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’.

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