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A SECOND BOOK OF OPERAS
by Henry Edward Krehbiel
CONTENTS AND INDEX
England and the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship, et Gounod’s “Reine de Saba,”
The transmigrations of “Un Ballo in Maschera,” How composers revamp their music,
et seq,–Handel and Keiser,
Mozart and Bertati,
Beethoven’s readaptations of his own works, Rossini and his “Barber of Seville,”
“Samson et Dalila,”
Goldmark’s “Konigin von Saba,”
The Biblical operas of Rubinstein,
Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” in dramatic form, Oratorios and Lenten operas in Italy,
Carissimi and Peri,
Scenery and costumes in oratorios,
The passage of the Red Sea and “Dal tuo stellato,” Nerves wrecked by beautiful music,
“Peter the Hermit” and refractory mimic troops, “Mi manca la voce” and operatic amenities, Operatic prayers and ballets,
Goethe’s criticism of Rossini’s “Mose,”
BIBLE STORIES IN OPERA AND ORATORIO
Dr. Chrysander’s theory of the undramatic nature of the Hebrew, his literature, and his life,
Hebrew history and Greek mythology, Some parallels,
Old Testament subjects: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel,
The “Kain” of Bulthanpt and d’ Albert, “Tote Augen,”
Noah and the Deluge,
Potiphar’s wife and Richard Strauss, Raimondi’s contrapuntal trilogy,
Jephtha and his Daughter,
RUBINSTEIN AND HIS “GEISTLICHE OPER”
Anton Rubinstein and his ideals,
An ambition to emulate Wagner,
The Tower of Babel,”
The composer’s theories and strivings, et seq.–Dean Stanley,
“Das verlorene Paradies,”
Action and stage directions,
New Testament stories in opera,
The Prodigal Son,
Legendary material and the story of the Nativity, Christ dramas,
Hebbel and Wagner,
“SAMSON ET DALILA”
The predecessors of M. Saint-Saens,
Voltaire and Rameau,
Duprez and Joachim Raff,
History of Saint-Saens’s opera,
et seq.–Henri Regnault,
As oratorio and opera in New York,
An inquiry into the story of Samson, Samson and Herakles,
The Hebrew hero in legend,
A true type for tragedy,
Saint-Saens’s opera described,
et seq.–A choral prologue,
The character of Dalila,
et seq.–Milton on her wifehood and patriotism, “Printemps qui commence,”
“Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,”
Oriental ballet music,
“DIE KONIGIN VON SABA”
Meritoriousness of the book of Goldmark’s opera, Its slight connection with Biblical story, Contents of the drama
et seq.–Parallelism with Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” First performance in New York,
Oriental luxury in scenic outfit,
Modern opera and ancient courtesans,
Transformed morals in Massenet’s opera, A sea-change in England,
Who and what was Salome?
Plot of the opera,
Scenic and musical adornments,
Performances in New York,
Story of the opera,
et seq.–The “Bell Song,”
Some unnecessary English ladies,
First performance in New York,
American history of the opera,
Miss Van Zandt
Criticism of the drama,
The twin operas, “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” Widespread influence of Mascagiii’s opera, It inspires an ambition in Leoncavallo,
History of his opera,
A tragic ending taken from real life, et seq.–Controversy between Leoncavallo and Catulle Mendes, et seq.–“La Femme de Tabarin,”
The “Drama Nuevo” of Estebanez and Mr. Howells’s “Yorick’s Love,” What is a Pagliaccio?
First performances of the opera in Milan and New York, The prologue,
et seq.–The opera described,
et seq.–Bagpipes and vesper bells, Harlequin’s serenade,
Plaudite, amici, la commedia finita est!” Philip Hale on who should speak the final words,
How Mascagni’s opera impressed the author when it was new, Attic tragedy and Attic decorum,
The loathsome operatic brood which it spawned, Not matched by the composer or his imitators since, Mascagni’s account of how it came to be written, et seq.–Verga’s story,
et seq.–Story and libretto compared, The Siciliano,
The Easter hymn,
Analysis of the opera,
et seq.–The prelude,
“They have killed Neighbor Turiddu!”
THE CAREER OF MASCAGNI
Influence of “Cavalleria rusticana” on operatic composition, “Santuzza,” a German sequel,
Giordano’s “Mala Vita,”
Tasca’s “A Santa Lucia,”
et seq.–Composes Schiller’s “Hymn to Joy,” “Il Filanda,”
Mascagni’s American visit,
The song of the sun,
Allegory and drama,
Story of the opera,
et seq.–The music,
et seq.–Turbid orchestration,
Borrowings from Meyerbeer,
The opera’s ancestry,
Loti’s “Madame Chrysantheme,”
John Luther Long’s story,
David Belasco’s play,
How the failure of “Naughty Anthony” suggested “Madame Butterfly,” William Furst and his music,
Success of Mr. Belasco’s play in New York, The success repeated in London,
Brought to the attention of Signor Puccini, Ricordi and Co. and their librettists,
“Madama Butterfly” fails in Milan,
The first casts in Milan, Brescia, and New York, (footnote)
Incidents of the fiasco,
Rossini and Puccini,
The opera revised,
Interruption of the vigil, Story of the opera, et seq.–The hiring of wives in Japan,
Experiences of Pierre Loti,
Geishas and mousmes,
A changed denouement,
Messager’s opera, “Madame Chrysantheme,” The end of Loti’s romance,
Japanese melodies in the score,
Puccini’s method and Wagner’s,
“The Star-Spangled Banner,”
A tune from “The Mikado,”
Some of the themes of Puccini and William Furst,
The opera’s predecessors, “Guntram,” “Feuersnot,” “Salome,” Oscar Wilde makes a mistaken appeal to France, His necrophilism welcomed by Richard Strauss and Berlin, Conried’s efforts to produce “Salome” at the Metropolitan Opera Blouse suppressed,
Hammerstein produces the work,
Hugo von HofEmannsthal and Beaumarchais, Strauss and Mozart,
Mozart’s themes and Strauss’s waltzes, Dancing in Vienna at the time of Maria Theresa, First performance of the opera at New York, “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Criticism of the play and its music,
et seq.–Use of a melodic phrase from “Die Zauberflote,” The language of the libretto,
Cast of the first American performance, (footnote)
Story of the play,
et seq.–First production of Hummerdinck’s opera and cast, Earlier performance of the work as a melodrama, Author and composer,
Opera and melodrama in Germany,
Wagnerian symbolism and music,
“Die Meistersinger” recalled,
Hero and Leander,
First performance of Moussorgsky’s opera in New York, Participation of the chorus in the tragedy, Imported French enthusiasm,
Vocal melody, textual accents and rhythms, Slavicism expressed in an Italian translation, Moussorgsky and Debussy,
Political reasons for French enthusiasm, Rimsky-Korsakoff’s revision of the score, Russian operas in America,
“Nero,” “Pique Dame,” “Eugene Onegin,” Verstoffeky’s “Askold’s Tomb,”
The nationalism of “Boris Godounoff,” The Kolydda song “Slava” and Beethoven,
Lack of the feminine element in the drama, The opera’s lack of coherency,
Cast of the first American performance,
“MADAME SANS-GENE” AND OTHER OPERAS BY GIORDANO
First performance of “Madame Sans-Gene,” A singing Napoleon,
Royalties in opera,
Henry the Fowler, King Mark, Verdi’s Pharaoh, Herod, Boris Godounoff, Macbeth, Gustavus and some mythical kings and dukes, et seq.–Mattheson’s “Boris,”
Peter the Great,
Sardou’s play and Giordano’s opera, Verdi on an operatic Bonaparte,
The historic Chenier,
Russian local color,
French revolutionary airs,
TWO OPERAS BY WOLF-FERRARI
The composer’s operas first sung in their original tongue in America, First performances of “Le Donne Curiose,” “Il Segreto di Susanna,” “I Giojelli della Madonna,” “L’Amore Medico,” Story and music of “Le Donne Curiose,”
Methods and apparatus of Mozart’s day, Wolf-Ferrari’s Teutonism,
Nicolai and Verdi,
The German version of “Donne Curiose,” Musical motivi in the opera,
Rameau’s “La Poule,”
Cast of the first performance in New York, (footnote)–Naples and opera,
“I Giojelli della Madonna,”
et seq.–Erlanger’s “Aphrodite,”
His “Vita Nuova,”
First performance in America of I Giojelli,”
Whether or not the English owe a grudge to their Lord Chamberlain for depriving them of the pleasure of seeing operas based on Biblical stories I do not know. If they do, the grudge cannot be a deep one, for it is a long time since Biblical operas were in vogue, and in the case of the very few survivals it has been easy to solve the difficulty and salve the conscience of the public censor by the simple device of changing the names of the characters and the scene of action if the works are to be presented on the stage, or omitting scenery, costumes and action and performing them as oratorios. In either case, whenever this has been done, however, it has been the habit of critics to make merry at the expense of my Lord Chamberlain and the puritanicalness of the popular spirit of which he is supposed to be the official embodiment, and to discourse lugubriously and mayhap profoundly on the perversion of composers’ purposes and the loss of things essential to the lyric drama.
It may be heretical to say so, but is it not possible that Lord Chamberlain and Critic have both taken too serious a view of the matter? There is a vast amount of admirable material in the Bible (historical, legendary or mythical, as one happens to regard it), which would not necessarily be degraded by dramatic treatment, and which might be made entertaining as well as edifying, as it has been made in the past, by stage representation. Reverence for this material is neither inculcated nor preserved by shifting the scene and throwing a veil over names too transparent to effect a disguise. Moreover, when this is done, there is always danger that the process may involve a sacrifice of the respect to which a work of art is entitled on its merits as such. Gounod, in collaboration with Barbier and Carre, wrote an opera entitled “La Reine de Saba.” The plot had nothing to do with the Bible beyond the name of Sheba’s Queen and King Solomon. Mr. Farnie, who used to make comic operetta books in London, adapted the French libretto for performance in English and called the opera “Irene.” What a title for a grand opera! Why not “Blanche” or “Arabella”? No doubt such a thought flitted through many a careless mind unconscious that an Irene was a Byzantine Empress of the eighth century, who, by her devotion to its tenets, won beatification after death from the Greek Church. The opera failed on the Continent as well as in London, but if it had not been given a comic operetta flavor by its title and association with the name of the excellent Mr. Farnie, would the change in supposed time, place and people have harmed it?
