Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/566

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554

��ORATORIO.

��and it is certain that the part of Satan is finely conceived, and carried out with masterly skill : but that there are weak points cannot be denied. Very different is it with Die letzten Dinge,' composed at Cassel in 1825, and first performed in 1826. We here see the Master at his best; his style, more conspicuous for its individuality than that of any other Composer of this century, fully developed ; his experience matured by long and unbroken familiarity with the Orchestra, under circumstances scarcely less favourable than those which exercised so happy an effect upon the Art-life of Haydn; and his genius free to lead him where it would. It led him, in this case, to attempt the illustration of Mysteries which might well have appalled a less bold spirit than his. But there can be no doubt that the subject presented a peculiar attraction for him. There is, in all his Music even in his most joyous strains an undercurrent of unfathomable depth which seems continually striving to lead the hearer away from the exter- nal aspect of things, in order to show him a hidden meaning not to be revealed to the thoughtless lis- tener. Even the glorious March in ' Die Weihe der Tone ' leaves a feeling rather of sadness than exultation behind it. The value of such a quality as this in ' Die letzten Dinge ' was incalculable. Spohr's familiarity with the profoundest secrets of the Chromatic and Enharmonic genera, which had by this time become a second nature to him, afforded him access to regions of musical expres- sion as yet unexplored ; and he entered them, not with the timidity of a pioneer, but with the cer- tainty of a finished Master. His refined taste precluded the possibility of an inharmonious pro- gression : yet he dared modulations which, in less skilful hands, would have been excruciating. Diatonic and Chromatic ' False Relations ' are two very different things : but, there are such things as Chromatic, and even Enharmonic ' False Relations' a sad fact of which Spohr's imitators appear to be profoundly ignorant. Spohr never writes one. In the space of half a bar, he may take us miles from the Key in which we started : but the journey is performed so smoothly that we scarcely know we have performed it. The quality one most misses in his Music is that of sternness; yet in 'Die letzten Dinge,' we are not without indications even of that. This great Oratorio, the name of which literally signifies 4 The last Things,' is the one now so well known in this country as 'The last Judgment.' The English title is a very unfortunate one ; for be- sides being a gross mistranslation, it gives a very false idea both of the scope and the intention of the work. The words are selected, for the most part, from those parts of the Apocalypse which describe the terrible Signs and Portents to be sent, hereafter, as precursors of the consumma- tion of all things. Dramatic treatment would manifestly have been an insult to the solemnity of such a subject. Spohr has not even ventured to look upon it as a Sacred Epic. His interpreta- tion is purely contemplative. He first strives to lead our thoughts as far as possible beyond the

��ORATORIO.

reach of all external impressions ; and then, with the irresistible force of that oratory which for exceeds in power the rhetoric of words, invites us to meditate upon some of the most thrilling passages to be found in any part of the Bible. The amount of artistic skill made subservient to this great end is almost incredible. The form of the Movements, the disposition of the Voices, the Instrumentation of the Accompaniments, are all, in turn, brought to bear upon it. There is but one idea, from beginning to end. The Composer makes no attempt to please, but is content to come before us simply in the character of Preacher. Hence it is that the work does not contain a single Air. The lovely Duet for Treble and Tenor, 'Forsake me not,' is the only regularly-constructed Movement allotted to the Solo Voices. Except for this, they are exclusively employed, either in conjunction with the Chorus, which is in constant requisition, or in the declamation of highly- wrought Accompanied Recitative, so melodious in cha- racter, that, had it been produced at the present day, it would probably have been called 'Melos.' The Instrumentation of this Recitative exhibits the Composer in his fullest strength, but proclaims, at the same time, a most commendable amount of self-renunciation. In a certain sense it may be described as Tone-painting, but its imagery is purely subjective. Ever striving so to influence the mind as to bring it more and more closely en rapport with the written text as the work ap- proaches its climax, it never attempts to depict realities, but aims rather at the suggestion of un- spoken thoughts which serve its purpose far more readily than any amount of realistic delinea- tion and it attains its end by many a master- stroke. In the well-known Chorus, 'All glory to the Lamb that died,' which, by the way, is almost always sung, in England, much faster than Spohr himself used to take it the pas- torale character of the pizzicato accompani- ment brings instantly before us the Birtli of the Lamb Whose Incarnation formed the first step in the great Sacrifice we are contem- plating. It is like a glimpse of Van Eyck's marvellous Picture in the Cathedral at Ghent. The tumultuous horror of the Chorus, ' Destroyed is Babylon the mighty' is increased a thousandfold by the freezing lull during which ' the Sea gives up its dead.' And, when the horror is over, and we have felt rather than heard its thunders dying away in the distance, and have learned, from the Voice of the Angel, that 'All is fulfilled," and Babylon no more, the wrathful sounds, already nearly inaudible, continue to fade through a still softer pianissimo, until they lead us into the opening strains of the ineffably beautiful Quartet, 'Blessed are the dead,' which forms the cul- minating point of the whole. There is nothing in the Oratorio more striking than this truly sublime conception. Spohr himself evidently felt this, and intended that it should be so : for he attempts nothing more. Henceforward, all is peace ; and even the bold Chorus, ' Great and wonderful,' with its fine fugal writing and beauti- ful contrasts, dies away, at last, into a pianissimo.

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