FOR music-lovers in America the great event of the season has been the performance of Mr. Paine’s oratorio, St. Peter, at Portland, June 3. This event is important, not only as the first appearance of an American oratorio, but also as the first direct proof we have had of the existence of creative musical genius in this country. For Mr. Paine’s Mass in D — a work which was brought out with great success several years ago in Berlin—has, for some reason or other, not particularly to the credit, one would think, of our best known choral associations, never been performed here. And, with the exception of Mr. Paine, we know of no American hitherto who has shown either the genius or the culture requisite for writing music in the grand style, although there is some of the Kapellmeister music, written by our leading organists and choristers, which deserves very honorable mention. But while such works as Mr. Dudley Buck’s Fortysixth Psalm or Mr. Whiting’s Mass in C minor — admirably performed at Mount Pleasant, Boston Highlands, some two or three years ago — may bear a comparison with the best modern English music by Costa or Bennett, a higher place must be claimed for Mr. Paine. Concerning the rank likely to be assigned by posterity to St. Peter it would be foolish now to speculate ; and it would be unwise to bring it into direct comparison with masterpieces like the Messiah, Elijah, and St. Paul, the greatness of which has been so long acknowledged. Longer familiarity with the work is needed before such comparisons, always of somewhat doubtful value, can be profitably undertaken. But it must at least be said, as the net result of our impressions derived from the performance at Portland, that Mr. Paine’s oratorio has fairly earned for itself the right to be judged by the same high standard which we apply to these noble works of Mendelssohn and Handel.
In our limited space we can give only the briefest description of the general structure of the work. The founding of Christianity, as illustrated in four principal scenes of the life of St. Peter, supplies the material for the dramatic development of the subject. The overture, beginning with an adagio movement in B-flat minor, gives expression to the vague yearnings of that time of doubt and hesitancy when the “oracles were dumb,” and the dawning of a new era of stronger and diviner faith was matter of presentiment rather than of definite hope or expectation. Though the tonality is at first firmly established, yet as the movement becomes more agitated, the final tendency of the modulations also becomes uncertain, and for a few bars it would seem as if the key of F-sharp minor might be the point of destination. But after a short melody by the wind instruments, accompanied by a rapid upward movement of strings, the dominant chord of C major asserts itself, being repeated, with sundry inversions, through a dozen bars, and leading directly into the triumphant and majestic chorus, “ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The second subject, introduced by the word “ repent ” descending through the interval of a diminished seventh and contrasted with the florid counterpoint of the phrase, “ and believe the glad tidings of God,” is a masterpiece of contrapuntal writing, and, if performed by a choir of three hundred or four hundred voices, would produce an overpowering effect. The divine call of Simon Peter and his_ brethren is next described in a tenor recitative ; and the acceptance of the glad tidings is expressed in an aria, “ The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” which, by an original but appropriate conception, is given to the soprano voice. In the next number, the disciples are dramatically represented by twelve basses and tenors, singing in four-part harmony, and alternating or combining with the full chorus in description of the aims of the new religion. The proem ends with the choral, “ How lovely shines the Morning Star ! ” Then follows the sublime scene from Matthew xvi. 14 — 18, where Peter declares his master to be “ the Christ, the Son of the living God,” — one of the most impressive scenes, we have always thought, in the gospel history, and here not inadequately treated. The feeling of mysterious and awful grandeur awakened by Peter’s bold exclamation, “Thou art the Christ,” is powerfully rendered by the entrance of the trombones. upon the inverted subdominant triad of Csharp minor, and their pause upon the dominant of the same key. Throughout this scene the characteristic contrast between the ardent vigor of Peter and the sweet serenity of Jesus is well delineated in the music. After Peter’s stirring aria, “My heart is glad,” the dramatic climax is reached in the C-major chorus, “The Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
The second scene is carried out to somewhat greater length, corresponding nearly to the last half of the first part of Elijah, from the point where the challenge is given to the prophets of Baal. In the opening passages of mingled recitative and arioso, Peter is forewarned that he shall deny his Master, and his half-indignant remonstrance is sustained, with added emphasis, by the voices of the twelve disciples, pitched a fourth higher. Then Judas comes, with a great multitude, and Jesus is carried before the high-priest. The beautiful F-minor chorus, “ We hid our faces from him,” furnishes the musical comment upon the statement that “ the disciples all forsook him and fled.” We hardly dare to give full expression to our feelings about this chorus (which during the past month has been continually singing itself over and over again in our recollection), lest it should be supposed that our enthusiasm has got the better of our sober judgment. The second theme, “He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, yet he opened not his mouth,” is quite Handel-like in the simplicity and massiveness of its magnificent harmonic progressions. With the scene of the denial, for which we are thus prepared, the dramatic movement becomes exceedingly rapid, and the rendering of the events in the high-priest’s hall — Peter’s bass recitative alternating its craven protestations with the clamorous agitato chorus of the servants—is stirring in the extreme. The contralto aria describing the Lord’s turning and looking upon Peter is followed by the orchestra with a lament in B-flat minor, introducing the bass aria of the repentant and remorsestricken disciple, “ O God, my God, forsake me not.” As the last strains of the lamentation die away, a choir of angels is heard, of sopranos and contraltos divided, singing, “ Remember from whence thou art fallen,” to an accompaniment of harps. The second theme, “ He that overcometh shall receive a crown of life,” is introduced in full chorus, in a cheering allegro movement, preparing the way for a climax higher than any yet reached in the course of the work. This climax—delayed for a few moments by an andante aria for a contralto voice, “ The Lord is faithful and righteous ” — at last bursts upon us with a superb crescendo of strings, and the words, “ Awake, thou that sleepest, arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” This chorus, which for reasons presently to be given was heard at considerable disadvantage at Portland, contains some of the best fugue-writing in the work, and is especially rich and powerful in its instrumentation.
