|Sullivan > Major Works > The Martyr of Antioch > Review from The Times (1890)
NORWICH, OCT. 16.
This morning’s concert began with an extremely good performance of Mendelssohn’s “Scotch symphony,” under Mr. Randegger, after which the same composer’s “Hear my prayer” came a little incongruously. The solo part in the latter work was sung with great sincerity of expression and beauty of style by Miss Liza Lehmann, recalling her extremely beautiful delivery of the least conspicuous part in the Hymn of Praise three years ago.
Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Martyr of Antioch occupied the second part of the programme. During the decade that has passed since this “sacred musical drama” first saw the light, the public taste in matters concerning serious music has undergone considerable alteration, yet not so great a change as has passed over the methods of the composer in the same branch of the art. It is true that the series of operettas with which Sir Arthur Sullivan’s name is chiefly connected in the minds of ordinary persons do not reflect in any appreciable degree the change of style referred to. Between The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado there is no such essential difference of treatment as exists between the work revived to-day and The Golden Legend, a transformation which will for ever rank among the most surprising phenomena of musical history. That the mind which could conceive the subtle and nearly always felicitous touches that abound in The Golden Legend from end to end could be contented, only six years before the production of that cantata, to set before the musical world, as a serious work, a composition rivalling in its bald simplicity the least intricate of the Savoy operettas, would be incredible if it were not a matter of fact.
That the setting of Milman’s poem contains numerous beauties and even points of musical interest and value cannot be denied; the facile grace with which the composer has been endowed is as conspicuous here as in anything he has written, his orchestration is always effective and occasionally masterly, and in several numbers, all of which without exception are allotted to the heathen characters in the drama, musicians may find many passages showing, not merely melodious charm, but structural skill.
Profane persons have from time to time dared to accuse Mendelssohn of having shown too hearty sympathy with the utterances allotted to the worshippers of false gods, as illustrated by the grace and freedom of “O be gracious, ye immortals,” in St. Paul, and the Baal choruses in Elijah. The charge, though it cannot be maintained against the German composer, is valid against Sir Arthur Sullivan, at least in respect of the present work. The long and fairly elaborate ode to Apollo, with its various episodes, the graceful love song, “Come, Margarita, come,” the clever “Io, Pæan,” and the chorus of maidens, do not merely occupy the greater part of the work, but in considering the effect of the whole composition these are the numbers which remain in the mind.
Against these, among the attractive numbers in the work, it is only possible to place on the Christian side the organ voluntary, the funeral anthem (neither of which can have cost the composer mach pains to write), and the solos for the heroine, of which the second, the apotheosis, is suggestive of the French stage rather than of the traditions of English oratorio. A comparison between either of these and Elsie’s beautiful soliloquy in The Golden Legend would illustrate in the most forcible way the difference of method referred to above. The accompaniments of the first utterances of Julia, in the course of the ode to Apollo, form, indeed, almost the only link between the two, since they show that practical admiration for Berlioz which is so remarkable a feature of the later work. The numerous lapses from dramatic truth may, as hinted in the analysis, have been intentional; if so, it is fortunate that the composer imposed upon himself no such unnecessary and unaccountable restraints in the composition of The Golden Legend.
The performance, which Sir Arthur Sullivan was fortunately well enough to conduct, was singularly fine, and the soloists and choristers alike worked with a will to secure a good result. Miss Macintyre sang the part of Margarita with beautiful feeling and expression; her interpretation throughout was excellent, but the most artistic point was her delivery of the very difficult final phrases, in which a laudable self-restraint was shown. Mr. Lloyd’s singing of “Come, Margarita, come,” is too familiar to need detailed notice; an attempt was made to encore this, as well as Olybius’s second song, which, we venture to think, the finer of the two, since it is a good deal more original. The peculiar timbre of Miss Damian’s voice was well suited in the effective music allotted to Julia, and in “Io, Pæan,” she made an excellent impression. Mr. Alec Marsh interpreted with care the part of Callias; Mr. Novara was less happy in the unimportant part of the Christian priest.
The choir did excellent work, and in the long funeral hymn, sung without accompaniment, only lost the purity of their intonation by the same interval that the composer had evidently foreseen, as was shown by the transposition of the preceding organ solo from the original key of E flat to that of F. A whole tone seems a large interval to fall, but the length of the chorus must be remembered, as well as certain features in its harmonic structures, each of which involves, only too surely, some slight lowering of pitch.
While most heartily endorsing most, if not all, of the numerous critical opinions passed upon the composition in the analysis contained in the book of words, we may venture to point out that their insertion in a programme which is to be read during the performance is hardly suitable or fair to the composer whose work is being given. The enthusiasm displayed at the close of the performance was markedly less than that which greeted Sir Arthur Sullivan on his first appearance, showing that the Norwich audience possesses enough discrimination to prefer The Golden Legend to The Martyr of Antioch.
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