A NEW composition for solo, chorus, and orchestra by Franz Liszt cannot but be interesting at the very least. The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral,1 written to the words of our own Longfellow, and dedicated to the poet, is a short cantata that shows us a side of Liszt that we are scarcely familiar with in this country, the ecclesiastical side. The cantata is preceded by a short prelude, during which the chorus and a mezzosoprano solo repeat the word “ excelsior.” Whatever the genuine musical value of this prelude may be, it is certainly one of the most brilliant and effective things of its kind that we know. It opens with one of those vague, impressive themes that Liszt knows how to draw such peculiar effects from ; very much of the same character as the opening theme of Les Préludes. Comparing the two, we find their family resemblance to be unmistakable.
This theme, given out by the trumpets, is taken up by the whole orchestra and chorus, passing through some very daring triad progressions and enharmonic modulations, as is Liszt’s wont, when the solo voice comes in, the orchestra hinting at one of the themes that we shall meet with afterwards in the cantata itself.
This is repeated three times, rising by semitones, when the full chorus strikes in fortissimo and ends it with the full force of the orchestra. In spite of all the brilliant effects of modulation and instrumentation in this prelude, it has an unmistakable ecclesiastical cut. The vague tonality and mysticism, of the old, mediæval church-music is here reproduced with a poetic appreciation that one is loath to call imitation. The cantata proper opens with a hurried, agitato movement for the orchestra, the horns, bassoons, and tamtam booming out like bells through the tempest on the strings, when Lucifer begins his exhortation to the evil spirits to drag down the cross from the steeple. This baritone solo is answered by the chorus : All this accompanied by soft trills in thirds and tremolos in alt on the violins and violas, Sweet arpeggios on the reeds and harp, in strong contrast to the rather harsh instrumentation that accompanied Lucifer. This short choral passage is followed by a Gregorian plain chant sung by the basses of the chorus, doubled in the lower octave by the bass trombone and tuba, against a sustained E on the drums and double basses, the horns and tamtam striking in every second bar with a dull, marked low E. As this chant is the principal theme of the cantata (its similarity to the “excelsior” theme in the prelude is not to be overlooked), we will give it entire.
This phrase, repeated with a little fuller scoring, ends the first verse. The second verse is like the first, except that it is a tone higher, with some slight changes in instrumentation. The third verse shows some difference at the opening, and the chorus of evil spirits strikes in with appalling effect: —
after which the basses take up their chant as in the preceding verses. The fourth verse is built upon the same model, rather more concisely treated. In the fifth verse Lucifer’s recitative rises to its highest pitch of dramatic power, the effect at the words, “Leave this labor unto Time, the great Destroyer,” being positively terrific. The following chorus of evil spirits in unison, “ Onward ! onward ! with the night wind,” accompanied by a rising, spiral crescendo of the orchestra, is most effective, and leads to the Gregorian chant in C-major, the opening phrase of which is given in full harmony by the orchestra and organ. The chorus then sings as follows : —
accompanied here and there by a chord on the organ. These triad progressions are undoubtedly harsh to our ear, the B-flat in the thirteenth measure being especially trying. But when we take, them in connection with what goes before, we feel no inclination to quarrel with them. Even taking them as nothing better than a wholly willful and conscious imitation of mediæval music, they have at the very least the merit of good workmanship and a consistent spirit. At this point the theme of the chant is worked up by the chorus and full orchestra to a fine climax, with which the work ends. is a smoothly-flowing, rather sad and moody andante pastorale in A-flat major. It is in Bennett’s happiest vein, graceful and thoroughly pleasing, — a good preparation for the more serious work to come. The second movement, In the Field, with the motto, —
Little as the real merits of a composition can be rightly judged before actually hearing it, a careful study of the full score has led us to hope for great things from this work. How much in it is real power and how much mere clever effectiveness we cannot as yet tell, but that the work is strongly effective cannot be doubted.
