MADAME RUDERSDORFF and her company of artists have given some very interesting concerts here this season, besides appearing with the Handel and Haydn Society in the oratorios of Elijah and Judas Maccabæus. Madame Rudersdorff still impresses us as formerly by her consummate artistic faculty, although throughout the latter part of the season her voice, from a severe temporary affection of the vocal chords, has not been entirely under her control. But all those who heard her sing Haydn’s grand scena Arianne a Naxos in the early part of the winter at one of the Symphony concerts of the Harvard Musical Association, and later in the season Handel’s fiery Vanne, sorella ingrata ! from Radamisto, and his famous Harpsichord Song, Vo far guerra, at her own concerts, must count these performances among their most inspiring musical experiences. The song from Radamisto was in particular a splendid exhibition of a passionate dramatic force and well-sustained, masterly vocalization. Some critics have taken exception to her altering the final cadences of Handel’s songs. Let us say emphatically that, according to the best authorities, this free ending of a song does not in any way do violence either to Handel’s intention or to the musical spirit of his time. In England, where all the old Handel traditions are most zealously preserved, the hold ☉ over the penultimate note in his songs is accepted as having the same significance that it has in instrumental concertos, namely, as indicating a free cadenza at the performer’s pleasure. The same is true of this sign in the final cadences of Mozart’s songs. One day when a singer was reading a new song with Mozart, she stopped at the hold, saying, “What shall I do here?” The composer answered, “Wo ich das Ding hinklexe, da machen Sie was Sie wollen ! ” 1 Be it remembered that these changes are only admissible in final cadences when marked by a hold. Other alterations of the printed music we do not remember to have heard Madame Rudersdorff make. She is a true artist, and has evidently arrived at her high position by no royal road. Only a genuine musical organization perfected by a long and arduous course of training can produce such results. Miss Alice Fairman has a rich, penetrating contralto, of great beauty and evenness of timbre throughout its compass. She has, moreover, that refined musical perception that instinctively leads her to sing good music for its own high sake and her own enjoyment. We have never heard any one sing those nobly tender airs of Sebastian Bach with more genuine gusto, in spite of the inevitable feeling that she was, so to speak, singing over the heads of most of her hearers. This indicates a great power of concentration. She sings with great sentiment, although as yet her self-dependent Anglo-Saxon nature does not seem to have quite acquired that radiating power of expression which is a necessary attribute of a public performer. But this will no doubt come with time ; and this absorbed, introspective quality is no bad sign in a young artist, with whom greater demonstrativeness is as often a sign of weakness and superficiality as of genuine force of sentiment. Mr. Nelson Varley is without doubt the finest Handelian tenor that this country has heard for a long while. His voice is of a fine, brilliant timbre, running easily up to the high tenor notes, and of better quality in the lower register than is usual with tenor voices. He rides over the long, trying Handel roulades with triumphant firmness and vigor, making them really telling musical phrases, full of strength and passion, instead of the rambling remnants of a bygone fashion that we are in these days too prone to consider them. His elocution and lyric declamation are alike superb, and in the tenderer songs, like Waft her, Angels, he evinces great sentiment and poetic feeling.
Miss Liebe, the young violinist, well maintains the satisfying impression she made at her first appearance. This young lady’s high artistic gifts and thorough, conscientious training, together with that indescribable Teutonic Innigkeit, that feminine forgetfulness of self in her absorption in what she is playing, make everything that she does entirely enjoyable from even the highest artistic point of view. It is seldom that one so young exhibits such a capacity for true, heartfelt sentimental expression unalloyed by callow sentimentality. To say that she exhausts the possibilities of modern violin-playing would be ridiculous, as it would be absurd to expect such things of a young girl of nineteen ; but she shows that in her playing which we have not found in many older violinists even of world-wide renown, and which is not to be acquired by any amount of study, — a sincere reverence for and enjoyment of the highest music, such as precludes the toleration of anything trivial or æsthetically unworthy.
