Music as Message

Asa Briggs

  • The World of the Oratorio by Kurt Pahlen
    Scolar, 357 pp, £27.50, February 1991, ISBN 0 85967 866 0
  • The Making of the Victorian Organ by Nicholas Thistlethwaite
    Cambridge, 584 pp, £50.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 521 34345 3

‘Almost all the greatest composers,’ wrote H.R. Haweis in his Music and Morals (1871), ‘have found in the sacred cantata or oratorio, a form of art capable of expressing the noblest progressions of the religious sentiment in the highest planes of emotion.’ Moreover, ‘by arranging the magnificent episodes of Scripture in a dramatic – not operatic form’, they had succeeded in generating in their audiences ‘new impressions of the depth and sublimity’ of Biblical characters.

In retrospect, Victorian attendance at oratorios has been deemed a ‘tribal rite’: yet for most of Victoria’s reign individual comments made on particular oratorio performances, not least by the performers themselves, were in accord with the views of Haweis. The role of the chorus in the oratorio was crucial and distinctive: its members were listeners as well as singers, often paying as much attention to the soloists – and to the organist – as to the conductors. As for the conductors – and for the composers – they were deferential, in particular, to the organists. Of H.J. Gauntlett, who played the organ for the first performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in Birmingham Town Hall in 1847, Mendelssohn himself wrote that ‘but for him I should have had no organ to play on. He ought to have a statue.’

It was left to a few critics like George Bernard Shaw to question not only the popularity of oratorio but its ability to present the right kind of message. Piety was confused with respectability, and the music was more usually compared with anthems, some of which were drawn from oratorios, than with opera. Discussing a performance at the People’s Palace of Gounod’s Redemption Shaw noted that ‘various members of the industrial classes of Mile End pretended to enjoy it, which shows how the hypocrisy of culture, like other cast-off fashions, finds its last asylum among the poor.’

Pahlen, in his large-scale work of reference, claiming to present a whole world to his readers, has extraordinarily little to say about such matters, or about changes in 19th-century tastes, although he offers a short section called ‘historical and other observations on the oratorio’. It makes only two references en passant to England, and ends with the hazy, if up-beat conclusion that ‘the oratorio is pregnant with so many possibilities that it will never grow old, but must perforce maintain its vitality. The future of opera has been called into question many times, that of the oratorio, never.’

Gounod’s Redemption, a ‘sacred trilogy’ which had an English text and music once hailed as inspired, is noted once, also en passant, in Pahlen’s large-scale reference section, but he does not mention that Gounod received £4000 for it or that he was alleged to have made as much as £168,000 from English copyrights. Another work that made a great deal of money in England was John Stainer’s The Crucifixion, first performed in 1887, and unmentioned by Pahlen. Called into question time and time again both for its ‘inane’ libretto and its patchy music, it was nonetheless described by one contemporary reviewer as ‘structurally, technically and artistically ... precisely suited to its purpose’. Another reviewer noted more specifically that the organ was treated in ‘so masterly a fashion that the absence of the orchestra is hardly perceived’.

The relatively few paragraphs on the oratorio in Nicholas Thistlethwaite’s admirable study of the Victorian organ are more incisive and to the point than any of the general references in Pahlen’s guide, which not only fails to make essential points about the genre but blurs the subject by including within the same work of reference masses, requiems, te deums and stabat maters. The word liturgy is relegated to an appendix consisting of liturgical texts in the original and in translation, thus eschewing other important lines of enquiry. Throughout, the balance within entries is affected. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is given far more space and musical reference than his Christmas oratorio. There is a long section on Beethoven’s Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. The Bruckner entry, above average in length, begins: ‘the very composer from whom the world could have reasonably expected a great oratorio never composed one.’ Pahlen does not say why.

