Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/565

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Terebinto,' Metastasio's 'La Passione de Gesù Cristo,' 'Isacco figura del Redentore,' 'Giuseppe Riconosciuto,' 'Sant' Elena al Calvario,' 'I Pellegrini,' and 'Betulia liberata,' and Migliaveccha's 'Il figliuol prodigo.' Himmel, Winter, Weigl, and several other talented German Composers also contributed Italian Oratorios, of more or less value, to this Period; to which must be referred Mozart's youthful production, 'La Betulia liberata,' written, it is believed, when he had just completed his sixteenth year; Dittersdorf's 'Giudacco nella Persia, ossia l'Esther,' 'Giobbe,' and 'La liberatione del Popolo'; and many other works, by writers whose talent was undeniable, though it must be admitted, that, as Composers of Oratorios, they made no attempt to soar to heights which they might easily have reached, had they been more in earnest, or less desirous to attain a short-lived popularity; for it was unquestionably to the low standard of popular taste that the best interests of this otherwise promising Period were sacrificed.

The history of our Twelfth Period brings us into contact with one single Composer only—the composer of one single Oratorio.

We must not, however, suppose that Beethoven's single Oratorio can be placed on a level with his single Opera. He wrote 'Fidelio' in 1805, when he was in the plenitude of his artistic power: 'Christus am Oelberge' ('The Mount of Olives') was produced in 1803, when he was not yet really Beethoven, not having as yet produced the 'Eroica Symphony.' Those two years made all the difference; for they represented the distinction between the First and Second Styles. Nevertheless, 'The Mount of Olives' is so great a work, that, though it may not bear comparison with some of its author's later productions, it cannot possibly be associated with the writings of any other Composer: and therefore it is that we have here thought it necessary to place it in a class by itself. Moreover, its idiosyncrasy presents so many exceptional features, that, if we have erred at all, it is in having allowed only one category for its reception: for, critics have described it under almost as many different aspects as the Chameleon in the Fable. Quá Music, it is simply enchanting: overflowing with that delicious freshness which so frequently invests its Composer's 'First Manner' with a charm scarcely less potent than that exercised by the grander magic of the 'Second.' Quá Oratorio, it shocks us as a monstrous anomaly. Undoubtedly, Huber, the writer of the words, is chargeable with the worst part of its extravagance: the wonder is, that any consideration on earth could have induced Beethoven, who was generally so scrupulously careful in such matters, to set one single word of such a Libretto to Music. Without entering into details, it is enough to say, that, contrary to all precedent, our Lord is made to sing a long Scena ed Aria; a Duet with the Angel, in which the two voices constantly move in long passages of Thirds and Sixths; and a Trio with the Angel and St. Peter. Beethoven's religious opinions are known to have been, to say the least of it, original:[1] yet, supposing him to have seen no impropriety in this departure from established usage, one might fairly have expected from him some recognition of the fact, that, apart from all religious feeling, the events of the night preceding the Passion were so inexpressibly mournful that none can read of them unmoved. Yet we find no sign, even of this. Not only is the style purely sæcular, but, in certain places—such as the Trio, for instance—it is absolutely sparkling. An attempt has been made, in England, to remove these grave incongruities by substituting an entirely new Libretto, called 'Engedi,' and founded on the sojourn of David in the Wilderness. A substituted Libretto never can be really successful: but the mere fact that the experiment has been tried sufficiently proves the gravity of the evil it was intended to palliate. To those who are capable of reconciling themselves to an evil so deeply seated, or, at least, of ignoring the want of correspondence between the subject and its treatment, the Music must be an unmixed treat. In every Movement we meet with beauties of conception, of design, or of individual colouring, such as are never found save in the works of the greatest Masters. The Chorus is extensively employed, and keeps the interest alive throughout; and the whole culminates in a magnificent burst of jubilant Song, far exceeding in grandeur any part of the Mass in C—the splendid 'Hallelujah,' the first Movement of which is almost suggestive of the Old Masters, in its stern and unwavering Accompaniment, while the spirited and finely-developed Fugue, full of interest and fire, and weakened only, like that we have described in the 'Creation,' by the exuberance of its masterly Instrumentation, has always been regarded as a masterpiece of modern Part-writing. It is something, though the work cannot be relieved, as a whole, from the charge of inconsistency, to be able to select from it so many Movements of superlative excellence.

Nine years after the first performance of 'The Mount of Olives' at Vienna, Spohr inaugurated the Thirteenth Period by bringing out his first Oratorio 'Das jüngste Gericht,'[2] at Erfurt, where it was produced under his own superintendence in 1812. Though the great Violinist, then twenty-eight years old, had already laid the foundation of the characteristic and highly original style by which his works are distinguished from those of all other Composers, he had not yet brought it to that full perfection which, in later years, made it a part of himself. As a natural consequence, this early Oratorio, notwithstanding its undoubted merits, is unequal, and to a certain extent disappointing. Perhaps it would seem less so had we no opportunity of comparing it with greater works of later date; for it is recorded that the Choruses produced a profound impression on the occasion of the first performance,

  1. See vol. i, p. 169.
  2. Literally translated, 'The Last Judgment.' This work, however, as will be presently seen, has no connection with the Oratorio known by that name in England.