THE promise of the autumn has not been fulfilled; instead of the anticipated feasts, we have had but few concerts, and, as yet, no opera. Some few noteworthy incidents have occurred, however, which we desire to record. We pass over the ever welcome orchestral concerts, the quiet pleasures of our delightful chamber music, and the inspiring four-part singing of the Orpheus Club. Neither can we give the space to notice fully the début of a young singer,—a singer with a rare voice, full, flexible, and sympathetic, and who, with culture in a larger style, and with maturity of power and feeling, will be a real acquisition to our musical public. Few young performeres know
“How much grace, strength, and dignity lie in repose.”
They dazzle us with pyrotechnics in the finale of Com’ e bello or Qui la voce, but the simple feeling of Vedrai Carino is beyond their grasp. Firmly sustained tones, careful phrasing, flowing grace in the melody, and just, dramatic expression, are the great requisites; without them the brilliant flourishes of a modern cadenza astonish only for a brief period.
The appearance of Carl Formes in oratorio was something to be long remembered. The Handel and Haydn Society brought out “Elijah” and “The Creation” before immense audiences at the Music Hall. For the first time we heard “Elijah” represented by a great artist, and not by a sentimental, mock-heroic singer. He infused into the performance his own intense personality. Every phrase was charged with his own feeling. He thundered out the curses of Heaven upon idolaters; he prayed with all-absorbing devotion to the “Lord God of Abraham”; he taunted the bafiled priests of Baal in grim and terrible scorn; he gently soothed the anguish of the widow; and when his career was finished, he reverently said, “It is enough; now take away my life!” The music we had heard before; we had been rapt many a time while hearing the magnificent choruses; but we never had known the dramatic power of the composer as shown in the principal rôle.
“The Creation” was performed on the following evening. Its ever fresh and cheerful melodies presented a fine contrast to the severely intellectual style of “Elijah.” In rendering purely melodic phrases, Herr Formes was not so preëminent as in declamatory passages. Not always strictly in tune, not specially graceful, slow in delivery, even beyond the requirements of a dignified style, he impressed the audience rather by the volume and richness of his tones and by a certain reserved force, than by any unusual excellence in execution. Some one has said, that it makes a great difference in the force of a sentence whether or not there is a man behind it. This impression of a fulness of resources always accompanied the efforts of Herr Formes; every phrase had meaning or beauty, as he delivered it. Perhaps it is as idle to lament his deficiencies, in comparison with artists like Belletti, for instance, as to complain because the grand figures of Michel Angelo have not the delicacy of finish that marks the sweetly insipid Venus de Medici. Of the other solo performers in the oratorios it is not necessary for us to speak, save to commend the fine voice and good style of Mrs. Harwood, a rising singer, well known here, and whom the country, we hope, will know in due time.
Another concert demands our attention, in which portions of a work by an American composer were submitted to the test of public judgment. This we must consider the most important musical event of the season; for great singers, though surely not common among our English race, have not been unknown; the ability to interpret God gives freely,—the power to create, rarely. In any generation, probably not ten men arise who write new melodies; of these, only a small proportion have either the intellectual power or the æsthetic feeling to combine the subtile elements of music into forms of lasting beauty. Most of them are influenced by prevailing mannerisms, and their music is therefore ephemeral, like the taste to which it ministers. Of all the composers that have lived, probably not more than six or eight have attained to an absolutely classic rank. These few are not in relations with any temporary taste; their music might have been written to-day or a century ago, and it will be as fresh a century hence. No one of the arts has had fewer great masters. A new composer, therefore, has a right to claim our attention, If, perchance, we discover that he has the gift of genius, and is not merely a clever imitator, we cannot rejoice too much.
The work to which we allude is the opera “Omano,”—the libretto in Italian by Signor Manetta, the music by Mr. L. H. Southard. We shall not stop now to consider the question, whether American Art is to he benefited by the production of operas in the Italian tongue; it is enough to say, that, until we have native singers capable of rendering a great dramatic work, singers who can give us in English the effects which Grisi, Badiali, Mario, and Alboni produce in their own language, we must be content with the existing state of things, and allow our composers to write for those artists who can do justice to their conceptions. We hope to live to hear operas in English; but meanwhile we must have music, and, at present, the Italian stage is the only common ground.