It is fair to add that Pahlen admits in his Preface that half the works presented under the title The World of the Oratorio are ‘not even oratorios at all in the strict sense of the word’, although he does not define for his readers what that ‘strict sense of the word’ is. He is dealing, he says instead, with ‘musical works that combine various vocal elements (solo and chorus) with instrumental accompaniment (primarily organ and orchestra), impart their message without using scenery, require none of the trappings of theatre, may be either of a secular or sacred nature, and possess a certain level of intellectual and musical development.’ Leaving on one side vagueness – and the last phrase is very vague, like many other phrases in the book – there are other difficulties in this kind of apparently comprehensive categorising. In the case of some of the 20th-century works that Pahlen has included, a few of them secular, not sacred, there is also, as he admits, ‘an clement of theatrical amplification’ that ‘seems to have been intended’ – for example, in Honegger’s St Joan at the Stake. The American George Whitfield Chadwick’s Judith (1901) was described by its composer as a ‘lyrical drama’, and, as critics recognised, clearly ‘belonged to the stage’: it demanded dancing girls and soldiers. One of the main points made by Haweis – though he exaggerated it – was that in the oratorio, unlike the opera, there was ‘nothing absurd or outré. The fact of Elijah standing before us in a well-trimmed moustache and clean kid gloves does not in the least shock our sense of propriety, because no impersonation is intended.’

Chadwick’s Judith is one of the American oratorios that have been added to Pahlen’s original text by Thurston Dox. The contents of the book as a whole and the style of the translation suggest that the work has an American rather than a British readership in mind. Handel is dealt with reasonably fully, but there are no references to his Victorian and post-Victorian reputation in England. As for Mendelssohn, Haweis, for all his rhetoric, was more revealing on his achievement and reputation than Pahlen is. The latter quotes without comment another writer’s judgment that Mendelssohn’s St Paul and particularly Elijah, first performed in Birmingham, created ‘a sense of spiritual community in the audience’. Perhaps not surprisingly, no 19th-century English composers of oratorios are included except Elgar, who is given fewer paragraphs than the American composer Cecil Effinger, who immediately precedes him alphabetically. We are told, however, that the 1900 performance of The Dream of Gerontius, also at Birmingham, was a ‘smashing success’. The same entry informs us that The Dream seems ‘to derive from Wagner’s opera Parsifal or from Liszt’s oratorio Christus, and that the Manchester Symphony Orchestra is usually called the Hallé Orchestra.

The Pahlen and Thistlethwaite volumes should be complementary. Instead, they are in sharp contrast with each other. Where Pahlen is vague Thistlethwaite is clear. The latter also has an eye for detail and draws upon a wide range of sources. In a field which has often lent itself to sharp controversy – and still does – his study will doubtless become definitive. As he shows, the Victorians made even more of the organ than they did of the oratorio, for it was during the 19th century that the organ, which for long had been a feature of the cathedral, now became a feature both of the parish church and of the Nonconformist chapel. Just as significantly, it became a feature, too, of the town hall, and it was in secular town halls like Birmingham’s that sacred oratorio was often performed. There, all liturgical trappings were absent. Quite properly, given his subject, Thistlethwaite includes all kinds of organ music within his range, examining thoroughly how and why the design of organs changed to meet new demands made upon them. He rightly notes that the organ as a musical instrument was particularly susceptible to innovation, but he is careful not to take at its face value everything that was said about particular organs at the time by organists or by organ-makers.

Concerned as he is not only with instruments but with changes in pre-Victorian and Victorian musical tastes, he quotes the organist William Crutch, who half a century before Haweis told an Oxford audience that ‘music can awaken the affections by her magic influence, producing at her will, and that instantly, serenity, complacency, pleasure, delight, ecstasy, melancholy, woe, pain, terror and distraction.’ What Crutch, a conservative in outlook, left out in his statement was what Haweis, thoroughly Victorian, called ‘morality’. Surprisingly, however, Haweis, who had a passion for violins, did not include organs in his section on instruments, and only rarely in his book did he even mention them. Once he compared the organ with the piano, which he called ‘a noble instrument, less scientifically perfect than the violin and less extensive than the organ’, though it had ‘more resource than the first and infinitely more delicacy than the second’.

