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ORATORIO VERSUS OPERA
I HOPE I may not be considered unduly captious if, in discussing Mr. Heathcote Statham's article on Oratorio versus Opera', which appeared in the April number of this Review, I venture to disagree with almost everything that he has said. Perhaps, on the contrary, the very dissimilarity of my opinions may serve to establish me as a more sincere and honourable opponent than one who rushes into controversy with no justification beyond a constitutional tendency towards combativeness.
Mr. Statham's contentions, if I read him aright, are as follow :
(a) That Oratorio is going out of fashion, and is now considered by the musically cultured to be bourgeois and middleclass.
(b) That Oratorio is of more intrinsic musical value than Opera.
(c) That any air from an oratorio would not gain by the addition of stage setting and costume.
(d) That there is a dearth of first-rate Oratorio singers at the present day, with the inference that Opera has swallowed
(e) That, while Oratorio is the highest form of music, Handel is its greatest exponent.
I propose to take these contentions one by one, in the order in which I have named them, and point out what seem to be their fallacies or weaknesses in the light of fact and reason.
(a) That Oratorio is going out of fashion and is now considered by the musically cultured to be bourgeois and middleclass.
I am not, I confess, sufficiently conversant with the views of the musically cultured to express an opinion on the fashionableness or otherwise of Oratorio at the present time. But I do emphatically protest against the implication that because it is beginning to be appreciated by the masses it is necessarily taking a lower place than it is entitled to. The improvement in the musical taste of the English general public during the
last few years has been incredible; and I say without hesitation that appreciation by that public of any branch of musical art, far from diminishing its glory, is, on the contrary, a feather in its cap. I am not of those who would decry the public taste. The public are the last court of appeal, not only in the matter of taste but in the still more important matter of that broad and profound humanity which is the soul of all true art. The cultured few may be, and are, subject to caprice. Almost any new-risen star may become the fashion; and although in the dazzling light of his eccentricity the old suns may pale for a time, it is only to shine forth with redoubled strength and splendour when the pretentious youngster has suffered eclipse. To be out of fashion is not to be out of popularity, and sustained popularity is the only true hall-mark of greatness.
Is Oratorio becoming unpopular, then? I do not think so. I believe it is as popular as ever it was. I have repeatedly seen huge concert halls in the leading provincial towns all over the country packed to their utmost capacity to hear performances of Elijah, Messiah, and other works. As for the Handel Festival, if, as Mr. Statham asserts, it is the subject of cheap sneers I can only say that I have seldom heard them. In any ca'se, they prove little. A man may like Handel's music or he may not, just as he may enjoy a Waverley novel or the reverse; choral music may appeal to him, or his inclinations may tend towards the purely orchestral. If he is a man who is addicted to sneers he may possibly sneer. You can find plenty of people to poke cheap fun at any particular form of entertainment which does not appeal to them; but the curious thing is that Mr. Statham, who has been so outraged by the sneers of the anti-Handelians, has not scrupled to resort to the same form of criticism himself when speaking of Richard Wagner's operas. To refer to the Walkürenritt scene as passage of a string of spectacular rocking-horses' is as sensible as to describe football as 'kicking a piece of leather between a couple of sticks,' and about as illuminating.
It will be seen, then, at the outset that I disagree with the fundamental postulate of Mr. Statham's attack. I do not believe that Oratorio is waning in popularity, in whatever direction the capricious tide of musical fashion may set. But, even if it were so waning, if Mr. Statham's premise were correct, I should still fail to see that the rather odious comparisons he has tried to draw between Oratorio and Opera have any real bearing on the subject whatever. And this brings me plump upon his second contention, viz :
(6) That Oratorio is of more intrinsic musical value than Opera.
Now, to compare two branches of an art so widely dissimilar as Oratorio and Opera is almost as difficult an operation as to compare two entirely different arts. The task is, in fact, a well-nigh impossible one. But if we are to seek for the highest intrinsic value in music qua music, we shall surely find it in Symphony, Sonata, or Fugue, wherein no verbal or dramatic adjuncts are present to embarrass our judgment. Mr. Statham, however, prefers to base his comparison on the two first-named fields of the art. Let us hear what he has to remark on their respective merits. He says:
Like most of us in the present day who think at all, I have passed beyond the phase of belief which belonged to Evangelical Christianity; and yet, in listening to Messiah, so intense, and so true in spirit seems both its song of tragedy and of triumph, so complete the scheme and development of the whole, that one is almost persuaded to accept it all again, for the moment at least, in the old spirit of unquestioning faith. At all events, when we consider what has been the significance to mankind of the Christian Story, one may be allowed to question whether an oratorio setting it forth in so sincere and so dramatic a manner, and suggesting to the mind ideas of Divine love, of the reign of righteousness on earth and of eternal life hereafter-whether this is not, on the whole, rather a higher subject of contemplation than an opera in which we make the acquaintance of singing dragons, real horses and rocking-horses, and in which one of the most important incidents is that of an unnatural amour between brother and sister, suggested in a scene of over-wrought passion which, with its direction at the end for the curtain to 'fall quickly,' is all but indecent.
