|Sullivan > Major Works > The Prodigal Son > Times Review 1869 (2)
WORCESTER, SEPT. 10.
The high merits of Mr. Sullivan’s new cantata, to the successful production of which in the Cathedral a passing reference was made, seem to be unanimously recognized. A great deal more might be written about it than the limits of a mere report will allow; but though our remarks upon the music must inevitably be concise and (for which, probably, our readers will bear us no grudge) wholly untechnical, they may suffice to convey something like an idea of the manner in which the young musician has accomplished his task, and of the general impression derived from a first performance.
Mr. Sullivan has refrained from prefacing his cantata by a fully-developed overture, which would necessarily have been out of proportion. In place of this, however, he has written a short introduction, chiefly for string instruments, the character of which suggests the quiet pastoral life of the father, his two sons, and their dependants. Nothing can be happier than this, or than the episodical transition reminding us that there may be smothered dissatisfaction even in so seemingly contented a home.
The transition in question brings us to the opening chorus, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God” (words selected from Luke, the Psalms, and Revelations), in which the temporarily disturbed serenity is resumed through other means and in another form. The chorus consists of two themes, the first, tranquil and melodious, in the major, the second, in a different tone, while still melodious, in the minor. After each theme has been given out in succession, the second as a brief “fughetta,” with florid accompaniment, an episode in full choral and instrumental harmony leads back by means of some striking progressions to the first; upon which ensues what is termed a “pedal point,” where the two themes are worked together, and ultimately a coda, beginning fortissimo and gradually subsiding to pianissimo, which brings the whole to a conclusion.
The introduction and chorus thus described form a sort of prologue to the main story, which now commences with a tenor recitative, “A certain man had two sons” (the opening sentence of the parable), succeeded by an air, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me,” setting forth the demand of the future prodigal for emancipation from labour. The air has two themes, one in the minor key, with an orchestral accompaniment, restless and agitated, the other a cantabile in the major, “For I know that there is no good but for a man to rejoice,” &c. (Ecclesiastes) – the former expression of the younger son’s intense anxiety to obtain the object of his desire, the latter (occurring twice) his anticipatory visions of the felicity its possession will insure.
A recitative, “My son, attend to my words,” with air, “Trust in the Lord” (Proverbs), for bass, conveys an admonition from the father to son which may be interpreted as good advice at parting. The air consists of a single theme, with a coda impressive and in keeping, and the style is befittingly dignified and calm. Another recitative for soprano (again in the words of the parable) then tells how the younger son departs with his portion into a far country, and immediately upon this a chorus, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” &c. (Isaiah), depicts in glowingly dramatic colours his riotous life, surrounded by the new and congenial associates who help him to waste his substance.
After the first section, a tenor solo, “Fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink” (Isaiah), shows us the prodigal himself as chief promoter of the debauch; and this is repeated simultaneously with the chorus, when, with the aid of fresh orchestral devices, the revels are made to assume a wilder aspect – something after the manner of a scene in Mendelssohn’s Walpurgisnacht. Thence, with continually increasing vehemence, the movement (one of the most remarkable in the cantata) progresses to the end. It should be observed that the foregoing is accompanied by an orchestral phrase of a single bar, which is reiterated without an interval’s cessation, even when the tenor solo changes the key from the minor to its relative major – a contrivance previously resorted to by Handel in Deborah and Samson, in order to give marked individuality to the choruses of Dagonite and Baalite priests, but not carried out at such length as in this instance by Mr. Sullivan.
A recitative for contralto, “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink,” &c. (Isaiah), may be construed into a reproach to the prodigal and his companions for their riotous life. During the enunciation of this sounds of the revelries are heard, receding, as it were, in the distance – but conveyed solely in snatches of the orchestral phrase which is the characteristic feature of the preceding chorus. The last words – “The mirth of tabrets ceaseth,” &c. (Ibid), are taken up in choral unison, accompanied by progressions of harmony which eventually lead to an air for contralto, “Love not the world nor the things that are in the world” (John) – another admonition set to music of becoming sweetness and solemnity.
All this is episodical to the parable, which, however, is now again taken up in a narrative recitative for soprano (“And when he had spent all there arose a mighty famine in that land, and he began to be in want,” &c.), embodying the sequel of the prodigal’s adventures in the far country, and the consequences of his wastefulness and dissipation. His despair at finding himself forsaken and in want seems to be shadowed forth in the instrumental prelude to this recitative – the recitative itself being noticeable for a tone of compassionate sorrowfulness, peculiarly apposite to the text. Upon this follows yet another episode in the shape of a soprano air, “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments” (Isaiah) – an admonition full of gentle reproach, which, with its brief and unaffected peroration – “Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?” (ibid) – is one of the chasest examples of simply devotional music that can be imagined.