A few years ago I read (with amusement, of course) of the metamorphosis to which Massenet’s “Herodiade” was subjected so that it might masquerade for a brief space on the London stage; but when I saw the opera in New York “in the original package” (to speak commercially), I could well believe that the music sounded the same in London, though John the Baptist sang under an alias and the painted scenes were supposed to delineate Ethiopia instead of Palestine.
There is a good deal of nonsensical affectation in the talk about the intimate association in the minds of composers of music, text, incident, and original purpose. “Un Ballo in Maschera,” as we see it most often nowadays, plays in Nomansland; but I fancy that its music would sound pretty much the same if the theatre of action were transplanted back to Sweden, whence it came originally, or left in Naples, whither it emigrated, or in Boston, to which highly inappropriate place it was banished to oblige the Neapolitan censor. So long as composers have the habit of plucking feathers out of their dead birds to make wings for their new, we are likely to remain in happy and contented ignorance of mesalliances between music and score, until they are pointed out by too curious critics or confessed by the author. What is present habit was former custom to which no kind or degree of stigma attached. Bach did it; Handel did it; nor was either of these worthies always scrupulous in distinguishing between meum and tuum when it came to appropriating existing thematic material. In their day the merit of individuality and the right of property lay more in the manner in which ideas were presented than in the ideas themselves.
In 1886 I spent a delightful day with Dr. Chrysander at his home in Bergedorf, near Hamburg, and he told me the story of how on one occasion, when Keiser was incapacitated by the vice to which he was habitually prone, Handel, who sat in his orchestra, was asked by him to write the necessary opera. Handel complied, and his success was too great to leave Keiser’s mind in peace. So he reset the book. Before Keiser’s setting was ready for production Handel had gone to Italy. Hearing of Keiser’s act, he secured a copy of the new setting from a member of the orchestra and sent back to Hamburg a composition based on Keiser’s melodies “to show how such themes ought to be treated.” Dr. Chrysander, also, when he gave me a copy of Bertati’s “Don Giovanni” libretto, for which Gazzaniga composed the music, told me that Mozart had been only a little less free than the poet in appropriating ideas from the older work.
One of the best pieces in the final scene of “Fidelio” was taken from a cantata on the death of the emperor of Austria, composed by Beethoven before he left Bonn. The melody originally conceived for the last movement of the Symphony in D minor was developed into the finale of one of the last string quartets. In fact the instances in which composers have put their pieces to widely divergent purposes are innumerable and sometimes amusing, in view of the fantastic belief that they are guided by plenary inspiration. The overture which Rossini wrote for his “Barber of Seville” was lost soon after the first production of the opera. The composer did not take the trouble to write another, but appropriated one which had served its purpose in an earlier work. Persons ignorant of that fact, but with lively imaginations, as I have said in one of my books, [“A Book of Operas,” p. 9] have rhapsodized on its appositeness, and professed to hear in it the whispered plottings of the lovers and the merry raillery of Rosina contrasted with the futile ragings of her grouty guardian; but when Rossini composed this piece of music its mission was to introduce an adventure of the Emperor Aurelianus in Palmyra in the third century of the Christian era. Having served that purpose it became the prelude to another opera which dealt with Queen Elizabeth of England, a monarch who reigned some twelve hundred years after Aurelianus. Again, before the melody now known as that of Almaviva’s cavatina had burst into the efflorescence which now distinguishes it, it came as a chorus from the mouths of Cyrus and his Persians in ancient Babylon.
When Mr. Lumley desired to produce Verdi’s “Nabucodonosor” (called “Nabucco” for short) in London in 1846 he deferred to English tradition and brought out the opera as “Nino, Re d’Assyria.” I confess that I cannot conceive how changing a king of Babylon to a king of Assyria could possibly have brought about a change one way or the other in the effectiveness of Verdi’s Italian music, but Mr. Lumley professed to have found in the transformation reason for the English failure. At any rate, he commented, in his “Reminiscences of the Opera,” “That the opera thus lost much of its original character, especially in the scene where the captive Israelites became very uninteresting Babylonians, and was thereby shorn of one element of success present on the Continent, is undeniable.”
There is another case even more to the purpose of this present discussion. In 1818 Rossini produced his opera “Mose in Egitto” in Naples. The strength of the work lay in its choruses; yet two of them were borrowed from the composer’s “Armida.” In 1822 Bochsa performed it as an oratorio at Covent Garden, but, says John Ebers in his “Seven Years of the King’s Theatre,” published in 1828, “the audience accustomed to the weighty metal and pearls of price of Handel’s compositions found the ‘Moses’ as dust in the balance in comparison.” “The oratorio having failed as completely as erst did Pharaoh’s host,” Ebers continues, “the ashes of ‘Mose in Egitto’ revived in the form of an opera entitled ‘Pietro l’Eremita.’ Moses was transformed into Peter. In this form the opera was as successful as it had been unfortunate as an oratorio…. ‘Mose in Egitto’ was condemned as cold, dull, and heavy. ‘Pietro l’Eremita,’ Lord Sefton, one of the most competent judges of the day, pronounced to be the most effective opera produced within his recollection; and the public confirmed the justice of the remark, for no opera during my management had such unequivocal success.” [Footnote: “Seven Years of the King’s Theatre,” by John Ebers, pp. 157, 158.] This was not the end of the opera’s vicissitudes, to some of which I shall recur presently; let this suffice now:
Rossini rewrote it in 1827, adding some new music for the Academie Royal in Paris, and called it “Moise”; when it was revived for the Covent Garden oratorios, London, in 1833, it was not only performed with scenery and dresses, but recruited with music from Handel’s oratorio and renamed “The Israelites in Egypt; or the Passage of the Red Sea”; when the French “Moise” reached the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, in April, 1850, it had still another name, “Zora,” though Chorley does not mention the fact in his “Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections,” probably because the failure of the opera which he loved grieved him too deeply. For a long time “Moses” occupied a prominent place among oratorios. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston adopted it in 1845, and between then and 1878 performed it forty-five times.
In all the years of my intimate association with the lyric drama (considerably more than the number of which Mr. Chorley has left us a record) I have seen but one opera in which the plot adheres to the Biblical story indicated by its title. That opera is Saint- Saens’s “Samson et Dalila.” I have seen others whose titles and dramatis personae suggested narratives found in Holy Writ, but in nearly all these cases it would be a profanation of the Book to call them Biblical operas. Those which come to mind are Goldmark’s “Konigin von Saba,” Massenet’s “Herodiade” and Richard Strauss’s “Salome.” I have heard, in whole or part, but not seen, three of the works which Rubinstein would fain have us believe are operas, but which are not–“Das verlorene Paradies,” “Der Thurmbau zu Babel” and “Moses”; and I have a study acquaintance with the books and scores of his “Maccabaer,” which is an opera; his “Sulamith,” which tries to be one, and his “Christus,” which marks the culmination of the vainest effort that a contemporary composer made to parallel Wagner’s achievement on a different line. There are other works which are sufficiently known to me through library communion or concert-room contact to enable me to claim enough acquaintanceship to justify converse about them and which must perforce occupy attention in this study. Chiefest and noblest of these are Rossini’s “Moses” and Mehul’s “Joseph.” Finally, there are a few with which I have only a passing or speaking acquaintance; whose faces I can recognize, fragments of whose speech I know, and whose repute is such that I can contrive to guess at their hearts–such as Verdi’s “Nabucodonosor” and Gounod’s “Reine de Saba.”
Rossini’s “Moses” was the last of the Italian operas (the last by a significant composer, at least) which used to be composed to ease the Lenten conscience in pleasure-loving Italy. Though written to be played with the adjuncts of scenery and costumes, it has less of action than might easily be infused into a performance of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and the epical element which finds its exposition in the choruses is far greater than that in any opera of its time with which I am acquainted. In both its aspects, as oratorio and as opera, it harks back to a time when the two forms were essentially the same save in respect of subject matter. It is a convenient working hypothesis to take the classic tragedy of Hellas as the progenitor of the opera. It can also be taken as the prototype of the Festival of the Ass, which was celebrated as long ago as the twelfth century in France; of the miracle plays which were performed in England at the same time; the Commedia spiritiuale of thirteenth-century Italy and the Geistliche Schauspiele of fourteenth-century Germany. These mummeries with their admixture of church song, pointed the way as media of edification to the dramatic representations of Biblical scenes which Saint Philip Neri used to attract audiences to hear his sermons in the Church of St. Mary in Vallicella, in Rome, and the sacred musical dramas came to be called oratorios. While the camerata were seeking to revive the classic drama in Florence, Carissimi was experimenting with sacred material in Rome, and his epoch-making allegory, “La Rappresentazione dell’ Anima e del Corpo,” was brought out, almost simultaneously with Peri’s “Euridice,” in 1600. Putting off the fetters of plainsong, music became beautiful for its own sake, and as an agent of dramatic expression. His excursions into Biblical story were followed for a century or more by the authors of sacra azione, written to take the place of secular operas in Lent. The stories of Jephtha and his daughter, Hezekiah, Belshazzar, Abraham and Isaac, Jonah, Job, the Judgment of Solomon, and the Last Judgment became the staple of opera composers in Italy and Germany for more than a century. Alessandro Scarlatti, whose name looms large in the history of opera, also composed oratorios; and Mr. E. J. Dent, his biographer, has pointed out that “except that the operas are in three acts and the oratorios in two, the only difference is in the absence of professedly comic characters and of the formal statement in which the author protests that the words fata, dio, dieta, etc., are only scherzi poetici and imply nothing contrary to the Catholic faith.” Zeno and Metastasio wrote texts for sacred operas as well as profane, with Tobias, Absalom, Joseph, David, Daniel, and Sisera as subjects.