Mr. Southard’s opera is founded upon Beckford’s Oriental tale, “Vathek,” with such alterations as are necessary to adapt it for representation. We are told that the plot is full of dramatic situations, full of human interest, and that its scenes appeal to all the faculties, ranging through comedy, ballet, and melodrama, and leading to the awful Hall of Eblis at last. The principal characters are the Caliph Omano, baritone; Carathis, his mother, mezzo soprano; Hinda, a slave in his harem, soprano; Bustam, her lover, tenor; and Albatros, basso, a Mephistophelean spirit who tempts the Caliph on to his destruction. Selections were made from this opera, and were performed by resident artists, without the aid of stage effects or orchestral accompaniments. Only the music was given, with as much of the harmony as could be played on the grand piano by one pair of hands. There could be no severer test than this. The music is generally Italian in form, especially in the flowing grace of the cantabile passages, and in the working up of the climaxes. But we did not hear one of the stereotyped Italian cadenzas, nor did we fall into old ruts in following the harmonic progressions. The orchestral figures—the framework on which the melodies are supported—are new, ingenious, and beautiful. The duets, quartette, and quintette show great command of resources and the utmost skill in construction; we can hardly remember any concerted pieces in the modern opera where the “working up” is more satisfactory, or the effect more brilliant. How far the music exhibits an absolutely original vein of melody, it is perhaps premature to say. No composer has ever been free at first from the influence of the masters whom he most admired. To mention no later instances, it is well known that Beethoven’s early works are all colored by his recollections of Mozart, and that his own peculiar qualities were not clearly brought out until he had reached the maturity of his powers. This seems to be the law in all the arts; imitation first, self-development and originality afterwards. Happy are those who do not stop in the first stage! It is certain that Mr. Southard’s music pleased, and that some of the most critical of the audience were roused to a real enthusiasm. And it is to be borne in mind that the music is east in a grand mould; it has no prettinesses; it is either great in itself, or wears the semblance of greatness. On the whole, we are inclined to think that the “Diarist” in Dwight’s “Journal of Music” was not extravagant in saying that no first work since the time of Beethoven has had so much of promise as the opera “Omano.” We shall look with great interest for its production upon the stage with the proper accompaniments and scenic effects. It is due to the composer that this should be done. If the music we heard had been performed by a company of great artists in the Boston Theatre or in the Academy of Music, it would have been received with tumultuous applause. The singers on this occasion gained to themselves great credit by their conscientious endeavors. They generously offered their services, and sang with a heartiness that showed a warm interest in the work. One of them, at least, Mrs. J. H. Long, would have established her reputation as an accomplished artist, even if she had never appeared in public before.
We suppose our readers will agree with us in looking with eager delight to the promise of a national school of music. Every nation must create its own song. The passionate music of Italy electrifies our cooler blood, but it does not adequately express all our feelings nor in any way represent our character. We also find many of the compositions of Germany so purely intellectual that they do not touch us until we have learned to like them. If we ever have a school of music, it will be in harmony with our rapidly developing characteristics. But it must grow up on our own soil; exotics never flourish long under strange skies. We think that many things point to this country as the place where music will achieve new triumphs. We are not bound by old traditions, we have few prejudices to unlearn, and we are able to see merit in more than one school. The same audience that becomes almost intoxicated with the excitement of the Italian opera will listen with the fullest, serenest pleasure to the majestic symphonies of Beethoven or to the sublime choruses of Handel. The devotees of the various European schools have none of this catholicity. A very accomplished Italian musician used frankly to say, that a symphony always put him to sleep; and as for the songs of Franz and other recent German composers, he would rather hear the filing of saws with an accompaniment of wet fingers on a window-pane. The Germans, on the other hand, have an equal contempt for Italian music. For them, Donizetti is melodramatic, Bellini puerile and silly, and even Rossini (who has written as many melodies as any composer, save Mozart) is only fit to compose for hand-organs. The American musical public can and do render to both schools the justice they deny each other,—and this because we appreciate the aim and direction of both. The tendency of modern German music is more and more in what we might call a mathematical direction; the Teutonic listener examines the structure of a movement as he would a geometrical proposition; he notices the connection and dependence of the several parts, and at the end, if he like it, he thinks Q. E. D.; his pleasure is quiet, but sincere. The Italian, on the other hand, makes everything subordinate to feeling; for him the music must sparkle with pleasure, burn with passion, or lighten with rage; borne upon the tide of emotion, the under-current of harmony is a matter of little moment; there may be symmetry of structure, and learning in the treatment of themes; if so, well; if not, their absence is not noticed as an essential defect.
For lyrical purposes the Italian style will always take the precedence, because music must primarily be addressed to the feelings. But it may happen, if ever we have great composers here in America, that to the instinctive grace and beauty of this Southern school the magnificent orchestral effects of the North may be added, and thereby a grander and more perfect whole be produced. At least, we can continue to be eclectic, and in due time we may develope music which, like Corinthian brass, shall contain the valuable qualities of all the elements we appropriate.