only to the popularity he has gained as conductor of the Festival, but also to the pleasure with which his new work was anticipated by an audience which crowded the hall in every part. Almost immediately after his arrival the Royal Duke entered the hall, and was loyally cheered on taking his place as president. The spectacle which presented itself to His Royal Highness was certainly a striking one. So far as concerned the crowded platform, it was gayer than is customary at a morning concert, for the ladies of the chorus had gracefully conspired to dress in white out of compliment to Mr. Sullivan on the occasion of his new work being introduced to public favour, The only drawback to the appearance of the hall was the fog which had crept in from outside and a little obscured the view. Under these circumstances, the curved lines of gas jest above each side of the orchestra were useful as well as ornamental; and the further illumination shed upon the scene by one of the sunlights in the ceiling was also welcome.

As to the quality of the performance we shall immediately speak, but here it may be noted as indicating the signal success of the novelty, that the cheers which greeted the arrival of Mr. Sullivan were renewed with still more vigour and enthusiasm at the close of his new work. The masculine members of the chorus hailed him with a hearty Yorkshire "hooray", while the ladies waved their handkerchiefs in token of congratulation. The whole assemblage, indeed, joined in a hearty tribute of praise, which not only gratified the composer himself, but, as may well be supposed, equally delighted his mother, who was present to witness the latest triumph of her son's talent. The Duke of Edinburgh retired from the hall at the close of The Martyr of Antioch and shortly afterwards left Leeds for London, as will be found notified in another column. Before leaving the Town Hall, His Royal Highness sent for Mr. Sullivan and warmly congratulated him on the success of his new work.

After the well-nigh exhaustive review of Mr. Sullivan's work which has already appeared in our columns, further analysis would be superfluous. The opinions expressed in tat review, generally favourable as they were, we see no reason to change. Indeed, they have been, for the most part, confirmed by the impressions of a set performance, and it must now be clear to amateurs that the strength of The Martyr of Antioch lies in its beautiful Pagan choruses, so full of character and colour; in the first and last airs of Margarita, for whom, so far, Mr. Sullivan wrote lovingly; in the Funeral Music of the Christians; in the love music of Olybius; and, with reference to the entire work, in charmingly varied and appropriately coloured orchestration. To what remains, good as it may be, we are not disposed to attach much weight. More clearly than ever has the fact been demonstrated that the dramatic portions of the Cantata - Mr. Sullivan will excuse us for the useful word - are inferior in treatment, and consequently in result, to those of a lyrical nature. Hence a comparative want of effect in the scene between Margarita and her father, and between the same person and her lover, when revelation is made of a change of faith, meaning nothing less than death to the convert. It was perhaps ill-advised to have two situations so nearly alike, but waiving this, we cannot help thinking that both should have been treated in a more conspicuous, impassioned, and largely developed manner. This opinion, however, is based upon purely dramatic considerations. Regarding the situation from a musical point of view, there is nothing in the work we would willingly have sacrificed to make room for dramatic expansion. A libretto, after all, is not a play, more, it never was, and never can be, so long as the divine art retains and asserts the supremacy which is its birth-right and its proudest boast.

A word is certainly called for by Mr. Sullivan's orchestrations. Few living musicians know better than our composer how to employ the resources of instrumentation. But he is never tempted into extravagance, as are many of his craft. He uses the orchestra, as not abusing it, charming attentive ears by touches of delicate fancy in form and pleasing cultured taste by a harmony of colour that, when required, can be bright an glowing without an approach to "loudness" and vulgarity. All this the scoring of The Martyr of Antioch proves beyond dispute. It never wearies by sameness or repels by eccentricity. It is never presumptuous in forcing its way unduly to the front, and it serves to curtain the general interest of the work without distracting attention from points on which attention should be fixed. If examples be asked for, we point to the instrumentation of the long Hymn to Apollo with which the drama opens. Here, as it seems to us, the very motion, colour, and sentiment of the music suggest the motion, colour, and sentiment of pagan worship, just as Mendelssohn's music to Antigone seems to be a revelation of the classic age. We point also to the scoring of the final song of the Martyr, wherein if harps and strings and wind can represent a holy ecstasy, they do it beyond question. But examples would be deemed superfluous bay all who attended yesterday morning's performance. The extraordinary merit of the orchestration was as plain as the sun of a cloudless noon.

Mr. Sullivan could hardly have desired a better performance than that which favoured his work. True, it was not free from mishap as when the harpist, no doubt owing to a faulty copy, entered in the wrong place, and as when, in the Funeral Anthem, "Brother thou art gone before us", the unsupported voices sank considerably in pitch. But such things as these are accidents against which no guarantee can be given, and, setting them aside, nothing remains but cause for hearty praise. No on, we imagine, was surprised at the unusual excellence of the interpretation, for what care and pains would anybody concerned have spared to help on so grateful a composition from the pen of an author so esteemed? Depend upon it, every executant, from the highest to the lowest, felt a personal interest in Mr. Sullivan's success, and secured a personal reward for any labour tending to secure it. This may assuredly be said of the principal singers, whose hearts were plainly in their task. Mdme. Albani, for instance, fervid as she always is when the music appeals to her nature, represented Margarita with entire self-abandonment. Her singing of the devotional yet, withal, impassioned air, "For thou didst die for me", was only excelled by her rendering of Margarita's address to her persecutors, and that in turn by her delivery of the triumphant death-song. The last put a fitting climax to the series of Mdme. Albani's efforts and we despair of hearing the Martyr's strains to equal advantage unless it be from the same lips. Mdme. Patey made a profound impression, as might have been expected, with the very original and beautiful air, "The love-sick damsel laid", the effect being materially helped by the charming manner in which two complementary clarinets were played. Mr. Sullivan must have written the music for our favourite contralto, and she repaid him by singing it with a refinement of style, purity of expression and beauty of voice which the audience will not soon forget. Mdme. Patey's rendering of "The love sick maiden" yesterday morning can only be compared with her singing of "O rest in the Lord" on Wednesday. The second contralto air, with chorus, "Io Paean", is of a very different order of excellence, but its effect was powerful to win an encore, and thus to rival its companion in honour. As we anticipated, the song of Olybius, "Come, Margarita, come", was a brilliant success for Mr. Lloyd, whom it suited perfectly, and who as perfectly suited it. Music and artist were made for each other in this instance, and were united in nothing more completely than in sharing the applause of an enthusiastic audience. The song was, of course, encored. Who could resist its charm? Mr. Lloyd's second air, "See what Olybius' love prepares for thee", scarcely proved so fortunate, but the fault was not the artist's, by whom all the Prefect's music was admirably given. Mr. King's part - a somewhat thankless one - and Mr. Cross's short solo, "Brother, thou slumberest", call for no remark beyond acknowledgement of adequate ability in performance. All the choruses were rendered with great care and feeling, especially those of the Pagans, in which Mr. Sullivan's best music is found. The singers especially seemed to delight in their task, as well they might; and The Martyr of Antioch enabled our Leeds choir to achieve success not inferior to any it has gained. The applause lavished on Mr. Sullivan when he laid down the so-well used baton was something to remember in its intensity. As the successful composer turned to bow his acknowledgement, men cheered and women waved their handkerchiefs with an enthusiasm the genuineness of which was unmistakable. So the end crowned the work, and another contribution to English music received the imprimatur of the sole authority entitled to decide it.

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