Presently I shall attempt a discussion of the gigantic attempt made by Rubinstein to enrich the stage with an art-form to which he gave a distinctive name, but which was little else than, an inflated type of the old sacra azione, employing the larger apparatus which modern invention and enterprise have placed at the command of the playwright, stage manager, and composer. I am compelled to see in his project chiefly a jealous ambition to rival the great and triumphant accomplishment of Richard Wagner, but it is possible that he had a prescient eye on a coming time. The desire to combine pictures with oratorio has survived the practice which prevailed down to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Handel used scenes and costumes when he produced his “Esther,” as well as his “Acis and Galatea,” in London. Dittersdorf has left for us a description of the stage decorations prepared for his oratorios when they were performed in the palace of the Bishop of Groswardein. Of late years there have been a number of theatrical representations of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” I have witnessed as well as heard a performance of “Acis and Galatea” and been entertained with the spectacle of Polyphemus crushing the head of presumptuous Acis with a stave like another Fafner while singing “Fly, thou massy ruin, fly” to the bludgeon which was playing understudy for the fatal rock.
This diverting incident brings me to a consideration of one of the difficulties which stand in the way of effective stage pictures combined with action in the case of some of the most admired of the subjects for oratorios or sacred opera. It was not the Lord Chamberlain who stood in the way of Saint-Saens’s “Samson et Dalila” in the United States for many years, but the worldly wisdom of opera managers who shrank from attempting to stage the spectacle of the falling Temple of Dagon, and found in the work itself a plentiful lack of that dramatic movement which is to-day considered more essential to success than beautiful and inspiriting music. “Samson et Dalila” was well known in its concert form when the management of the Metropolitan Opera House first attempted to introduce it as an opera. It had a single performance in the season of 1894-1895 and then sought seclusion from the stage lamps for twenty years. It was, perhaps, fortunate for the work that no attempt was made to repeat it, for, though well sung and satisfactorily acted, the toppling of the pillars of the temple, discreetly supported by too visible wires, at the conclusion made a stronger appeal to the popular sense of the ridiculous than even Saint-Saens’s music could withstand. It is easy to inveigh against the notion frivolous fribbles and trumpery trappings receive more attention than the fine music which ought to be recognized as the soul of the work, the vital spark which irradiates an inconsequential material body; but human nature has not yet freed itself sufficiently from gross clogs to attain so ideal an attitude.
It is to a danger similar to that which threatened the original New York “Samson” that the world owes the most popular melody in Rossini’s “Mose.” The story is old and familiar to the students of operatic history, but will bear retelling. The plague of darkness opens the opera, the passage of the Red Sea concludes it. Rossini’s stage manager had no difficulty with the former, which demanded nothing more than the lowering of the stage lights. But he could evolve no device which could save the final miracle from laughter. A hilarious ending to so solemn a work disturbed the management and the librettist, Totola, who, just before a projected revival in Naples, a year or two after the first production, came to the composer with a project for saving the third act. Rossini was in bed, as usual, and the poet showed him the text of the prayer, “Dal tuo stellato,” which he said he had written in an hour. “I will get up and write the music,” said Rossini; “you shall have it in a quarter of an hour.” And he kept his word, whether literally or not in respect of time does not matter. When the opera was again performed it contained the chorus with its melody which provided Paganini with material for one of his sensational performances on the G-string.
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
Carpani tells the story and describes the effect upon the audience which heard it for the first time. Laughter was just beginning in the pit when the public was surprised to note that Moses was about to sing. The people stopped laughing and prepared to listen. They were awed by the beauty of the minor strain which was echoed by Aaron and then by the chorus of Israelites. The host marched across the mimic sea and fell on its knees, and the music burst forth again, but now in the major mode. And now the audience joined in the jubilation. The people in the boxes, says Carpani, stood up; they leaned over the railings; applauded; they shouted: “Bello! bello! O che bello!” Carpani adds: “I am almost in tears when I think of this prayer.” An impressionable folk, those Italians of less than a century ago. “Among other things that can be said in praise of our hero,” remarked a physician to Carpani, amidst the enthusiasm caused by the revamped opera, “do not forget that he is an assassin. I can cite to you more than forty attacks of nervous fever or violent convulsions on the part of young women, fond to excess of music, which have no other origin than the prayer of the Hebrews in the third act with its superb change of key!”
Thus music saved the scene in Naples. When the opera was rewritten for London and made to tell a story about Peter the Hermit, the corresponding scene had to be elided after the first performance. Ebers tells the story: “A body of troops was supposed to pass over a bridge which, breaking, was to precipitate them into the water. The troops being made of basketwork and pulled over the bridge by ropes, unfortunately became refractory on their passage, and very sensibly refused, when the bridge was about to give way, to proceed any further; consequently when the downfall of the arches took place the basket men remained very quietly on that part of the bridge which was left standing, and instead of being consigned to the waves had nearly been set on fire. The audience, not giving the troops due credit for their prudence, found no little fault with their compliance with the law of self-preservation. In the following representations of the opera the bridge and basket men which, en passant (or en restant rather), had cost fifty pounds, were omitted.” [Footnote: Op. cit., p. 160] When “Moise” was prepared in Paris 45,000 francs were sunk in the Red Sea.
I shall recur in a moment to the famous preghiera but, having Ebers’ book before me, I see an anecdote so delightfully illustrative of the proverbial spirit of the lyric theatre that I cannot resist the temptation to repeat it. In the revised “Moses” made for Paris there occurs a quartet beginning “Mi manca la voce” (“I lack voice”) which Chorley describes as “a delicious round.” Camporese had to utter the words first and no sooner had she done so than Ronzi di Begnis, in a whisper, loud enough to be heard by her companion, made the comment “E vero!” (“True!”)–“a remark,” says Mr. Ebers, “which produced a retort courteous somewhat more than verging on the limit of decorum, though not proceeding to the extremity asserted by rumor, which would have been as inconsistent with propriety as with the habitual dignity and self-possession of Camporese’s demeanor.”
Somebody, I cannot recall who, has said that the success of “Dal tuo stellato” set the fashion of introducing prayers into operas. Whether this be true or not, it is a fact that a prayer occurs in four of the operas which Rossini composed for the Paris Grand Opera and that the formula is become so common that it may be set down as an operatic convention, a convention, moreover, which even the iconoclast Wagner left undisturbed. One might think that the propriety of prayer in a religious drama would have been enforced upon the mind of a classicist like Goethe by his admiration for the antique, but it was the fact that Rossini’s opera showed the Israelites upon their knees in supplication to God that set the great German poet against “Mose.” In a conversation recorded by Eckermann as taking place in 1828, we hear him uttering his objection to the work: “I do not understand how you can separate and enjoy separately the subject and the music. You pretend here that the subject is worthless, but you are consoled for it by a feast of excellent music. I wonder that your nature is thus organized that your ear can listen to charming sounds while your sight, the most perfect of your senses, is tormented by absurd objects. You will not deny that your ‘Moses’ is in effect very absurd. The curtain is raised and people are praying. This is all wrong. The Bible says that when you pray you should go into your chamber and close the door. Therefore, there should be no praying in the theatre. As for me, I should have arranged a wholly different ‘Moses.’ At first I should have shown the children of Israel bowed down by countless odious burdens and suffering from the tyranny of the Egyptian rulers. Then you would have appreciated more easily what Moses deserved from his race, which he had delivered from a shameful oppression.” “Then,” says Mr. Philip Hale, who directed my attention to this interesting passage, “Goethe went on to reconstruct the whole opera. He introduced, for instance, a dance of the Egyptians after the plague of darkness was dispelled.”
May not one criticise Goethe? If he so greatly reverenced prayer, according to its institution under the New Dispensation, why did he not show regard also for the Old and respect the verities of history sufficiently to reserve his ballet till after the passage of the Red Sea, when Moses celebrated the miracle with a song and “Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances”?
BIBLE STORIES IN OPERA AND ORATORIO
It was the fond belief of Dr. Chrysander, born of his deep devotion to Handel, in whose works he lived aud moved and had his being, that the heroic histories of the Jews offered no fit material for dramatic representation. In his view the Jews never created dramatic poetry, partly because of the Mosaic prohibition against plastic delineation of their Deity, partly because the tragic element, which was so potent an influence in the development of the Greek drama, was wanting in their heroes. The theory that the Song of Songs, that canticle of canticles of love, was a pastoral play had no lodgment in his mind; the poem seemed less dramatic to him than the Book of Job. The former sprang from the idyllic life of the northern tribes and reflected that life; the latter, much more profound in conception, proved by its form that the road to a real stage-play was insurmountably barred to the Hebrew poet. What poetic field was open to him then? Only the hymning of a Deity, invisible, omnipresent and omnipotent, the swelling call to combat for the glory of God against an inimical world, and the celebration of an ideal consisting in a peaceful, happy existence in the Land of Promise under God’s protecting care. This God presented Himself occasionally as a militant, all-powerful warrior, but only in moments when the fortunes of His people were critically at issue. These moments, however, were exceptional and few; as a rule, God manifested Himself in prophecy, through words and music. The laws were promulgated in song; so were the prophetic promises, denunciations, and calls to repentance; and there grew up a magnificent liturgical service in the temple.