— We have for some time hesitated to fulfil our promise, made in a former number, of saying something definite about Mr. John K. Paine’s oratorio of St. Peter, partly because it is impossible to form any adequate notion of a work of this class from the piano-forte score alone, partly because so much of very doubtful value has been written about the work by musicians and would-be musicians, who, although differing somewhat from one another in their expressions of opinion, all agree in claiming to know all about the oratorio itself, and to have, by some means or other, succeeded in dropping salt on the tails of all its musical and dramatic subtleties. To judge from what they say, these critics know more about the work than even the composer himself can fairly assume to know, for he has not yet heard his work performed. Although at times we might feel like crying out, Save Mr. Paine from his friends ! — for these notices have been mostly in the admiring vein, — we have thought best to hold our peace, feeling pretty sure that, as soon as the oratorio came to be performed, its own merits would of themselves dispel any unfavorable prejudice that these illtimed panegyrics might have raised in the minds of real musicians. But there has appeared in The Nation of February 13 an article on American Oratorios, in which particular, and not altogether favorable, mention is made of Mr. Paine’s St. Peter ; and on this article it does not seem altogether idle to comment, especially as it bears marks of being written by a man of cultivation, whose opinion is worth something. The Nation says : “No one can turn over the pages of Mr. Paine’s St. Peter, and not see everywhere the work of an excellent musician. It is without doubt the most important musical work yet produced in this country.” So far good. We heartily concur in the opinion. This is a very condensed criticism of almost the only point in a musical work of this class tnat a piano-forte score gives the material for forming a final opinion upon, namely, the composer’s technical musicianship. Exceptional men, gifted with exceptional musical insight, may find hints of something beyond this in a pianoforte score, and may arrive inductively at very shrewd conclusions as to the æsthetic value of a work. Thus Robert Schumann was enabled, by studying Liszt’s piano-forte arrangement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, to see the real nature and quality of the work even more clearly than Fétis, with his drudgelike cast of mind, did after hearing it actually performed. But Schumann was a very exceptional man, and the world has perhaps never seen his peer as a musical critic. All that the average critic can do, over and above judging the musical form and mere technical part of the work, from a piano-forte arrangement, resolves itself into comparing the work with some ideal standard in his own mind of what an oratorio ought to be, — into an attempt to find out what the composer aimed at in his music, which is to a certain extent possible. How nearly and well he has hit his mark must remain in great part an unanswerable question until the work is adequately performed.
The Nation goes on to say : “ Nevertheless, one must be very much in love with Bach, and very little influenced by the modern taste for lyric forms, not to find a certain dryness in St. Peter. The real false step in the book, it appears to us, is the text, — the libretto. It ought to be a mere truism to say that the first essential quality of text for musical illustration is emotion. Music is emotional if it is music. True, a Schubert or Mozart can write tunes for any words, however matter-of-fact they may be. But modern taste requires of vocal music something more than melody ; it imperatively demands a true interpretation of the dramatic element in the text. This, in its fullest extent, one finds in the admirable little songs by Franz and Robert Schumann, and in the operas of Wagner, though with perhaps less regard to the exclusively musical.” True to a certain extent, if rightly understood, except that little bit about Schubert’s and Mozart’s faculty of writing tunes, concerning which the following may be suggestive : —
“ How little did this most richly gifted of all musicians (Mozart) know the feat of our modern music-makers, — of building up gold-glistening music-towers upon a shallow, unworthy foundation, of playing the inspired enthusiast, where all poetry was hollow and empty, just to show that, after all, the musician was the real cock-of-thewalk and could do anything, even to creating something out of nothing, —just like the good God ! O, how dear to me and highly to be honored is Mozart, that he found it impossible to compose music to Titus like that to Don Juan, to Così fan tutte, like that to Figaro ; how shamefully would this have dishonored music! Mozart made music incessantly ; but he never could write fine music except when he was inspired.”2
This is only in passing, and has not much to do with the subject in hand, but we do not like to see flings of this flippant sort made at Mozart. As for the text of St. Peter being wanting in emotional qualities, we cannot agree with The Nation. Take the very first chorus, “ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand ; repent, and believe the glad tidings of God.” These words The Nation calls “ very unpromising ” ! Hardly a happy epithet, we think. Take again Peter’s first air, “ My heart is glad, and my spirit rejoiceth ; for thou wilt show me the path of life. In thy presence, O Lord, is the fulness of joy ; at thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
