The Martyr of Antioch


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Extracts from other reviews
of the first performance of The Martyr of Antioch

From The Standard:

This one number occupies in the pianoforte score no less than seventy-two pages. It is, in fact, a complete scene by itself of Pagan rites and idolatrous worship. Richness of orchestral colour, ever-shifting harmonies, constant changes in the figure of the movement, and an ever present fund of melody, combine to render this one of the most extraordinary pieces of workmanship that any composer, of any land, has ever produced.

From The Daily Telegraph, whose critic, Joseph Bennett was an admirer of Sullivan:

Seven-ninths of the pages devoted to it [the first scene] are taken up by the pagan chorus: whence it follows that the real action is treated in a somewhat sketchy manner. As here, so throughout the drama; and as throughout the drama so here, few music-lovers will feel inclined to visit the composer with censure. Our judgement may warn us of too much lyricism, and that the dramatic element is being hurriedly passed by, but our feelings are likely to override such judgement, since Mr. Sullivan is most charming when represented by the incense, flowers and songs of Apollo's maidens. With these are all his sympathies, and he invests them with such musical beauty of form and colour that they command our sympathies likewise, and make the poor Christians and their lugubrious strains appear as uninteresting as they are sombre...
The song "Come, Margarita, come" is a perfect gem in its pretty, yet withal artistic, way. Melody and expression are alike charming, but the connoisseur will admire its structure as much as either. No such contribution to English lyric music has been made for years past...
Taking the work as a whole, I do not question its chance of popularity for which Mr. Sullivan has striven. It is a work which no one, be he musician or not, can hear without interest and admiration. At the same time, criticism will always point to the fact that the drama is treated substantially as a pretext for charming choruses and airs. But while the finger of criticism is thus engaged, the voice of criticism will, for the sake of those choruses and airs, say as little as possible.

From The World:

Those who heard the work were struck with the novelty, the originality, the greatness of the conception, to true inspiration with regard to ideas, and with the riches of the resources of Sullivan's orchestration.

From The Guardian:

The effect of the whole performance was quite thrilling. Sullivan has risen in this work to a height which has astonished those who prophesied that he would never step out of the chains of comic opera, while it has justified those who have consistently asserted that he possesses gifts which place him in the first rank of modern composers.

The Athenaeum:

After criticising the work in detail and commenting that, in parts, the work "already sounds strangely old-fashioned, owing to the rapid growth of the dramatic at the expense of the lyrical cantata during the last decade", The Athenaeum said:

"In the foregoing sketch of The Martyr of Antioch, praise and blame have been mingled with an impartial hand, and if our verdict seems now and then severe, it is because we have judged the work by the highest standard, as we believe the composer would desire it to be judged. It might be wished that in some portions Mr. Sullivan had taken a loftier view of his theme, but, at any rate, he has written some most charming music, and orchestration equal if not superior to any that has ever preceded from the pen of an English musician. And further, it is an advantage to have the composer of H.M.S. Pinafore occupying himself with a worthier form of art."

Letter from George Grove to Sullivan dated 18 October 1880:

There was such a crowd waiting around yopur door after the cantata that I felt I should not get a word: and I was obliged to go back in the middle of the Beethoven Mass. I heard the work downstairs standing against the wall with old Jimmy [J. W. Davison, the former editor of The Musical World] and we were both as happy as we could be all through. Jimmy thought that the coda to two of the numbers wanted extending - and made one or two other small criticisms - but nothing of any moment. The chief point on which I felt uneasy was one which regarded myself. Margarita's words ''tis made; the funeral pyre' are not enough to warrant the shout of 'Blasphemy...she doth profane our faith' and I wish some more pronounced confession could be found for her at that place. It surely would not be difficult. - I thought the introduction too light in character. - As part of the first chorus nothing could be better but as an introduction to the whole work my feeling was as I have said - though possibly that would be modified on a second hearing. Also I think, for the interests of the whole piece, it is almost a pity that Margarita's first scene is so splendid and important: it makes her subsequent solo sound like an anticlimax. How beautiful her first solo is! - the expression and sentiment and suitability of the music to the words could not by any possibility be better, and the music was so lovely to hear - the beautiful modulations and the cleverness of the escapes - that really I could hardly contain myself now and then. I think the funeral hymn surprised me more than any other part. I was not prepared for its very great pathos and beauty. The singing struck me as wonderfully good, especially LLoyd and Patey. The criticisms none of them seem to me at all equal to the subject and in both Times and Telegraph there is a sort of bantering tone (only banter without the fun in it) as if it were a sort of joke not fit to be criticised seriously.

He ends:

What can be better than to know that your last work is your best? and there can be no doubts about it in this case.

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