Hebrew poetry, epic and lyrical, was thus antagonistic to the drama. So, also, Dr. Chrysander contends, was the Hebrew himself. Not only had he no predilection for plastic creation, his life was not dramatic in the sense illustrated in Greek tragedy. He lived a care-free, sensuous existence, and either fell under righteous condemnation for his transgressions or walked in the way prescribed of the Lord and found rest at last in Abraham’s bosom. His life was simple; so were his strivings, his longings, his hopes. Yet when it came to the defence or celebration of his spiritual possessions his soul was filled with such a spirit of heroic daring, such a glow of enthusiasm, as are not to be paralleled among another of the peoples of antiquity. He thus became a fit subject for only one of the arts–music; in this art for only one of its spheres, the sublime, the most appropriate and efficient vehicle of which is the oratorio.
One part of this argument seems to me irrelevant; the other not firmly founded in fact. It does not follow that because the Greek conscience evolved the conceptions of rebellious pride and punitive Fate while the Hebrew conscience did not, therefore the Greeks were the predestined creators of the art-form out of which grew the opera and the Hebrews of the form which grew into the oratorio. Neither is it true that because a people are not disposed toward dramatic creation themselves they can not, or may not, be the cause of dramatic creativeness in others. Dr. Chrysander’s argument, made in a lecture at the Johanneum in Hamburg in 1896, preceded an analysis of Handel’s Biblical oratorios in their relation to Hebrew history, and his exposition of that history as he unfolded it chronologically from the Exodus down to the Maccabaean period was in itself sufficient to furnish many more fit operatic plots than have yet been written. Nor are there lacking in these stories some of the elements of Greek legend and mythology which were the mainsprings of the tragedies of Athens. The parallels are striking: Jephtha’s daughter and Iphigenia; Samson and his slavery and the servitude of Hercules and Perseus; the fate of Ajax and other heroes made mad by pride, and the lycanthropy of Nebuchadnezzar, of whose vanity Dr. Hanslick once reminded Wagner, warning him against the fate of the Babylonian king who became like unto an ox, “ate grass and was composed by Verdi”; think reverently of Alcestis and the Christian doctrine of atonement!
The writers of the first Biblical operas sought their subjects as far back in history, or legend, as the written page permitted. Theile composed an “Adam and Eve” in 1678; but our first parents never became popular on the serious stage. Perhaps the fearful soul of the theatrical costumer was frightened and perplexed by the problem which the subject put up to him. Haydn introduced them into his oratorio “The Creation,” but, as the custom goes now, the third part of the work, in which they appear, is frequently, if not generally omitted in performance. Adam, to judge by the record in Holy Writ, made an uneventful end: “And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died”; but this did not prevent Lesueur from writing an opera on his death ten years after Haydn’s oratorio had its first performance. He called it “La Mort d’Adam et son Apotheose,” and it involved him in a disastrous quarrel with the directors of the Conservatoire and the Academie. Pursuing the search chronologically, the librettists next came upon Cain and Abel, who offered a more fruitful subject for dramatic and musical invention. We know very little about the sacred operas whieh shared the list with works based on classical fables and Roman history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; inasmuch, however, as they were an outgrowth of the pious plays of the Middle Ages and designed for edifying consumption in Lent, it is likely that they adhered in their plots pretty close to the Biblical accounts. I doubt if the sentimental element which was in vogue when Rossini wrote “Mose in Egitto” played much of a role in such an opera as Johann Philipp Fortsch’s “Kain und Abel; oder der verzweifelnde Brudermorder,” which was performed in Hamburg in 1689, or even in “Abel’s Tod,” which came along in 1771. The first fratricidal murder seems to have had an early and an enduring fascination for dramatic poets and composers. Metastasio’s “La Morte d’Abele,” set by both Caldara and Leo in 1732, remained a stalking-horse for composers down to Morlacchi in 1820. One of the latest of Biblical operas is the “Kain” of Heinrich Bulthaupt and Eugen d’Albert. This opera and a later lyric drama by the same composer, “Tote Augen” (under which title a casual reader would never suspect that a Biblical subject was lurking), call for a little attention because of their indication of a possible drift which future dramatists may follow in treating sacred story.
Wicked envy and jealousy were not sufficient motives in the eyes of Bulthaupt and d’Albert for the first fratricide; there must be an infusion of psychology and modern philosophy. Abel is an optimist, an idealist, a contented dreamer, joying in the loveliness of life and nature; Cain, a pessimist, a morose brooder, for whom life contained no beautiful illusions. He gets up from his couch in the night to question the right of God to create man for suffering. He is answered by Lucifer, who proclaims himself the benefactor of the family in having rescued them from the slothful existence of Eden and given them a Redeemer. The devil discourses on the delightful ministrations of that Redeemer, whose name is Death. In the morning Abel arises and as he offers his sacrifice he hymns the sacred mystery of life and turns a deaf ear to the new-found gospel of his brother. An inspiring thought comes to Cain; by killing Abel and destroying himself he will save future generations from the sufferings to which they are doomed. With this benevolent purpose in mind he commits the murder. The blow has scarcely been struck before a multitude of spirit-voices call his name and God thunders the question: “Where is Abel, thy brother?” Adam comes from his cave and looks upon the scene with horror. Now Cain realizes that his work is less than half done: he is himself still alive and so is his son Enoch. He rushes forward to kill his child, but the mother throws herself between, and Cain discovers that he is not strong-willed enough to carry out his design. God’s curse condemns him to eternal unrest, and while the elements rage around him Cain goes forth into the mountain wilderness.
Herr Bulthaupt did not permit chronology to stand in the way of his action, but it can at least be said for him that he did not profane the Book as Herr Ewers, Mr. d’Albert’s latest collaborator, did when he turned a story of Christ’s miraculous healing of a blind woman into a sensational melodrama. In the precious opera, “Tote Augen” (“Dead Eyes”), brought out in March, 1916, in Dresden, Myrocle, the blind woman, is the wife of Arcesius, a Roman ambassador in Jerusalem. Never having seen him, Myrocle believes her husband to be a paragon of beauty, but he is, in fact, hideous of features, crook-backed, and lame; deformed in mind and heart, too, for he has concealed the truth from her. Christ is entering Jerusalem, and Mary of Magdala leads Myrocle to him, having heard of the miracles which he performs, and he opens the woman’s eyes at the moment that the multitude is shouting its hosannahs. The first man who fills the vision of Myrocle is Galba, handsome, noble, chivalrous, who had renounced the love he bore her because she was the wife of his friend. In Galba the woman believes she sees the husband whom in her fond imagination she had fitted out with the charms of mind and person which his friend possesses. She throws herself into his arms, and he does not repel her mistaken embraces; but the misshapen villain throws himself upon the pair and strangles his friend to death. A slave enlightens the mystified woman; the murderer, not the dead hero at his feet, is her husband. Singularly enough, she does not turn from him with hatred and loathing, but looks upon him with a great pity. Then she turns her eyes upon the sun, which Christ had said should not set until she had cursed him, and gazes into its searing glow until her sight is again dead. Moral: it is sinful to love the loveliness of outward things; from the soul must come salvation. As if she had never learned the truth, she returns to her wifely love for Arcesius. The story is as false to nature as it is sacrilegious; its trumpery theatricalism is as great a hindrance to a possible return of Biblical opera as the disgusting celebration of necrophilism in Richard Strauss’s “Salome.”
In our historical excursion we are still among the patriarchs, and the whole earth is of one language and of one speech. Noah, the ark, and the deluge seem now too prodigious to be essayed by opera makers, but, apparently, they did not awe the Englishman Edward Eccleston (or Eggleston), who is said to have produced an opera, “Noah’s Flood, or the Destruction of the World,” in London in 1679, nor Seyfried, whose “Libera me” was sung at Beethoven’s funeral, and who, besides Biblical operas entitled “Saul,” “Abraham,” “The Maccabees,” and “The Israelites in the Desert,” brought out a “Noah” in Vienna in 1818. Halevy left an unfinished opera, “Noe,” which Bizet, who was his son-in-law, completed. Of oratorios dealing with the deluge I do not wish to speak further than to express my admiration for the manner in which Saint-Saens opened the musical floodgates in “Le Deluge.”
On the plain in the Land of Shinar the families of the sons of Noah builded them a city and a tower whose top they arrogantly hoped might reach unto heaven. But the tower fell, the tongues of the people were confounded, and the people were scattered abroad on the face of the earth. Rubinstein attempted to give dramatic representation to the tremendous incident, and to his effort and vain dream I shall revert in the next chapter of this book. Now I must on with the history of the patriarchs. The story of Abraham and his attempted offering of Isaac has been much used as oratorio material, and Joseph Elsner, Chopin’s teacher, brought out a Polish opera, “Ofiara Abrama,” at Warsaw in 1827.