— Among the many recent publications for the piano-forte that we have seen, Sterndale Bennett’s sonata, The Maid of Orleans,2 stands easily first. It can hardly be called a great work; Bennett was never up to that, even at his very best; but it must certainly be ranked among the strongest works of a man whose title to the first place among modern English composers few will be inclined to dispute. In fact, we find in this sonata an amount of manly vigor and depth of sentiment that we were hardly prepared for in a composition of Bennett’s. In purity of musical form and logical, articulate development of ideas, it is fully up to anything the composer has written, and although there is perhaps nothing strikingly original in all its thirty and odd pages, there is yet very little that smacks of imitation or plagiarism. The sonata must undoubtedly take its place among that large class of compositions which the world has agreed by common consent to call “programme music,” but it has more essentially musical vitality than have most modern works of this genus, and the quotations from Schiller’s play that stand at the beginning of each movement are, after all, rather illustrations of the general tendency of the music, than the germs from which the music itself has sprung.
The first movement, In the Fields, with the heading, —
Adown the mountain’s silent steep,”
And the loud war-cry thunders in mine ear,”
is really what musicians call the first movement of the Sonata form. It is marked allegro marziale, and begins with a stately march-theme in A-flat minor. The movement soon becomes more animated, and a few enharmonic changes, interspersed with trumpet-calls, lead to a more passionate motive, which in turn leads to the real second theme (cantabile) of the movement, in Bmajor. These three themes are skillfully worked out, and with unflagging energy. One thing, however, surprises ns ; a thing that is noticeable throughout the sonata, but more especially in this and the last movement. That is, that a pianist like Bennett should have drawn so very sparingly upon the acknowledged and universally applied resources of modern piano-forte-playing in a composition which develops all the intrinsic fire, energy, and dramatic intensity of modern music. What the Germans call the claviersalz, the mere putting upon the instrument, is certainly very thin and mesquin (we know no other word for it). This peculiarity not only detracts much from the effect the music would otherwise have, and which its intrinsic brilliancy absolutely indicates, but also makes it very hard work for the performer. We find long passages of steadily increasing power, in which the fingers alone are called into play, the wrist and arm (to which pianists principally look for strong effects) being almost completely inactive. This trait in piano-forte-writing is not a new one in Bennett, and some of his larger compositions for the concertroom, among others his Cappriccio in E with orchestra, are unreasonably fatiguing for the fingers. Indeed, we hardly think that pianists will play much of this sonata exactly as it is written, when the time for actual performance comes. There are surely but few men who have strong enough fingers to make a passage like this —
effective to modern ears as the climax to a crescendo of twenty-eight bars.
The third movement, In Prison, with the motto, —
In fervent supplication up to thee,
Up to thy heaven above, I send my soul,”
contains much that is fine; we can hardly say enough about the beautiful effect of the second theme, expressive of the words, —
Then was I happy as in Paradise.”
We do not feel inclined to look too closely into the question whether this effect is not due more to the idea suggested by the poetry than to the music. There are beauties in art which shrink from cold analysis, and whatever a man’s notions of musical purity may be, there are some passages even in programme music that the feelings admit as pure and beautiful, in spite of some conscientious qualms of the critical understanding.
The last movement, The End,
is perhaps the best of all. Although not quite up to the dignity of the subject, and defaced here and there by some few rather obsolete-sounding commonplaces, it is written with great fire from beginning to end. Unfortunately the peculiarity of Bennett’s writing that we have already mentioned above is more distressingly felt here than in any of the other movements, and some passages are cruelly taxing for the fingers. But the joyful, onward rush of the music cannot be too much praised.
— Friedrich Wieck’s Piano and Song3 is a curious little book on musical instruction. It is the work of an experienced piano-forte teacher, and as such is not without value, though we cannot really quite make up our minds whether it is more calculated to do good or harm. Wieck, like most intelligent men who thoroughly know what they are talking about, argues well and persuasively, He appeals to common-sense, and is logical in his conclusions. Whether what we dignify by the name of commonsense is the best faculty to appeal to in questions of this kind may be very well doubted, and we, for one, must admit that the very plausibility of Wieck’s theories of teaching makes us distrust them, not to speak of our natural distrust of such an exceedingly conservative and plodding old gentleman as Wieck evidently was. There are, however, many excellent hints in the book, which the intelligent, and above all the experienced reader can turn to good account.