The scene of the Prodigal’s repentance and the determination it brings about springs naturally out of the foregoing. The musical treatment of this is as original as it is at the same time singularly impressive. Successive vocal monotones on the sentence, “How many hired servants of my father’s – have bread enough and to spare – and I perish with hunger” (so divided), convey by the most inartificial means the strongest notion of the young man’s desolate condition. Not less effective is the setting of the words embodying his resolution to appeal to his father – “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy Son.” These are first uttered in subdued tones, as though the speaker felt conscious that his appeal would be in vain; further on, however, they are repeated with bolder emphasis, reaching towards the end a climax of intensity which vividly enforces the whole meaning of the sentence, but again, on the words, “and am no more worthy to be called thy son,” subsiding into tones scarcely audible, uttered in snatches, as though the Prodigal, exhausted by the sudden resolution he had taken, could scarcely find strength enough to carry it out. We may here say at once that if Mr. Sullivan’s cantata contained but this one scene, it would stamp him as a more than ordinary composer.
A chorus, “There is joy in the presence of the Angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke), brings consolation, as from above, to the contrite Prodigal. At the commencement of this, by a very happy idea, Mr. Sullivan introduces the placid and melodious first theme of the chorus that opens the cantata (the words of which are the same). The theme, assigned to the tenor voices, is supported by sopranos, altos, and basses in five part harmony. The remainder of this chorus, which has no definite form, is taken up by one of the most impressive passages in Holy Writ – “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,” &c. (Psalms), which Mr. Sullivan has set with befitting solemnity, giving studied and touching prominence to the final sentence – “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.”
No episodical passage could have more appropriately joined the scene of the Prodigal’s repentance to that of the meeting with his father. This begins with a narrative recitative, for soprano, “And he arose and came to his father,” &c., leading to a duet for tenor and bass, in which, while, in broken phrases, the Prodigal repeatedly confesses his sin, the father continues to exclaim, “My son is yet alive,” &c. The duet is short, and chiefly remarkable for the musical contrast which the text has so plainly suggested; but it is exactly to the purpose.
A recitative (“Bring forth the best robe,” &c.) and air (“For this my son was dead and is alive”), for bass, now give eloquent tongue to the father’s joy. The air has two themes – the first remarkable for the manner in which the busy orchestral accompaniment adds to its vigorous expression; the other, “Like as a father pitieth his own children,” as reproducing the most conspicuous feature of the second theme in the chorus which opens the cantata. The words, as in a similar instance, already cited, are identical; but in having recourse to the notes Mr. Sullivan has very ingeniously used the expedient known in the language of counterpoint as “augmentation,” the length of each note being doubled – by means of which increased emphasis is gained. The, spirit of this air is kept up with unfailing energy to the end, the only interruption to its generally bustling character being at the sentence “Blessed is God who hath heard my prayer and not turned His mercy from me” (Psalms), which comes in twice and each time with appropriate gravity.
From this point we have done with the parable. The chorus which follows, set to the 4th, 6th, and 8th verses of the 107th Psalm, is the most imposing and elaborate in the cantata. It is divided into three sections. The opening is a brief andante, “O that men would praise the Lord for His goodness,” in four-part vocal harmony, beginning unaccompanied, in such a manner as to lead us to expect a chorale, although no chorale ensues. The second section, “Let them give thanks whom the Lord hath redeemed,” in the minor key, is treated scholastically, in the form of “canon.” The basses lead off, answered by the sopranos; then the altos take up the theme, and are answered by the tenors; and, lastly, a sort of free combination of the separate groups is contrived, the major key being substituted for the minor. The orchestral accompaniments change each time with the form of the canon. Though not exclusively in accordance with the strict rules of canon (the very first answer being “free”), all this part is managed with commendable ingenuity; and, as the theme is melodious the effect is so agreeable that even a severely exacting contrapuntist would overlook the few licences the composer has permitted himself. The third section, “O that men would therefore praise the Lord,” consists of a fugue constructed upon a bright and animated theme, worked out with great spirit, and spiced with an occasional infusion of the cherished devices of old contrapuntalists – such as the theme being given inverted (where the answers come closer and closer), the theme beginning on different parts of the bar, &c. The least admirable part in this extremely clever movement is the episode, upon the words, “And declare the wonders,” &c. – commencing with all the voices in unison, to an orchestral accompaniment, suggested by a conspicuous feature of the theme. Here the fugue is suspended, and not resumed until the stretto which brings it to an end. In so remarkably well written a movement it is as well that there should be no point directly inviting criticism, more especially none of what the French term “remplissage” – which may be translated “padding.”