A significant milestone in the history of the Hebrews as well as Biblical operas has now been reached. The sojourn of the Jews in Egypt and their final departure under the guidance of Moses have already occupied considerable attention in this study. They provided material for the two operas which seem to me the noblest of their kind–Mehul’s “Joseph” and Rossini’s “Mose in Egitto.” Mehul’s opera, more than a decade older than Rossini’s, still holds a place on the stages of France and Germany, and this despite the fact that it foregoes two factors which are popularly supposed to be essential to operatic success–a love episode and woman’s presence and participation in the action. The opera, which is in three acts, was brought forward at the Theatre Feydeau in Paris on February 17, 1807. It owed its origin to a Biblical tragedy entitled “Omasis,” by Baour Lormian. The subject–the sale of Joseph by his brothers into Egyptian slavery, his rise to power, his forgiveness of the wrong attempted against him, and his provision of a home for the people of Israel in the land of Goshen –had long been popular with composers of oratorios. The list of these works begins with Caldara’s “Giuseppe” in 1722. Metastasio’s “Giuseppe riconosciuto” was set by half a dozen composers between 1733 and 1788. Handel wrote his English oratorio in 1743; G. A. Macfarren’s was performed at the Leeds festival of 1877. Lormian thought it necessary to introduce a love episode into his tragedy, but Alexander Duval, who wrote the book for Mehul’s opera, was of the opinion that the diversion only enfeebled the beautiful if austere picture of patriarchal domestic life delineated in the Bible. He therefore adhered to tradition and created a series of scenes full of beauty, dignity, and pathos, simple and strong in spite of the bombast prevalent in the literary style of the period. Mehul’s music is marked by grandeur, simplicity, lofty sentiment, and consistent severity of manner. The composer’s predilection for ecclesiastical music, created, no doubt, by the blind organist who taught him in his childhood and nourished by his studies and labors at the monastery under the gifted Hauser, found opportunity for expression in the religious sentiments of the drama, and his knowledge of plain chant is exhibited in the score “the simplicity, grandeur, and dramatic truth of which will always command the admiration of impartial musicians,” remarks Gustave Choquet. The enthusiasm of M. Tiersot goes further still, for he says that the music of “Joseph” is more conspicuous for the qualities of dignity and sonority than that of Handel’s oratorio. The German Hanslick, to whom the absence from the action of the “salt of the earth, women” seemed disastrous, nevertheless does not hesitate to institute a comparison between “Joseph” and one of Mozart’s latest operas. “In its mild, passionless benevolence the entire role of Joseph in Mehul’s opera,” he says, “reminds one strikingly of Mozart’s ‘Titus,’ and not to the advantage of the latter. The opera ‘Titus’ is the work of an incomparably greater genius, but it belongs to a partly untruthful, wholly modish, tendency (that of the old opera seria), while the genre of ‘Joseph’ is thoroughly noble, true, and eminently dramatic. ‘Joseph’ has outlived ‘Titus.'” [Footnote: “Die Moderne Opera,” p. 92.] Carl Maria von Weber admired Mehul’s opera greatly, and within recent years Felix Weingartner has edited a German edition for which he composed recitatives to take the place of the spoken dialogue of the original book.
There is no story of passion in “Joseph.” The love portrayed there is domestic and filial; its objects are the hero’s father, brothers, and country–“Champs eternels, Hebron, douce vallee.” It was not until our own day that an author with a perverted sense which had already found gratification in the stench of mental, moral, and physical decay exhaled by “Salome” and “Elektra” nosed the piquant, pungent odor of the episode of Potiphar’s wife and blew it into the theatre. Joseph’s temptress did not tempt even the prurient taste which gave us the Parisian operatic versions of the stories of Phryne, Thais, and Messalina. Richard Strauss’s “Josephslegende” stands alone in musical literature. There is, indeed, only one reference in the records of oratorio or opera to the woman whose grovelling carnality is made the foil of Joseph’s virtue in the story as told in the Book. That reference is found in a singular trilogy, which was obviously written more to disclose the possibilities of counterpoint than to set forth the story–even if it does that, which I cannot say; the suggestion comes only from a title. In August, 1852, Pietro Raimondi produced an oratorio in three parts entitled, respectively, “Putifar,” “Giuseppe giusto,” and “Giacobbe,” at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome. The music of the three works was so written that after each had been performed separately, with individual principal singers, choristers, and orchestras, they were united in a simultaneous performance. The success of the stupendous experiment in contrapuntal writing was so great that the composer fell in a faint amidst the applause of the audience and died less than three months afterward.
In the course of this study I have mentioned nearly all of the Biblical characters who have been turned into operatic heroes. Nebuchadnezzar appeared on the stage at Hamburg in an opera of Keiser’s in 1704; Ariosti put him through his bovine strides in Vienna in 1706. He was put into a ballet by a Portuguese composer and made the butt of a French opera bouffe writer, J. J. Debillement, in 1871. He recurs to my mind now in connection with a witty fling at “Nabucco” made by a French rhymester when Verdi’s opera was produced at Paris in 1845. The noisy brass in the orchestration offended the ears of a critic, and he wrote:
Vraiment l’affiche est dans son tort; En faux, ou devrait la poursuivre.
Pourquoi nous annoncer Nabuchodonos–or Quand c’est Nabuchodonos–cuivre?
Judas Maccabaeus is one of the few heroes of ancient Israel who have survived in opera, Rubinstein’s “Makkabaer” still having a hold, though not a strong one, on the German stage. The libretto is an adaptation by Mosenthal (author also of Goldmark’s “Queen of Sheba”) of a drama by Otto Ludwig. In the drama as well as some of its predecessors some liberties have been taken with the story as told in Maccabees II, chapter 7. The tale of the Israelitish champion of freedom and his brothers Jonathan and Simon, who lost their lives in the struggle against the tyranny of the kings of Syria, is intensely dramatic. For stage purposes the dramatists have associated the massacre of a mother and her seven sons and the martyrdom of the aged Eleazar, who caused the uprising of the Jews, with the family history of Judas himself. J. W. Franck produced “Die Maccabaische Mutter” in Hamburg in 1679, Ariosti composed “La Madre dei Maccabei” in 1704, Ignaz von Seyfried brought out “Die Makkabaer, oder Salmonaa” in 1818, and Rubinstein his opera in Berlin on April 17,1875.
The romantic career of Jephtha, a natural son, banished from home, chief of a band of roving marauders, mighty captain and ninth judge of Israel, might have fitted out many an opera text, irrespective of the pathetic story of the sacrifice of his daughter in obedience to a vow, though this episode springs first to mind when his name is mentioned, and has been the special subject of the Jephtha operas. An Italian composer named Pollarolo wrote a “Jefte” for Vienna in 1692; other operas dealing with the history are Rolle’s “Mehala, die Tochter Jephthas” (1784), Meyerbeer’s “Jephtha’s Tochter” (Munich, 1813), Generali, “Il voto di Jefte” (1827), Sanpieri, “La Figlia di Jefte” (1872). Luis Cepeda produced a Spanish opera in Madrid in 1845, and a French opera, in five acts and a prologue, by Monteclaire, was prohibited, after one performance, by Cardinal de Noailles in 1832.
Judith, the widow of Manasseh, who delivered her native city of Bethulia from the Assyrian Holofernes, lulling him to sleep with her charms and then striking off his drunken head with a falchion, though an Apocryphal personage, is the most popular of Israelitish heroines. The record shows the operas “Judith und Holofernes” by Leopold Kotzeluch (1799), “Giuditta” by S. Levi (1844), Achille Peri (1860), Righi (1871), and Sarri (1875). Naumann wrote a “Judith” in 1858, Doppler another in 1870, and Alexander Seroff a Russian opera under the same title in 1863. Martin Roder, who used to live in Boston, composed a “Judith,” but it was never performed, while George W. Chadwick’s “Judith,” half cantata, half opera, which might easily be fitted for the stage, has had to rest content with a concert performance at a Worcester (Mass.) festival.
The memory of Esther, the queen of Ahasuerus, who saved her people from massacre, is preserved and her deed celebrated by the Jews in their gracious festival of Purim. A gorgeous figure for the stage, she has been relegated to the oratorio platform since the end of the eighteenth century. Racine’s tragedy “Athalie” has called out music from Abbe Vogler, Gossec, Boieldieu, Mendelssohn, and others, and a few oratorios, one by Handel, have been based on the story of the woman through whom idolatry was introduced into Judah; but I have no record of any Athalia opera.
RUBINSTEIN’S “GEISTLICHE OPER”
I have a strong belief in the essential excellence of Biblical subjects for the purposes of the lyric drama–at least from an historical point of view. I can see no reason against but many reasons in favor of a return to the stage of the patriarchal and heroic figures of the people who are a more potent power in the world to-day, despite their dispersal and loss of national unity, than they were in the days of their political grandeur and glory. Throughout the greater part of his creative career Anton Rubinstein was the champion of a similar idea. Of the twenty works which he wrote for the theatre, including ballets, six were on Biblical subjects, and to promote a propaganda which began with the composition of “Der Thurmbau zu Babel,” in 1870, he not only entered the literary field, but made personal appeal for practical assistance in both the Old World and the New. His, however, was a religious point of view, not the historical or political. It is very likely that a racial predilection had much to do with his attitude on the subject, but in his effort to bring religion into the service of the lyric stage he was no more Jew than Christian: the stories to which he applied his greatest energies were those of Moses and Christ.
Much against my inclination (for Rubinstein came into my intellectual life under circumstances and conditions which made him the strongest personal influence in music that I have ever felt), I have been compelled to believe that there were other reasons besides those which he gave for his championship of Biblical opera. Smaller men than he, since Wagner’s death, have written trilogies and dreamed of theatres and festivals devoted to performances of their works. Little wonder if Rubinstein believed that he had created, or could create, a kind of art-work which should take place by the side of “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” and have its special home like Bayreuth; and it may have been a belief that his project would excite the sympathetic zeal of the devout Jew and pious Christian alike, as much as his lack of the capacity for self-criticism, which led him like a will-o’-the-wisp along the path which led into the bogs of failure and disappointment.
While I was engaged in writing the programme book for the music festival given in New York in 1881, at which “The Tower of Babel” was performed in a truly magnificent manner, Dr. Leopold Damrosch, the conductor of the festival, told me that Rubinstein had told him that the impulse to use Biblical subjects in lyrical dramas had come to him while witnessing a ballet based on a Bible story many years before in Paris. He said that he had seldom been moved so profoundly by any spectacle as by this ballet, and it suggested to him the propriety of treating sacred subjects in a manner worthy of them, yet different from the conventional oratorio. The explanation has not gotten into the books, but is not inconsistent with the genesis of his Biblical operas, as related by Rubinstein in his essay on the subject printed by Joseph Lewinsky in his book “Vor den Coulissen,” published in 1882 after at least three of the operas had been written. The composer’s defence of his works and his story of the effort which he made to bring about a realization of his ideals deserve to be rehearsed in justice to his character as man and artist, as well as in the interest of the works themselves and the subjects, which, I believe, will in the near future occupy the minds of composers again.
