|Sullivan > Major Works > The Martyr of Antioch > Review from The Times (1886)
The revival of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s sacred cantata The Martyr of Antioch gave special interest to the concert of the Albert-hall Choral Society on Wednesday night. As Horace said of books, cantatas – sacred and otherwise – have their fates, and that of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s work has not been as prosperous as, for many reasons, it deserved to be. It was, as our readers may remember, produced at the Leeds Festival of 1880, and soon afterwards performed in London with great éclat. Gradually, however, it sank into comparative oblivion, and has not, as far as we can remember, been heard in any of the chief metropolitan concert-halls for some years past.
To the majority of the audience it came, therefore, with the charm of a new thing. Great dramatic power is not expected from this composer, neither does the libretto founded by Mr. Gilbert upon Dean Milman’s well-known play call for the display of such. There is not much action, and the sentiments of the leading characters are painted in a kind of chiaroscuro admitting of little light and shade on the musician’s part. Accounting for this fact, Sir Arthur Sullivan may be said to have approached his task in a congenial and thoroughly satisfactory manner. His instrumentation is light and sparkling, and the easy flow of his melody never ceases; that melody, moreover, has, what can be said of so few modern works, a distinct character of its own. Among much that is charming, the following numbers should be singled out for special commendation. The chorus of the “sun-worshippers” and the heathen multitude generally, although lacking in classic dignity, are at least replete with that serene joy which is generally thought to be characteristic of Greek life, and in this instance form a well-conceived contrast to the inspired strains of the Christian maid and martyr.
To that martyr some of the most attractive portions of the score are assigned. The “hymn” of Margarita – for that is the heroine’s name – is a fully developed aria. It begins with a gentle andante moderato, gradually working up to a climax, after which the first theme is repeated with a different accompaniment. Even more effective is the finale scena, in which Margarita defies torture and death in the confidence of her faith. There are in this some impressive declamatory passages, and a C in alt provides for the demands of vocal display. Madame Albani, who created the part at Leeds, again lent the beauty of her voice to it, and the result was a storm of applause on both occasions. Mr. Lloyd also repeated his original effort with undiminished success, and his “Come, Margarita, come” was delivered with a beauty of voice and suavity of persuasion which it would take all the strength of a sainted maiden to resist. Madame Patey, another member of the original cast, gave due importance to the contralto air, which is quaintly and prettily accompanied by two clarinets; and Mr. Barrington Foote sang the bass music with intelligence and refinement.
Among the choral numbers, the a capella setting of the funeral anthem, “Brother, thou art gone before us” should not be forgotten. Sir Arthur Sullivan conducted an excellent performance of his work, which was received by the audience with every sign of approval. Hillier’s “Song of Victory,” or, to quote its original title, “Israel’s Stegergesang,” a good specimen of that fluent but commonplace writer’s style, completed the programme. Of this work and of its satisfactory performance under Mr. Barnby’s leadership it is unnecessary to speak in detail.
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