A tenor recitative, “No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous” (Hebrews), leads to an air, “Come ye children and hearken unto me” – like its predecessors, for contralto and soprano, of a devotional cast and purely melodious.
To this succeeds a smoothly-written unaccompanied quartet, “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart,” in which we can perceive no striking characteristics to distinguish it from other good examples of this form of vocal composition; and then a jubilant chorus, “Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer, &c. (Isaiah), in the same key as the orchestral movement which stands for overture, brings the cantata to an end. This chorus comprises a plain theme, in four-part; harmony; a fugued episode skilfully wrought out; and a coda, in which the first theme comes back strengthened by a brilliant and florid accompaniment for the string instruments. Finis coronat opus may fairly be said of this chorus, which, though short, is thoroughly effective and to the purpose.
In describing the Prodigal Son we have, as much as possible, avoided expletives, preferring to look at it in its entirety rather than criticize it piece by piece. We have no hesitation in pronouncing it not merely the best and most carefully finished work of its composer, but a work that would do credit to any composer now living. Mr. Sullivan has made real characters out of the father and son; who, in the parable, are of course mere abstractions; and he has added, with great felicity, celestial machinery which plays something like the same part in his cantata as “Chorus” in Greek tragedy. The whole hangs well together and is as complete as could be wished. The music is not only intrinsically good, but almost invariably characteristic and appropriate. All that the Prodigal has to declaim or sing is conceived in the true sense of poetry. Mr. Sullivan’s ability to write for voices was already as familiarly known as his mastery of the art of instrumentation; and he has now shown a capacity for choral writing which can hardly fail to lead to something more important than anything he has hitherto achieved. But for the present we have said enough. That a speedy opportunity will be afforded in London of rehearing and confirming our impressions, there can be little doubt. The Prodigal Son has the stuff in it which endures.
A few words about the performance is all that need be added. This was generally one of first-rate excellence. Mdlle. Titiens sang the air, “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments,” with true devotional feeling, imparting to the final passage, “Turn ye, turn ye, why will you die?” a simplicity as eloquent as it was unstudied. Not less happy was Madame Trebelli-Bettini with “Love not the world” – the other angelic admonition to the Prodigal and his boon companions. In the various recitatives assigned to them both ladies were irreproachable.
The two Englishmen were unlikely to be behind these accomplished foreigners in zeal for their young compatriot. Mr. Santley has never sung more carefully, never better, in our remembrance. The airs allotted to the Prodigal’s father, so different in character, the one (“Trust in the Lord”) full of religious calm, the other (“For this my son was dead and is alive again”) a burst of exuberant joy, were given with equal force and depth of sentiment.
Mr. Sims Reeves surpassed himself. His conception of the music was as poetical as his delivery of it was faultless. To name a single important instance – the scene of the Prodigal’s contrition, leading to the resolve to go back to his father and confess his sins, was a masterpiece of expression. The tremulous tones of the voice, as if grief were too strong for utterance, gave especial poignancy to the phrase, “I will arise,” &c. But the whole was of a piece touching, fervid, and, in the purest sense, dramatic – in short, a genuine exhibition of artistic power. In the subsequent duet with Mr. Santley, as fine a piece of singing on both sides as we can possibly call to mind, the contrast between the half-chocked utterances of the repentant Prodigal and the vigorous exclamations of the forgiving father, exultant at once more beholding his long-lost son alive, was as effectively realized by the singers as it had been happily imagined by the composer.
In the last recitative and air of the Prodigal (“Come ye children and hearken to me”) we had one of those examples of devotional singing in which Mr. Sims Reeves is unexcelled. How the unaccompanied quartet, “The Lord is nigh unto them,” was given by four such artists as those in the co-operation of whom, for the first performance of his work, Mr. Sullivan was so fortunate, may easily be understood. We have already said the chorus and orchestra were everything that could be wished. Such exemplary pains, indeed, were taken by all concerned in the performance as may warrant a belief that the author of the Prodigal Son is as popular with his fellow artists as he is exceptionally gifted.
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