The second part of the oratorio begins with the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus. Here we must note especially the deeply pathetic opening chorus, “ The Son of Man was delivered into the hands of sinful men,” the joyous allegro, “ And on the third day he rose again,” the choral, “Jesus, my Redeemer, lives,” and the quartet, “Feed the flock of God,” commenting upon the command of Jesus, “ Feed my lambs.” This quartet has all the heavenly sweetness of Handel’s “ He shall feed his flock,” which it suggests by similarity of subject, though not by similarity of treatment; but in a certain quality of inwardness, or religious meditativeness, it reminds one more of Mr. Paine’s favorite master, Bach. The choral, like the one in the first part and the one which follows the scene of Pentecost, is taken from the Lutheran Choral Book, and arranged with original harmony and instrumentation, in accordance with the custom of Bach, Mendelssohn, and other composers, “of introducing into their sacred compositions the old popular choral melodies which are the peculiar offspring of a religious age.” Thus the noblest choral ever written, the “ Sleepers, wake,” in St. Paul, was composed in 1604 by Prætorius, the harmonization and accompaniment only being the work of Mendelssohn.
In St. Peter, as in Elijah, the second part, while forming the true musical climax of the oratorio, admits of a briefer description than the first part. The wave of emotion answering to the sensuously dramatic element having partly spent itself, the wave of lyric emotion gathers fresh strength, and one feels that one has reached the height of spiritual exaltation, while, nevertheless, there is not so much which one can describe to others who may not happen to have gone through with the same experience. Something of the same feeling one gets in studying Dante’s Paradiso, after finishing the preceding divisions of his poem : there is less which can be pictured to the eye of sense, or left to be supplied by the concrete imagination. Nevertheless, in the scene of Pentecost, which follows that of the Ascension, there is no lack of dramatic vividness. Indeed, there is nothing in the work more striking than the orchestration of the introductory tenor recitative, the mysterious chorus, “ The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire,” or the amazed query which follows, “ Behold, are not all these who speak Galileans ? and how is it that we every one hear them in our own tongue wherein we were born ?” We have heard the opinion expressed that Mr. Paine’s oratorio must be lacking in originality, since it suggests such strong reminiscences of St. Paul. Now, this suggestion, it seems to us, is due partly to the similarity of the subjects, independently of any likeness in the modes of treatment, and partly, perhaps, to the fact that Mr. Paine, as well as Mendelssohn, has been a devoted student of Bach, whose characteristics are so strong that they may well have left their mark upon the works of both composers. But especially it would seem that there is some real, though very general, resemblance between this colloquial chorus, “ Behold,” etc., and some choruses in St. Paul, as, for example, Nos. 29 and 36 - 38. In the same way the scene in the high-priest’s hall might distantly suggest either of these passages, or others in Elijah. These resemblances, however, are very superficial, pertaining not to the musical but to the dramatic treatment of situations which are generically similar in so far, and only in so far, as they represent conversational passages between an apostle or prophet and an ignorant multitude, whether amazed or hostile, under the sway of violent excitement. As regards the musical elaboration of these terse and striking alternations of chorus and recitative, its originality can be questioned only after we have decided to refer all originality on such matters to Bach, or, indeed, even behind him, into the Middle Ages.
After the preaching of Peter, and the sweet contralto aria, “As for man, his days are as grass,” the culmination of this scene comes in the D-major chorus, “ This is the witness of God.” What follows, beginning with the choral, “ Praise to the Father,” is to be regarded as an epilogue or peroration to the whole work. It is in accordance with a sound tradition that the grand sacred drama of an oratorio should conclude with a lyric outburst of thanksgiving, a psalm of praise to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Thus, after Peter’s labors are ended in the aria, “ Now as ye were redeemed,” in which the twelve disciples and the full chorus join, a duet for tenor and soprano, “Sing unto God,” brings us to the grand final chorus in C major, “ Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty.”
