|Sullivan > Major Works > The Martyr of Antioch > Review from The Times (1880)
The Duke of Edinburgh was present on the third day of the Festival, as on the first. At half-past 11 Mr. Sullivan appeared at the conductor’s desk, and the chief event of the Festival, the production of the Martyr of Antioch, became a reality.
The words chosen for Mr. Sullivan’s cantata are a selection from Dean Milman’s well-known sacred drama tastefully and carefully adapted to musical purposes by Mr. W. S. Gilbert, who has reduced the dialogue by more than two-thirds, leaving only sufficient to explain the plot, if plot it can be called. In judging of Dean Milman’s verses, one should bear in mind the period in which they were written. English poetry half-a-century ago was not in the prime of its beauty. Shelley and Keats, the creators of modern poetic diction, were comparatively unknown; the later and greater works of Byron were mentioned with bated breath as the emanations of the “Satanic school,” while the first cantos of “Childe Harold” seemed to mark the acme of pathos. The Martyr of Antioch is thoroughly characteristic of this epoch. The dialogue is full of the most curious Della Cruscanisms, but this fact should not blind us to the genuine merits of some of the lyrical portions. Perhaps Mr. Gilbert would have done better in omitting the dramatic portions altogether – for more than one reason, as we shall presently see.
The characters, in the first instance, are wholly devoid of human interest. Margarita, the priestess of Apollo, converted to the Christian faith, is a kind of female Polyeucte. Her mode of making proselytes might seem somewhat strange were it not in this case warranted by high clerical authority. “Believe in Christianity,” she bluntly says to her lover, “and I am thine;” if not – not. Olybius, the lover, and the ruler of Antioch, is not much more sympathetic than the object of his affection. He evidently looks upon religion from a purely “æsthetic” point of view. When Margarita preaches the new faith he observes how “the rapture of her speech enkindles the brightness of her beauty,” and makes irrelevant remarks about “her snowy neck,” but allows her to be sacrificed all the same.
That such types as these have not inspired Mr. Sullivan with much force of dramatic passion is not a matter for surprise. All that pertains to the more especially dramatic part of his task is, indeed, very inferior to the remainder of his work. The modern drama per musica lays the greatest stress on the dialogue carried on either in recitative or developed to a duet proper. Mr. Sullivan’s recitative is always of the most conventional type, and one, at least, of the two duets may be unhesitatingly pronounced to be the least satisfactory specimen of his workmanship. It is the converse between Margarita and her father Callias, like most musical fathers and like all musical priests, heathen or Christian, a bass (Mr. King). The duet proper is preceded by a short orchestral introduction of marked rhythm, which, in reading the score, one accepts as a slight pictorial illustration of the entrance of the high priest, till, to one’s utmost surprise, it appears again as the musical equivalent of Margarita’s ecstatic appeal to her celestial “Bridegroom gold crowned.” Never has dramatic propriety been sacrificed to mere prettiness in a more undisguised manner.
It is pleasant to turn from reluctant censure to praise, and point out the numerous charming features which Mr. Sullivan’s work undoubtedly possesses. Almost every single number, and as such the pieces should be considered, contains clever incidents, and the instrumentation in more than one place may be called masterly. Mr. Sullivan does not aspire to what is generally called “local colour” in music, and the opening “Chorus of Sun Worshippers,” for example, is scarcely conceived in the classical spirit. It is, nevertheless, a well-developed and highly-effective piece of music, the various combinations of male and female voices more especially showing the master’s hand. The choral song is interrupted by a solo for contralto (Madame Patey), quaintly and prettily accompanied by two clarinets. The movements wind up with a sonorous climax to the words –
The next important number we come to is a tenor air, “Come, Margarita, come,” well written for the voice and rendered in excellent style by Mr. Lloyd, who had to repeat the piece in answer to the loud demand of the audience.