“The oratorio,” said Rubinstein, “is an art-form which I have always been disposed to protest against. The best-known masterpieces of this form have, not during the study of them but when hearing them performed, always left me cold; indeed, often positively pained me. The stiffness of the musical and still more of the poetical form always seemed to me absolutely incongruous with the high dramatic feeling of the subject. To see and hear gentlemen in dress coats, white cravats, yellow gloves, holding music books before them, or ladies in modern, often extravagant, toilets singing the parts of the grand, imposing figures of the Old and New Testaments has always disturbed me to such a degree that I could never attain to pure enjoyment. Involuntarily I felt and thought how much grander, more impressive, vivid, and true would be all that I had experienced in the concert-room if represented on the stage with costumes, decorations, and full action.”
The contention, said Rubinstein in effect, that Biblical subjects are ill adapted to the stage beeause of their sacred character is a testimony of poverty for the theatre, which should be an agency in the service of the highest purposes of culture. The people have always wanted to see stage representations of Bible incidents; witness the mystery plays of the Middle Ages and the Passion Play at Oberammergau to-day. But yielding to a prevalent feeling that such representations are a profanation of sacred history, he had conceived an appropriate type of art-work which was to be produced in theatres to be specially built for the purpose and by companies of artists to be specially trained to that end. This art-work was to be called Sacred Opera (geistliche Oper), to distinguish it from secular opera, but its purpose was to be purely artistic and wholly separate from the interests of the Church. He developed ways and means for raising the necessary funds, enlisting artists, overcoming the difficulties presented by the mise en scene and the polyphonic character of the choral music, and set forth his aim in respect of the subject-matter of the dramas to be a representation in chronological order of the chief incidents described in the Old and New Testaments. He would be willing to include in his scheme Biblical operas already existing, if they were not all, with the exception of Mehul’s “Joseph,” made unfit by their treatment of sacred matters, especially by their inclusion of love episodes which brought them into the domain of secular opera.
For years, while on his concert tours in various countries, Rubinstein labored to put his plan into operation. Wherever he found a public accustomed to oratorio performances he inquired into the possibility of establishing his sacred theatre there. He laid the project before the Grand Duke of Weimar, who told him that it was feasible only in large cities. The advice sent him to Berlin, where he opened his mind to the Minister of Education, von Muhler. The official had his doubts; sacred operas might do for Old Testament stories, but not for New; moreover, such a theatre should be a private, not a governmental, undertaking. He sought the opinion of Stanley, Dean of Westminster Abbey, who said that he could only conceive a realization of the idea in the oldtime popular manner, upon a rude stage at a country fair.
For a space it looked as if the leaders of the Jewish congregations in Paris would provide funds for the enterprise so far as it concerned itself with subjects taken from the Old Dispensation; but at the last they backed out, fearing to take the initiative in a matter likely to cause popular clamor. “I even thought of America,” says Rubinstein, “of the daring transatlantic impresarios, with their lust of enterprise, who might be inclined to speculate on a gigantic scale with my idea. I had indeed almost succeeded, but the lack of artists brought it to pass that the plans, already in a considerable degree of forwardness, had to be abandoned. I considered the possibility of forming an association of composers and performing artists to work together to carry on the enterprise materially, intellectually, and administratively; but the great difficulty of enlisting any considerable number of artists for the furtherance of a new idea in art frightened me back from this purpose also.” In these schemes there are evidences of Rubinstein’s willingness to follow examples set by Handel as well as Wagner. The former composed “Judas Maccabaeus” and “Alexander Balus” to please the Jews who had come to his help when he made financial shipwreck with his opera; the latter created the Richard Wagner Verein to put the Bayreuth enterprise on its feet.
Of the six sacred operas composed by Rubinstein three may be said to be practicable for stage representation. They are “Die Makkabaer,” “Sulamith” (based on Solomon’s Song of Songs) and “Christus.” The first has had many performances in Germany; the second had a few performances in Hamburg in 1883; the last, first performed as an oratorio in Berlin in 1885, was staged in Bremen in 1895. It has had, I believe, about fourteen representations in all. As for the other three works, “Der Thurmbau zu Babel” (first performance in Konigsberg in 1870), “Das verlorene Paradies” (Dusseldorf, 1875), and “Moses” (still awaiting theatrical representation, I believe), it may be said of them that they are hybrid creations which combine the oratorio and opera styles by utilizing the powers of the oldtime oratorio chorus and the modern orchestra, with the descriptive capacity of both raised to the highest power, to illustrate an action which is beyond the capabilities of the ordinary stage machinery. In the character of the forms employed in the works there is no startling innovation; we meet the same alternation of chorus, recitative, aria, and ensemble that we have known since the oratorio style was perfected. A change, howeer, has come over the spirit of the expression and the forms have all relaxed some of their rigidity. In the oratorios of Handel and Haydn there are instances not a few of musical delineation in the instrumental as well as the vocal parts; but nothing in them can be thought of, so far at least as the ambition of the design extends, as a companion piece to the scene in the opera which pictures the destruction of the tower of Babel. This is as far beyond the horizon of the fancy of the old masters as it is beyond the instrumental forces which they controlled.
“Paradise Lost,” the text paraphrased from portions of Milton’s epic, is an oratorio pure and simple. It deals with the creation of the world according to the Mosaic (or as Huxley would have said, Miltonic) theory and the medium of expression is an alternation of recitatives and choruses, the latter having some dramatic life and a characteristic accompaniment. It is wholly contemplative; there is nothing like action in it. “The Tower of Babel” has action in the restricted sense in which it enters into Mendelssohn’s oratorios, and scenic effects which would tax the utmost powers of the modern stage-machinist who might attempt to carry them out. A mimic tower of Babel is more preposterous than a mimic temple of Dagon; yet, unless Rubinstein’s stage directions are to be taken in a Pickwickian sense, we ought to listen to this music while looking at a stage-setting more colossal than any ever contemplated by dramatist before. We should see a wide stretch of the plain of Shinar; in the foreground a tower so tall as to give color of plausibility to a speech which prates of an early piercing of heaven and so large as to provide room for a sleeping multitude on its scaffoldings. Brick kilns, derricks, and all the apparatus and machinery of building should be on all hands, and from the summit of a mound should grow a giant tree, against whose trunk should hang a brazen shield to be used as a signal gong. We should see in the progress of the opera the bustling activity of the workmen, the roaring flames and rolling smoke of the brick kilns, and witness the miraculous spectacle of a man thrown into the fire and walking thence unharmed. We should see (in dissolving views) the dispersion of the races and behold the unfolding of a rainbow in the sky. And, finally, we should get a glimpse of an open heaven and the Almighty on His throne, and a yawning hell, with Satan and his angels exercising their dread dominion. Can such scenes be mimicked successfully enough to preserve a serious frame of mind in the observer? Hardly. Yet the music seems obviously to have been written in the expectation that sight shall aid hearing to quicken the fancy and emotion and excite the faculties to an appreciation of the work.
“The Tower of Babel” has been performed upon the stage; how I cannot even guess. Knowing, probably, that the work would be given in concert form oftener than in dramatic, Rubinstein tries to stimulate the fancy of those who must be only listeners by profuse stage directions which are printed in the score as well as the book of words. “Moses” is in the same case. By the time that Rubinstein had completed it he evidently realized that its hybrid character as well as its stupendous scope would stand in the way of performances of any kind. Before even a portion of its music had been heard in public, he wrote in a letter to a friend: “It is too theatrical for the concert-room and too much like an oratorio for the theatre. It is, in fact, the perfect type of the sacred opera that I have dreamed of for years. What will come of it I do not know; I do not think it can be performed entire. As it contains eight distinct parts, one or two may from time to time be given either in a concert or on the stage.”
America was the first country to act on the suggestion of a fragmentary performance. The first scene was brought forward in New York by Walter Damrosch at a public rehearsal and concert of the Symphony Society (the Oratorio Society assisting) on January 18 and 19, 1889. The third scene was performed by the German Liederkranz, under Reinhold L. Herman, on January 27 of the same year. The third and fourth scenes were in the scheme of the Cincinnati Music Festival, Theodore Thomas, conductor, on May 25,1894.
Each of the eight scenes into which the work is divided deals with an episode in the life of Israel’s lawgiver. In the first scene we have the incident of the finding of the child in the bulrushes; in the second occurs the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptian taskmasters, the slaying of one of the overseers by Moses, who, till then regarded as the king’s son, now proclaims himself one of the oppressed race. The third scene discloses Moses protecting Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, a Midianitish priest, from a band of marauding Edomites, his acceptance of Jethro’s hospitality and the scene of the burning bush and the proclamation of his mission. Scene IV deals with the plagues, those of blood, hail, locusts, frogs, and vermin being delineated in the instrumental introduction to the part, the action beginning while the land is shrouded in the “thick darkness that might be felt.” The Egyptians call upon Osiris to dispel the darkness, but are forced at last to appeal to Moses. He demands the liberation of his people as the price to be paid for the removal of the plague; receiving a promise from Pharaoh, he utters a prayer ending with “Let there be light.” The result is celebrated in a brilliant choral acclamation of the returning sun. The scene has a parallel in Rossini’s opera. Pharaoh now equivocates; he will free the sons of Jacob, but not the women, children, or chattels. Moses threatens punishment in the death of all of Egypt’s first-born, and immediately solo and chorus voices bewail the new affliction. When the king hears that his son is dead he gives his consent, and the Israelites depart with an ejaculation of thanks to Jehovah. The passage of the Red Sea, Miriam’s celebration of that miracle, the backsliding of the Israelites and their worship of the golden calf, the reception of the Tables of the Law, the battle between the Israelites and Modbites on the threshold of the Promised Land, and the evanishment and apotheosis of Moses are the contents of the remainder of the work.
