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Review of the First Performance from The Times
Monday, March 12, 1866
 
CONCERTS

The Crystal Palace concert of Saturday afternoon was one of the most interesting ever given since Herr Manns, backed by those in authority, began to work in right good earnest, and lay the solid basis of what may now be fairly regarded in the light of an institution. Besides spirited performances of overtures by Beethoven and Weber (Fidelio, No. 4, and the Jubilee), some excellent violin playing, by Herr Carl Rose, a German artist to whom we shall, doubtless, have other occasions of alluding, and singing of the best by Miss Edmonds and Mr. Santley (whose reception was just as cordial and unanimous as on the night previous at Exeter Hall), there was a new orchestral symphony written expressly for the Crystal Palace Concerts by Mr. Arthur S. Sullivan, who, if we are to expect anything lasting from the rising generation of native composers, is the one from whom we may most reasonably and on the fairest grounds expect it.

Mr. Sullivan, by his music for Shakespeare’s Tempest, became suddenly “a name” in the musical world; and ever since that music was first heard he has been looked to for something to raise the English school of music from the dead level of vainly aspiring mediocrity at which of late years it has for the most part remained. His Kenilworth, produced at the Birmingham Festival of 1864, can hardly be said to have done this, in spite of beauties that are incontestable. The symphony produced on Saturday, however, and received in the most flattering manner by one of the largest audiences we remember to have seen crowded together in the Crystal Palace Concert-room, is not only by far the most noticeable composition that has proceeded from Mr. Sullivan’s pen, but the best musical work, if judged only by the largeness of its form and the number of beautiful thoughts it contains, for a long time produced by any English composer.

We shall not attempt here an analysis of a symphony which cannot fail to be brought forward again, and that speedily, by one or other of the great metropolitan societies; but it requires little courage to say that a second hearing will be still more favourable to it than the first – inasmuch as, although there is so much genuine melody that it cannot fail to strike at once, the beauties are not on the surface. The delicate texture of the work, revealing the care with which it has been designed and carried out; the happy manner in which, while evidently finding it impossible to get entirely rid of the irresistible fascination of Mendelssohn’s manner, the composer has been able in a very great measure to vindicate his freedom; the fanciful and quite unhackneyed shape into which he has thrown a scherzo built upon themes not otherwise strikingly new; the absolute loveliness of a slow movement (andante espressivo), in which – though again the leading theme cannot be praised for original freshness, while the episodical matter has seemingly been inspired by a very characteristic passage in the Trumpet Overture of Mendelssohn – the melody moves on with unimpeded and serene placidity, set off and enriched by an orchestration of the most piquant; a first allegro, led into by a brief introduction (andante), which, as it were, strikes the key note, always subsequently more or less in evidence and itself marked by a breadth of outline and an ingenious complication of detail that make it interesting from first to last; and, to conclude, a finale which starts with a spirit and vigour sustained with undiminished power to the very end – one and all declare the new symphony a work of uncommon merit, a work which, if no more, is a guarantee for the value of what surely must follow, a work to the consideration of which it will be a pleasure no less than a duty to return.

Mr. Sullivan should abjure Mendelssohn, even Beethoven, and above all Schumann, for a year and a day – like the vanquished knights errant, who, when conquered, foreswore arms for a like period. Not that Mr. Sullivan has been conquered, but that he must conquer; and the best way to do this is to study the most legitimate and natural models, in the works of Haydn and Mozart, trusting to himself for the rest. Mendelssohn is apt to cause young aspirants to mistake the utmost polish for original production, what in that very great master was a second nature becoming in his imitators simple mannerism. To follow Beethoven is something like endeavouring to traverse the wide ocean in a cock-boat; while the anxious contemplation of Schumann, that musical Sisyphus, for ever striving at the impossible, engenders a tendency to abstruseness in the abstract at the expense of finished workmanship and genuine expression. The works of Haydn and Mozart in one sense, Bach and Handel in another, should be the text-books of every young composer, who, ungifted with the genius of a Beethoven, is incapable of declaring himself, like Beethoven, independent of all precedents.

Meanwhile Mr. Sullivan, who, though young, is already shrewd enough to have steered clear of that dangerous quicksand, Spohr, the most mannered of all mannerists, has composed a first symphony which, or we are greatly mistaken, will, for some time hence, engage the attention of the musical world, and lead to a second that may possibly fix it for at least a generation. Beyond this we do not care to portend. The execution of the new work was marvellously good – all credit to Herr Manns and his admirably trained orchestra; and never do we remember more spontaneous outburst of feeling, than that which brought forward the composer at the termination of the performance.


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