The cadence of this concluding chorus reminds us that one of the noteworthy points in the oratorio is the character of its cadences. The cadence prepared by the 6/4 chord, now become so hackneyed from its perpetual and wearisome repetition in popular church music, seems to be especially disliked by Mr. Paine, as it occurs but once or twice in the course of the work. In the great choruses the cadence is usually reached either by a pedal on the tonic, as in the chorus, “ Awake, thou that sleepest,” or by a pedal on the dominant culminating in a chord of the major ninth, as in the final chorus ; or there is a plagal cadence, as in the first chorus of the second part ; or, if the 6/4 chord is introduced, as it is in the chorus, “ He that overcometh,” its ordinary effect is covered and obscured by the movement of the divided sopranos. We do not remember noticing anywhere such a decided use of the 6/4 chord as is made, for example, by Mendelssohn, in “ Thanks be to God,” or in the final chorus of St. Paul. Perhaps if we were to confess our lingering fondness for the cadence prepared by the 6/4 chord, when not too frequently introduced, it might only show that we retain a liking for New England “ psalmtunes ” ; but it does seem to us that a sense of final repose, of entire cessation of movement, is more effectually secured by this cadence than by any other. Yet while the 6/4 cadence most completely expresses finality and rest, it would seem that the plagal and other cadences above enumerated as preferred by Mr. Paine have a certain sort of superiority by reason of the very incompleteness with which they express finality. There is no sense of finality whatever about the Phrygian cadence ; it leaves the mind occupied with the feeling of a boundless region beyond, into which one would fain penetrate ; and for this reason it has, in sacred music, a great value. Something of the same feeling, too, attaches to those cadences in which an unexpected major third usurps the place of the minor which the ear was expecting, as in the “ Incarnatus ” of Mozart’s Twelfth Mass. In a less degree, an analogous effect was produced upon us by the cadence with a pedal on the tonic, in the choruses, ” The Church is built,” and “ Awake, thou that sleepest.” On these considerations it may become intelligible that, to some hearers, Mr. Paine’s cadences have seemed unsatisfactory, their ears have missed the positive categorical assertion of finality which the 6/4 cadence alone can give. To go further into this subject would take us far beyond our limits. We must conclude with a few words as to the manner in which this great composition was first brought before the public.
The pleasant little town of Portland has reason to congratulate itself, first, on being the birthplace of such a composer as Mr. Paine ; secondly, on having been the place where the first great work of America in the domain of music was brought out; and thirdly, on possessing what is probably the most thoroughly disciplined choral society in this country. More artistic chorus-singing it has never been our lot to hear. Our New York friends, after their recent experiences, will perhaps be slow to believe us when we say that the Portland choir sang this new work even better than the Handel and Hayden society sing the old and familiar Elijah ; but it is true. In their command of the pianissimo and the gradual crescendo, and in the precision of their attack, the Portland singers can easily teach the Handel and Haydn a quarter’s lessons. And, besides all this, they know how to preserve their equanimity under the gravest persecutions of the orchestra ; keeping the even tenor of their way where a less disciplined choir, incited by the excessive blare of the trombones and the undue scraping of the second violins, would inevitably lose its presence of mind and break out into an untimely fortissimo.
No doubt it is easier to achieve perfect chorus-singing with a choir of one hundred and twenty-five voices than with a choir of six hundred. But this diminutive size, which was an advantage so far as concerned the performance of the Portland choir, was decidedly a disadvantage so far as concerned the proper rendering of the more massive choruses in St. Peter. All the greatest choruses — such as Nos. 1, 8, 19, 20, 28, 35, and 39 — were seriously impaired in the rendering by the lack of massiveness in the voices. For example, the grand chorus, “ Awake, thou that sleepest,” begins with a rapid crescendo of strings, introducing the full chorus on the word “ Awake,” upon the dominant triad of D major; and after a couple of beats the voices are reinforced by the trombones, producing the most tremendous effect possible in such a crescendo. To us this effect was very disagreeable ; and it was obviously contrary to the effect intended by the composer. But with a weight of four or five hundred voices, the effect would be entirely different. Instead of entering upon the scene as intruders, the mighty trombones would only serve to swell and enrich the ponderous chord which opens this noble chorus. Given greater weight only, and the performance of the admirable Portland choir would have left nothing to be desired.
We cannot speak with so much satisfaction of the performance of the orchestra. The instrumentation of St. Peter is wonderfully excellent. But this instrumentation was rather clumsily rendered by the orchestra, whose doings constituted the least enjoyable part of the performance. There was too much blare of brass, whine of hautboy, and scraping of strings. But in condonation of this serious defect, one must admit that the requisite amount of rehearsal is out of the question when one’s choir is in Portland and one’s orchestra in Boston ; besides which the parts had been inaccurately copied. For a moment, at the beginning of the orchestral lament, there was risk of disaster, the wind instruments failing to come in at the right time, when Mr. Paine, with fortunate presence of mind, stopped the players, and the movement was begun over again,— the whole occurring so quickly and quietly as hardly to attract attention.
The solo parts were, in the main, admirably done. Of Miss Phillips and Messrs. Osgood and Rudolphsen, it is unnecessary to speak. The soprano, Mrs. Weatherbee, of Portland, showed thorough culture and true artistic feeling ; but, urged by too generous an enthusiasm, and trusting in a very powerful and flexible voice, she too frequently took part in the chorus, so that, toward the last, she showed signs of overexertion.