It is scarcely to be wondered at that the subjects which opera composers have found adaptable to their uses in the New Testament are very few compared with those offered by the Old. The books written by the evangelists around the most stupendous tragical story of all time set forth little or nothing (outside of the birth, childhood, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) which could by any literary ingenuity be turned into a stage play except the parables with which Christ enforced and illustrated His sermons. The sublime language and imagery of the Apocalypse have furnished forth the textual body of many oratorios, but it still transcends the capacity of mortal dramatist.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son there is no personage whose presentation in dramatic garb could be looked upon as a profanation of the Scriptures. It is this fact, probably, coupled with its profoundly beautiful reflection of human nature, which has made it a popular subject with opera writers. There was an Italian “Figliuolo Prodigo” as early as 1704, composed by one Biffi; a French melodrama, “L’Enfant Prodigue,” by Morange about 1810; a German piece of similar character by Joseph Drechsler in Vienna in 1820. Pierre Gaveaux, who composed “Leonore, ou l’Amour Conjugal,” which provided Beethoven with his “Fidelio,” brought out a comic opera on the subject of the Prodigal Son in 1811, and Berton, who had also dipped into Old Testament story in an oratorio, entitled “Absalon,” illustrated the parable in a ballet. The most recent settings of the theme are also the most significant: Auber’s five- act opera “L’Enfant Prodigue,” brought out in Paris in 1850, and Ponchielli’s “Il Figliuolo Prodigo,” in four acts, which had its first representation at La Scala in 1880.
The mediaeval mysteries were frequently interspersed with choral songs, for which the liturgy of the Church provided material. If we choose to look upon them as incipient operas or precursors of that art-form we must yet observe that their monkish authors, willing enough to trick out the story of the Nativity with legendary matter drawn from the Apocryphal New Testament, which discloses anything but a reverential attitude toward the sublime tragedy, nevertheless stood in such awe before the spectacle of Calvary that they deemed it wise to leave its dramatic treatment to the church service in the Passion Tide. In that service there was something approaching to characterization in the manner of the reading by the three deacons appointed to deliver, respectively, the narrative, the words of Christ, and the utterances of the Apostles and people; and it may be–that this and the liturgical solemnities of Holy Week were reverently thought sufficient by them and the authors of the first sacred operas. Nevertheless, we have Reiser’s “Der Blutige und Sterbende Jesus,” performed at Hamburg, and Metastasio’s “La Passione di Gesu Christi,” composed first by Caldara, which probably was an oratorio.
Earlier than these was Theile’s “Die Geburt Christi,” performed in Hamburg in 1681. The birth of Christ and His childhood (there was an operatic representation of His presentation in the Temple) were subjects which appealed more to the writers of the rude plays which catered to the popular love for dramatic mummery than did His crucifixion. I am speaking now more specifically of lyric dramas, but it is worthy of note that in the Coventry mysteries, as Hone points out in the preface to his book, “Ancient Mysteries Described,” [Footnote: “Ancient Mysteries Described, especially the English Miracle Plays Founded on Apocryphal New Testament Story,” London, 1823.] there are eight plays, or pageants, which deal with the Nativity as related in the canon and the pseudo-gospels. In them much stress was laid upon the suspicions of the Virgin Mother’s chastity, for here was material that was good for rude diversion as well as instruction in righteousness.
That Rubinstein dared to compose a Christ drama must be looked upon as proof of the profound sincerity of his belief in the art-form which he fondly hoped he had created; also, perhaps, as evidence of his artistic ingenuousness. Only a brave or naive mind could have calmly contemplated a labor from which great dramatists, men as great as Hebbel, shrank back in alarm. After the completion of “Lohengrin” Wagner applied himself to the creation of a tragedy which he called “Jesus of Nazareth.” We know his plan in detail, but he abandoned it after he had offered his sketches to a French poet as the basis of a lyric drama which he hoped to write for Paris. He confesses that he was curious to know what the Frenchman would do with a work the stage production of which would “provoke a thousand frights.” He himself was unwilling to stir up such a tempest in Germany; instead, he put his sketches aside and used some of their material in his “Parsifal.”
Wagner ignored the religious, or, let us say, the ecclesiastical, point of view entirely in “Jesus of Nazareth.” His hero was to have been, as I have described him elsewhere, [Footnote: “A Book of Operas,” p. 288.] “a human philosopher who preached the saving grace of Love and sought to redeem his time and people from the domination of conventional law–the offspring of selfishness. His philosophy was socialism imbued by love.” Rubinstein proceeded along the lines of history, or orthodox belief, as unreservedly in his “Christus” as he had done in his “Moses.” The work may be said to have brought his creative activities to a close, although two compositions (a set of six pianoforte pieces and an orchestral suite) appear in his list of numbered works after the sacred opera. He died on November 20, 1894, without having seen a stage representation of it. Nor did he live to see a public theatrical performance of his “Moses,” though he was privileged to witness a private performance arranged at the German National Theatre in Prague so that he might form an opinion of its effectiveness. The public has never been permitted to learn anything about the impression which the work made.
On May 25, 1895, a series of representations of “Christus” was begun in Bremen, largely through the instrumentality of Professor Bulthaupt, a potent and pervasive personage in the old Hanseatic town. He was not only a poet and the author of the book of this opera and of some of Bruch’s works, but also a painter, and his mural decorations in the Bremen Chamber of Commerce are proudly displayed by the citizens of the town. It was under the supervision of the painter-poet that the Bremen representations were given and, unless I am mistaken, he painted the scenery or much of it. One of the provisions of the performances was that applause was prohibited out of reverence for the sacred character of the scenes, which were as frankly set forth as at Oberammergau. The contents of the tragedy in some scenes and an epilogue briefly outlined are these: The first scene shows the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, where the devil “shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” This disclosure is made by a series of scenes, each opening for a short time in the background–castles, palaces, gardens, mountains of gold, and massive heaps of earth’s treasures. In the second scene John the Baptist is seen and heard preaching on the banks of the Jordan, in whose waters he baptizes Jesus. This scene at the Bremen representations was painted from sketches made by Herr Handrich in Palestine, as was also that of the “Sermon on the Mount” and “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes,” which form the subject of the next part. The fourth tableau shows the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple; the fifth the Last Supper, with the garden of Gethsemane as a background; the sixth the trial and the last the crucifixion. Here, as if harking back to his “Tower of Babel,” Rubinstein brings in pictures of heaven and hell, with angels and devils contemplating the catastrophe. The proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles by St. Paul is the subject of the epilogue.
“SAMSON ET DALILA”
There are but two musical works based on the story of Samson on the current list to-day, Handel’s oratorio and Saint-Saens’s opera; but lyric drama was still in its infancy when the subject first took hold of the fancy of composers and it has held it ever since. The earliest works were of the kind called sacred operas in the books and are spoken of as oratorios now, though they were doubtless performed with scenery and costumes and with action of a sort. Such were “II Sansone” by Giovanni Paola Colonna (Bologna, 1677), “Sansone accecato da Filistri” by Francesco Antonio Uri (Venice, about 1700), “Simson” by Christoph Graupner (Hamburg, 1709), “Simson” by Georg von Pasterwitz (about 1770), “Samson” by J. N. Lefroid Mereaux (Paris, 1774), “Simson” by Johann Heinrich Rolle (about 1790), “Simson” by Franz Tuczek (Vienna, 1804), and “Il Sansone” by Francesco Basili (Naples, 1824). Two French operas are associated with great names and have interesting histories. Voltaire wrote a dramatic text on the subject at the request of La Popeliniere, the farmer-general, who, as poet, musician, and artist, exercised a tremendous influence in his day. Rameau was in his service as household clavecinist and set Voltaire’s poem. The authors looked forward to a production on the stage of the Grand Opera, where at least two Biblical operas, an Old Testament “Jephte” and a New Testament “Enfant prodigue” were current; but Rameau had powerful enemies, and the opera was prohibited on the eve of the day on which it was to have been performed. The composer had to stomach his mortification as best he could; he put some of his Hebrew music into the service of his Persian “Zoroastre”. The other French Samson to whom I have re ferred had also to undergo a sea-change like unto Rameau’s, Rossini’s Moses, and Verdi’s Nebuchadnezzar. Duprez, who was ambitious to shine as a composer as well as a singer (he wrote no less than eight operas and also an oratorio, “The Last Judgment”), tried his hand on a Samson opera and succeeded in enlisting the help of Dumas the elder in writing the libretto. When he was ready to present it at the door of the Grand Opera the Minister of Fine Arts told him that it was impracticable, as the stage-setting of the last act alone would cost more than 100,000 francs, Duprez then followed the example set with Rossini’s “Mose” in London and changed the book to make it tell a story of the crusades which he called “Zephora”. Nevertheless the original form was restored in German and Italian translations of the work, and it had concert performances in 1857. To Joachim Raff was denied even this poor comfort. He wrote a German “Simson” between 1851 and 1857. The conductor at Darmstadt to whom it was first submitted rejected it on the ground that it was too difficult for his singers. Raff then gave it to Liszt, with whom he was sojourning at Weimar, and who had taken pity on his “Konig Alfred”; but the tenor singer at the Weimar opera said the music was too high for the voice. Long afterward Wagner’s friend, Schnorr von Carolsfeld, saw the score in the hands of the composer. The heroic stature of the hero delighted him, and his praise moved Raff to revise the opera; but before this had been done Schnorr died of the cold contracted while creating the role of Wagner’s Tristan at Munich in 1865. Thus mournfully ended the third episode. As late as 1882 Raff spoke of taking the opera in hand again, but though he may have done so his death found the work unperformed and it has not yet seen the light of the stage-lamps.