The following chorus, the last of the first division of the oratorio, ends with, “ It is marvellous in our eyes.” What more of emotion in a religious work can the soul of man desire ? In the Denial and Repentance there is surely enough of an emotional nature, and enough of intense dramatic interest, culminating in the chorus, “ Awake, thou that sleepest ; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.” Unemotional ! Has The Nation’s appetite for emotion become so jaded that these things leave it calm and unmoved ? It goes on to say, “ The great objection to the entire last part of the work is the undue length and dryness of the recitatives.” This may apply either to the text or to the musical treatment. We cannot see how the text can be considered dry. Take, for instance, the tenor recitative, No. 27, “ And when the day of Pentecost was come, the apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind ; and it filled all the house where they were sitting ; and there appeared unto them cloven tongues as of fire ; and it sat upon each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak in other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance.” What better chance for dramatic musical writing could the veriest sensational effect-seeker desire ? As to the music of Mr. Paine’s oratorio, we do not as yet consider ourselves competent to give an opinion of any value, and although nobody can carefully study such a work as we have done, without at least forming an approximate notion of the genius, talent, and general musical and dramatic power displayed in its composition, yet we can form no decided opinion as to its merits that we might not be forced to retract after hearing the whole work performed. Suffice to say that the work impresses us as one of great power and beauty, and we have found in it no sign of weakness or sentimentalism. The Nation has criticised the musical part of the oratorio entirely on general principles, and upon principles that do not seem to us entirely sound. It says : “ The old oratorio was too devotional, too monotonous in its emotional range, to serve as an amusement.” But who ever thought of an oratorio in the light of an amusement? Let it be said to Mr. Paine’s honor, that, at all events, he has not tried to be amusing in his work, to make his oratorio something to be listened to entre le café et le cigare ! Passing over The Nation’s disparaging estimate of Bach’s oratorios, we find this about Mendelssohn : “ To whatever extent Mendelssohn carried the melodious in his oratorios, it is always chaste and religious in tone.” And again about Mr. Paine : “ It is very unfortunate that the text does not include words suitable for at least one genuine musical chorus in each part.” We suppose The Nation means choruses of the so-called melodious stamp, like “ He watching over Israel,” and “ Blessed are the men that fear Him,” in Elijah. That these choruses of Mendelssohn are musically beautiful to a high degree, no one will undertake to deny, but we can see nothing of the. distinctly religious element in them. In both these choruses, and to a still greater degree in the latter part of the Whirlwind Chorus in the same oratorio, at the words, “ And in that still voice onward came the Lord,” we can see nothing but the purely sensuous development of a sensuously beautiful melody. Mendelssohn has done much toward enlarging the oratorio form, but we insist that this intensely lyric melody, this Lied ohne Wrote element which runs through almost all his music, and which in light compositions, like his concert overtures and Midsummer Night’s Dream music, is nothing but charming, has only served to weaken and impoverish his great religious works. We can only congratulate Mr, Paine upon having made a manly stand against this tendency to purely sensuous melody, which is one of the greatest blemishes in the prevailing religious school of music of our day. The Nation says : “ The lyric element is one of the most vital. By lyric forms in music are meant those song-like strains where the melodic ideas fall into symmetrical sequences of phrases. . . . . The song is comprehensible without study. And so the lyric moment in an oratorio is at once the moment of greatest passion to the singer and most complete repose to the listener ; complete repose, because the often-returning melodic phrases convey their own interpretation, and the conviction that the singer has at last quit ‘ fooling around ’ in recitative, and settled down to a good steady pull at singing, is especially reassuring to the average listener.” Very true ; but earnest musicians do not write music for the “ average listener.” An artist does not work for years, putting his whole heart, soul, and being into his work, merely to furnish people with an æsthetico-intellectual anodyne, — to give them music which they can passively enjoy without the exertion of thinking. Rossini did that, and heartily laughed at himself for doing it; but few people would call Rossini an earnest musician, however much of a genius he might have been. Mendelssohn certainly was an earnest musician, and did what he did with a serious purpose ; but we cannot but find his tendency to the purely sensuous an excessive one, and all the less excusable from the fact that the sensuous character of his melodies seems rather of the indolent, sentimental, day-dreamer sort than the result of an over-passionate nature. Throughout the whole of Mr. Paine’s St. Peter the music is persistently of a religious character, never inclining to sentimentality. What other characteristics it may have, we must await a performance of the work to decide.