The second scene, laid in the burial-place of the Christian, is introduced by a short organ solo (Dr. Spark), which contains what may be called the chief motive of the ensuing Funeral Anthem. The latter is written to the words “Brother, thou art gone before us,” known to every one from the impressive setting by the late Sir John Goss. Mr. Sullivan’s treatment is for unaccompanied chorus, the melodious phrase already mentioned serving as refrain after each stanza.
Margarita’s “Hymn,” which ensues after a brief and unnecessary recitative (very imperfectly rendered by Mr. Cross), is the most developed solo in the score. The recitative is introduced by a short prelude, faintly recalling to mind the opening scene of Boito’s Mefistofele, and the harp here employed plays a prominent part in the further course of the piece. The air itself begins gently in andante moderato measure, and introduces a strongly dramatic reference to the Crucifixion, after which the first theme is resumed to a different accompaniment. Madame Albani gave the benefit of her beautiful voice and impressive delivery to this highly effective and much applauded scene.
A chorus of maidens accompanied by the muted violins, to which we turn next, is more melodious than original, and contains the only direct reminiscence of another man’s work (Bizet’s Carmen) which can be laid to Mr. Sullivan’s charge. In the duet between Margarita and Olybius Mr. Sullivan strikes a fuller note than in that between the maiden and her father previously referred to. But here, also, we miss the genuine dramatic vein which forgets melodious sweetness over strong impulse.
The nearest approach to the latter is made in the final scene, where Margarita braves torture and death for the sake of her faith. This scene is conceived on a large scale. The strophic repetition of Margarita’s first theme might by some be objected to, but subsequently the declamation rises to a high degree of pathos, and the final C in alt, which Madame Albani uttered with all the purity of her beautiful voice, could not fail to produce a deep impression unattainable by the mere physical effort.
Mr. Sullivan’s new cantata, although very unequal in execution is undoubtedly the work of a skilful and highly gifted musician. Its reception on the part of the Leeds audience was most enthusiastic. At the end of the performance Mr. Sullivan was greeted by what the Greeks would have called a of applause. To the high-minded musician, conscious of the dignity and the difficulty of his task, such demonstrations are, of course, of importance only if his own artistic conscience can confirm the verdict of the multitude. After the excitement of the early part of the concert the audience, no doubt, found it difficult to listen with attention to Beethoven’s Mass in C, and to Schubert’s Song of Miriam, which concluded the morning concert.
The Martyr of Antioch, produced this morning, marked, as I have said before, the climax of the festival. There were, however, some other features well worthy of being recorded. This evening’s concert was, as usual, of a miscellaneous character. The first part contained, among other things, Bach’s sacred cantata – “O Light Everlasting” – and the second, a part song by Mr. Broughton, the chorus master. Herr Henschell, whose name was accidentally omitted in my yesterday’s account of the performance of Samson, gave a scena from the Meistersingers in excellent style. The symphony concluding the first part was Raff’s “Leonora,” a very powerful tone painting, well known to London amateurs. A new overture by Mr. Thomas Wingham, conducted by the composer, opened the second part. It is the work of a serious musician, well constructed and skilfully scored; its motto “Mors janua vitæ,” is at least as suggestive as some of the pretentious titles too frequently chosen by modern composers. It promises much more, perhaps, than the subsequent allegro fulfils. Towards the close the serious tone of the beginning is once again resumed, and the piece ends pianissimo. Like all previous novelties, Mr. Wingham’s overture met with a favourable reception.
Solo performances by Mdme. Albani, Mdme. Trebelli, Mr. Maas, and Herr Henschel, all favourably received, were also in the programme, which wound up with a finale from Mendelssohn’s unfinished opera Lorelei, the solo part of which is admirably suited to the voice of Miss Anna Williams. The telephone was again at work all day, and the number of transmitters in the hall having been increased to three, the result was greatly improved, not only the orchestra, &c., distinctly audible but the solo voices could be heard with all their peculiarities of timbre, the gradations of strength even appearing a trifle exaggerated. The general effect is that of a distant but powerful echo.
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