This is, perhaps, a more amazing paragraph than any that have preceded it. What on earth has Mr. Statham's temporary lapse into Evangelicalism got to do with the subject ? The emotion was a purely æsthetic one, and proves nothing. There are people in abundance who become devotional at the first whiff of incense, who will surrender the most cherished prejudices of a lifetime under the influence of a hymn shouted in unison by ten thousand throats. In this age of missions and revivals we all know the value of that kind of emotionalism. In the next place, who would dream of denying or seeking to deny that the story of the Divine tragedy is 'a higher subject of contemplation' than the mythical one of Siegmund and Sieglinde? But has the moral altitude of the subject any relation to the artistic treatment? The whole comparison is absurd. Why does not Mr. Statham carry his illustration a step further and compare The Quaker Girl with Hamlet, to the lasting detriment and damnation of the former? If he cares to do so, it is pretty safe to assume that the authors of the musical comedy will not feel aggrieved. With regard to the 'unnatural amour' which has so outraged Mr. Statham's moral sense, and by which he doubtless refers to the extremely
beautiful love scene in Die Walküre, may I point out to him that the two participants were not aware of their relationship when they fell in love and that, in any case, nothing can detract from the beauty of the music that accompanies their
over-wrought passion '? Will Mr. Statham deny the fineness of some of the passages in The Cenci because of the subject, or denounce the Hippolytus on similar grounds ?
Under this heading also we may include Mr. Statham's objection that Opera is more unnatural than Oratorio, in that the action is frequently impeded to allow the hero or heroine to express their feelings in a lengthened solo? The exact value of this comparison may be gauged by the reflexion that in Oratorio there is no action to impede, and that if 'continuity of narrative' be substituted for 'action' in the argument, we shall find that the frequent repetition of words and phrases impede it in precisely the same way.
Be it understood I hold no special brief for Opera, nor am I conscious, on the other hand, of any perverse and bigoted objection to Oratorio. It is against the bringing of the two into fighting range, as it were, that I lodge my protest. Mr. Statham, I take it, has set out to condemn prejudice, but he seems to me to exude prejudices at every stroke of the pen.
It may be admitted at once she says) that Opera is a more exciting form of musical entertainment than Oratorio. But if we consider the matter impartially, I think it will be found that this more exciting character resides in an appeal to the senses rather than to the intellect.
But does not Mr. Statham clearly acknowledge a similar appeal to the senses’ existent in Oratorio when, in listening to Messiah, he temporarily accepts as gospel truth a legend which his 'intellect' has long ago rejected ? He is scarcely consistent. Again :
In Oratorio we depend entirely on the characterisation given by the music. The aspect of the scenes and personages, the nature of the incidents in the narrative, is only suggested to the imagination by the music. In Opera the scenes and the personages are represented to the sense of sight by artificial means of which the artificiality is always obvious enough. In consequence music in Opera is no longer a purely abstract art addressed to the imagination; it is clogged with the accompaniment of an inadequate and rather tawdry realism. The result, be it admitted, is brilliant and captivating to the senses, especially of those whose imaginative faculties are somewhat sluggish.
Now with all respect to Mr. Statham's intentions I question whether there is any real meaning in this statement; or, if there is, that it has any bearing on the subject under discussion. To begin with, he credits the listener with too much imagination in the case of Oratorio and with too little in the
matter of Opera. From both points of view he is wrong. Not one person in a million, were he set down to hear the music of a work in either branch of art, sung in a language with which he was unfamiliar, would have the slightest notion of what it was about unless he had a previous knowledge of the story to assist him; while, on the other hand, it scarcely follows that a man who likes à scenic background for his music is necessarily possessed of a sluggish imagination.
Again, why must stage realism be 'tawdry' and 'inadequate'? That the Covent Garden representations of certain operas-notably The Ring-have not been up to the best standard I willingly admit, but in Germany one may witness productions wherein the art of scenery and effects is carried to the highest conceivable pitch of excellence. If scenic effect is ‘tawdry realism’in Opera then it is tawdry realism in a theatre; and you may as well turn plays into readings and let scenic artists and stage carpenters swell the list of unemployed. With regard to the acting too, though there is much in Mr. Statham's cuts at the histrionic mediocrity of some of our leading operatic stars, let him take a trip through some of the smaller towns of Italy, and he will find actors and actresses in abundance. In any case it is quite unfair to condemn Opera on the ground that the perfect combination of the three arts demanded by it—the combination of good singing, good acting, and good staging-is not always to be found. Mr. Statham has forgotten to take into consideration the essential functions of Opera and the artistic needs which it sets out to supply.
(c) That any air from an oratorio would not gain by the addition of stage setting and costume.
Here, for once, I am entirely in accord with Mr. Statham, although I was not aware that anyone had ever suggested the opposite. In hammering home this rather obvious statement, however, he proceeds to complicate it. He says :
Can anyone seriously imagine that the immortal air ‘Farewell, yo limpid springs,' could gain anything in effect is sung by Jephtha's daughter in Jewish costume before a property altar of sacrifice; that 'O ruddier than the cherry' would gain by being sung by a man made up as a Cyclops, or that the singer of 'Lord God of Abraham' could put more effect into it by masquerading in the mantle of the prophet? Such songs are addressed to the feeling and imagination of the listener; to try to make them appeal to his visual organs also would merely be to drag them down from a poetic to a prosaic plane.
But why “prosaic'? What have our poor inoffensive eyes done that their functions should be classed so far below those of the ear? And is it any argument against Opera that an excerpt from an entirely different range of musical art wonld