It was not delicacy that the Victorians were seeking from the organ. When a Northampton organist went to Haarlem in Holland on what became – and still is – a familiar organ pilgrimage, he was ‘so overwhelmed by the astounding masses of sound rolling through the vast space’ that he pictured to himself ‘a most dreadful storm in the Bay of Biscay’. At the famous Handel Festival of 1854 at the Crystal Palace there were 2500 performers, and the Gray and Davidson organ specially commissioned for it had 66 registers and four manuals, including a 20-stop Great Organ and a 12-stop Pedal Division. Henry Willis’s organ for the Great Exhibition had by then made its way to Winchester Cathedral, and an Edmund Schulze organ, displayed at the Great Exhibition by a Thuringian organ-maker invited there by Prince Albert, had been rebuilt in Northampton. Both were renowned for their power – and their effects.

Willis’s achievements are a kind of epilogue for Thistlethwaite, who ends his study in 1870. After charting Continental influences on English organs after what he calls an ‘Insular Movement’ in English organ design had reached a dead end, the main figure in his story is William Hill, who died in 1870, ‘a symbolic moment for English organ-building’. Hill’s work provides what Thistlethwaite too defensively calls ‘a thread running through the some what diffuse narrative that follows’, and it is very carefully placed historically. Hill was willing – and able – to experiment in organ design, but there was a continuity of design with the 18th century, not a sharp break. One whole chapter is devoted to his work between 1839 and 1855; a further chapter deals with the ‘emergence of the Victorian organ, 1850-1870’; and a third, of very general interest, with ‘Music and Mechanics’, for us a more rewarding subject than ‘Music and Morals’. The general bearings of this chapter concern both the impact of technology and the changing relationship in technological advance between Britain and Continental Europe. As much Victorian technical skill was devoted to the design, improvement and manufacture of musical instruments as to the design, improvement and manufacture of watches or microscopes, but from the 1850s onwards there was always a foreign challenge. Indeed, by 1864 a writer in the Musical World related that after ‘organ-hunting’ expeditions to the Continent, perhaps a better term than pilgrimage, some of the travellers returned satisfied that there was not an English organ worth playing on.

Thistlethwaite, who has an eye for cross-cultural influences, provides enough detail to demonstrate that such travellers were wrong. He also notes that one of the great organists of Early Victorian England, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, was prepared to put his trust in the gospel of steam. ‘There can be no difficulty whatsoever in making steam power available for blowing the bellows. I wish I could always use it.’ The demand for great ‘power’ was already apparent during the heyday of the ‘Insular Movement’, and new effects were already part of the sales talk, as they were in the case of the organ in Birmingham Town Hall, installed in 1834, during this first period of ‘transformation’. The reed stop called the Posaune or Trombone could produce ‘the most powerful and richest of tone’ of any existing sounds. Organs that could make the listener ‘scarcely perceive the absence of the orchestra’ followed when the ‘Insular Movement’ had gone as far as it could. An example of the kind of new organ of the 1850s that was influenced by Continental models was that built for Glasgow City Hall. It was praised not only for its power but for ‘close mimicries of the most fanciful effects of the modern orchestra’.

On the occasion of its installation, however, an even stronger theme was music as message. ‘It is the duty of all who are in authority, or who, by their position and circumstances, have it in their power, to infuse more of the poetical and the imaginative into the routine of the daily life of the people by every available means. And what means is so suitable, so pleasing and so little alloyed with anything material and selfish as music?’ Oratorio was an appropriate vehicle even in a country which preferred metrical psalms to hymns. For all his belief in music as message, Haweis, writing twenty years later, was gloomy – at least about the implications of the English response. The English might troop to the Messiah or to Elijah, but that was evidence of the fact that they were ‘on the whole a Religious People’, more than they were a ‘Musical People’. Haweis called this a ‘sad conclusion’, but he was a confident enough Victorian to believe that all this might change.