The book is, unluckily, not very readable, and the instructive dialogues with which it is filled too closely resemble those tractlike romances for the nursery, in which the very good little boy is miraculously rewarded with lollipops, and the utterly abandoned little boy ends on the gallows, to be read by any one not voraciously intent upon acquiring all possible information on the subject of piano-forte playing. But, as we have already said, there is much good in the book, and it only requires to be read with proper discrimination, to be useful.
— Harrison Millard’s A Mother’s Dream4 is quite ambitious in design, but belongs rather to a bygone class of music. We do not think that many people nowadays want to hear a singer go through such a painful length of roulade and cadenza before she gets safely shut “ within the pearly gates of heaven ! ” The same composer’s Ave Maria5 is more musical, and, were it not for the closing bars, might be called quite a good song, of by no means sacred character.
— H. P. Danks’s Ave Maria6 is, if possible, still less sacred and still more sentimental.
— Gounod’s Biondina Bella7 is exceedingly graceful and pretty.
— Morgan’s Sea Fern8 is a very good and effective part-song for mixed voices, showing a good knowledge of the effects to be brought about by somewhat mournful minor chords.
— We are very glad to see a collection of easy piano-forte sonatas,9 for the use of young pupils, brought out by Carl Prüfer. Among them we notice Beethoven’s Op. 49, No. 2, and two of his smaller sonatas without opus number, with the fingering taken from Lebert and Stark’s admirable Stuttgardt edition, some easy sonatas on only five notes in the right hand, by Reinecke, and some more pleasing ones by A. Krause. Mr. Prüfer is also publishing an excellently engraved edition of some of the smaller piano-forte writings of Mendelssohn, Saran, Hiller, Henselt, and others.10
— A very nicely gotten up collection of trios for female voices,11 headed by two fascinating little compositions in canon-form by Reinecke, and Schumann’s Of Loving will the Token, from his Pilgrimage of the Rose, is also much to be recommended.
— The most valuable addition to the already abundant list of piano-forte studies that we have seen for some time are two books of daily exercises, collected from manuscripts of the late Carl Tausig by H. Ehrlich.12 As finger-studies they are inestimable, and throw all that has come before them completely into the shade.
- Die Glocken des Strassburger Münsters. Godicht von H. W. LONGFELLOW; für Bariton-Solo, Chor und Orchester. Componirt von FRANZ LISZT. Leipzig: J. Schuberth & Co.↩
- The Maid of Orleans, Sonata for the piano-forte. By WILLIAM STERNDALE BENNETT. Op. 46. London. Lamborn Cock, 63 New Bond Street.↩
- Piano and Song. Translated from the German of FRIEDRICH WIECK. Boston,Lockwood, Brooks, & Co., successors to Noyes, Holmes, & Co. 1875.↩
- A Mother’s Dream. Song, with Cello Obligato. Words by GEO. COOPER; music by HARRISON .MILLARD. Boston : G. D. Russell & Co.↩
- Ave Maria. With Violin Obligato by HARRISON MILLARDJersey City, N. J.: W. H. Ewald & Bro.↩
- Ave Maria. By H. P. Danks. Boston: G. D. Russell & Co↩
- Biondina Bella. Canzonetta. By CHARLES GOUNOD. Boston G. D. Russell & Co.↩
- Sea Fern. Part-Song for Mixed Voices. By JOHN P. MORGAN. San Francisco: M. Gray.↩
- Instructive Sonatas for Piano. By BEETHOVEN, CLEMENTI, KRAUSE, and others. Boston: C. Prüfer.↩
- Zwei Clavierstücke By MENDELSSOHN. Boston : Carl Prüfer.↩
- Bradford Academy Collection of Trios for Female Voices. Boston : Carl Prüfer.↩
- Tägliche Studien für Piano-Forte. Von CARL TAUSIG. Berlin: M. Bahn; New York: G. Schirmer.↩