Saint-Saens’s opera has also passed through many vicissitudes, but has succumbed to none and is probably possessed of more vigorous life now than it ever had. It is the recognized operatic masterpiece of the most resourceful and fecund French musician since Berlioz. Saint-Saens began the composition of “Samson et Dalila” in 1869. The author of the book, Ferdinand Lemaire, was a cousin of the composer. Before the breaking out of the Franco- Prussian War the score was so far on the way to completion that it was possible to give its second act a private trial. This was done, an incident of the occasion-which afterward introduced one element of pathos in its history-being the singing of the part of Samson by the painter Henri Regnault, who soon after lost his life in the service of his country. A memorial to him and the friendship which existed between him and the composer is the “Marche Heroique,” which bears the dead man’s name on its title-page. Toward the end of 1872 the opera was finished. For two years the score rested in the composer’s desk. Then the second act was again brought forth for trial, this time at the country home of Mme. Viardot, at Croissy, the illustrious hostess singing the part of Dalila. In 1875 the first act was performed in concert style by M. Edouard Colonne in Paris. Liszt interested himself in the opera and secured its acceptance at the Grand Ducal Opera House of Weimar, where Eduard Lassen brought it out on December 2, 1877. Brussels heard it in 1878; but it did not reach one of the theatres of France until March 3, 1890, when Rouen produced it at its Theatre des Arts under the direction of M. Henri Verdhurt. It took nearly seven months more to reach Paris, where the first representation was at the Eden Theatre on October 31 of the same year. Two years later, after it had been heard in a number of French and Italian provincial theatres, it was given at the Academie Nationale de Musique under the direction of M. Colonne. The part of Dalila was taken by Mme. Deschamps-Jehin, that of Samson by M. Vergnet, that of the High Priest by M. Lassalle. Eight months before this it had been performed as an oratorio by the Oratorio Society of New York. There were two performances, on March 25 and 26, 1892, the conductor being Mr. Walter Damrosch and the principal singers being Frau Marie Ritter-Goetze, Sebastian Montariol, H. E. Distelhurst, Homer Moore, Emil Fischer, and Purdon Robinson. London had heard the work twice as an oratorio before it had a stage representation there on April 26, 1909, but this performance was fourteen years later than the first at the Metropolitan Opera House on February 8, 1895. The New York performance was scenically inadequate, but the integrity of the record demands that the cast be given here: Samson, Signor Tamagno; Dalila, Mme. Mantelli; High Priest, Signor Campanari; Abimelech and An Old Hebrew, M. Plancon; First Philistine, Signor Rinaldini; Second Philistme, Signor de Vachetti; conductor, Signor Mancinelli. The Metropolitan management did not venture upon a repetition until the opening night of the season 1915-1916, when its success was such that it became an active factor in the repertory of the establishment; but by that time it had been made fairly familiar to the New York public by performances at the Manhattan Opera House under the management of Mr. Oscar Hammerstein, the first of which took place on November 13, 1908. Signor Campanini conducted and the cast embraced Mme. Gerville- Reache as Dalila, Charles Dalmores as Samson, and M. Dufranne as High Priest. The cast at the Metropolitan Opera House’s revival of the opera on November 15,1915, was as follows: Dalila, Mme. Margarete Matzenauer; Samson, Signor Enrico Caruso; High Priest, Signor Pasquale Amato; Abimelech, Herr Carl Schlegel; An Old Hebrew, M. Leon Rothier; A Philistine Messenger, Herr Max Bloch; First Philistine, Pietro Audisio; Second Philistine, Vincenzo Reschiglian; conductor, Signor Polacco.
It would be a curious inquiry to try to determine the source of the fascination which the story of Manoah’s son has exerted upon mankind for centuries. It bears a likeness to the story of the son of Zeus and Alcmene, and there are few books on mythology which do not draw a parallel between the two heroes. Samson’s story is singularly brief. For twenty years he “judged Israel,” but the Biblical history which deals with him consists only of an account of his birth, a recital of the incidents in which he displayed his prodigious strength and valor, the tale of his amours, and, at the end, the account of his tragical destruction, brought about by the weak element in his character.
Commentators have been perplexed by the tale, irrespective of the adornments which it has received at the hands of the Talmudists. Is Samson a Hebrew form of the conception personified by the Greek Herakles? Is he a mythical creature, born in the human imagination of primitive nature worship–a variant of the Tyrian sun-god Shemesh, whose name his so curiously resembles? [In Hebrew he is called Shimshon, and the sun shemesh.] Was he something more than a man of extraordinary physical strength and extraordinary moral weakness, whose patriotic virtues and pathetic end have kept his memory alive through the ages? Have a hundred generations of men to whom the story of Herakles has appeared to be only a fanciful romance, the product of that imagination heightened by religion which led the Greeks to exalt their supreme heroes to the extent of deification, persisted in hearing and telling the story of Samson with a sympathetic interest which betrays at least a sub-conscious belief in its verity? Is the story only a parable enforcing a moral lesson which is as old as humanity? If so, how got it into the canonical Book of Judges, which, with all its mythical and legendary material, seems yet to contain a large substratum of unquestionable history?
There was nothing of the divine essence in Samson as the Hebrews conceived him, except that spirit of God with which he was directly endowed in supreme crises. There is little evidence of his possession of great wisdom, but strong proof of his moral and religious laxity. He sinned against the laws of Israel’s God when he took a Philistine woman, an idolater, to wife; he sinned against the moral law when he visited the harlot at Gaza. He was wofully weak in character when he yielded to the blandishments of Delilah and wrought his own undoing, as well as that of his people. The disgraceful slavery into which Herakles fell was not caused by the hero’s incontinence or uxoriousness, but a punishment for crime, in that he had in a fit of madness killed his friend Iphitus. And the three years which he spent as the slave of Omphale were punctuated by larger and better deeds than those of Samson in like situation– bursting the new cords with which the men of Judah had bound him and the green withes and new ropes with which Delilah shackled him. The record that Samson “judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years” leads the ordinary reader to think of him as a sage, judicial personage, whereas it means only that he was the political and military leader of his people during that period, lifted to a magisterial position by his strength and prowess in war. His achievements were muscular, not mental.
Rabbinical legends have magnified his stature and power in precisely the same manner as the imagination of the poet of the “Lay of the Nibelung” magnified the stature and strength of Siegfried. His shoulders, says the legend, were sixty ells broad; when the Spirit of God came on him he could step from Zorah to Eshtaol although he was lame in both feet; the hairs of his head arose and clashed against one another so that they could be heard for a like distance; he was so strong that he could uplift two mountains and rub them together like two clods of earth, Herakles tore asunder the mountain which, divided, now forms the Straits of Gibraltar and Gates of Hercules.
The parallel which is frequently drawn between Samson and Herakles cannot be pursued far with advantage to the Hebrew hero. Samson rent a young lion on the road to Timnath, whither he was going to take his Philistine wife; Herakles, while still a youthful herdsman, slew the Thespian lion and afterward strangled the Nemean lion with his hands. Samson carried off the gates of Gaza and bore them to the top of a hill before Hebron; Herakles upheld the heavens while Atlas went to fetch the golden apples of Hesperides. Moreover, the feats of Herakles show a higher intellectual quality than those of Samson, all of which, save one, were predominantly physical. The exception was the trick of tying 300 foxes by their tails, two by two, with firebrands between and turning them loose to burn the corn of the Philistines. An ingenious way to spread a conflagration, probably, but primitive, decidedly primitive. Herakles was a scientific engineer of the modern school; he yoked the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to his service by turning their waters through the Augean stables and cleansing them of the deposits of 3000 oxen for thirty years. Herakles had excellent intellectual training; Rhadamanthus taught him wisdom and virtue, Linus music. We know nothing about the bringing up of Samson save that “the child grew and the Lord blessed him. And the Lord began to move him at times in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol.” Samson made little use of his musical gifts, if he had any, but that little he made well; Herakles made little use of his musical training, and that little he made ill. He lost his temper and killed his music master with his lute; Samson, after using an implement which only the black slaves of our South have treated as a musical instrument, to slay a thousand Philistines, jubilated in song:–
With the jawbone of an ass
Heaps upon heaps!
With the jawbone of an ass
Have I slain a thousand men!
The vast fund of human nature laid bare in the story of Samson is, it appears to me, quite sufficient to explain its popularity, and account for its origin. The hero’s virtues–strength, courage, patriotism–are those which have ever won the hearts of men, and they present themselves as but the more admirable, as they are made to appear more natural, by pairing with that amiable weakness, susceptibility to woman’s charms.
After all Samson is a true type of the tragic hero, whatever Dr. Chrysander or another may say. He is impelled by Fate into a commission of the follies which bring about the wreck of his body. His marriage with the Philistine woman in Timnath was part of a divine plot, though unpatriotic and seemingly impious. When his father said unto him: “Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren or among all my people that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?” he did not know that “it was of the Lord that he sought an occasion against the Philistines.” Out of that wooing and winning grew the first of the encounters which culminated in the destruction of the temple of Dagon, when “the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.” So his yielding to the pleadings of his wife when she betrayed the answer to his riddle and his succumbing to the wheedling arts of Delilah when he betrayed the secret of his strength (acts incompatible with the character of an ordinary strong and wise man) were of the type essential to the machinery of the Greek drama.
A word about the mythological interpretation of the characters which have been placed in parallel: It may be helpful to an understanding of the Hellenic mind to conceive Herakles as a marvellously strong man, first glorified into a national hero and finally deified. So, too, the theory, that Herakles sinking down upon his couch of fire is but a symbol of the declining sun can be entertained without marring the grandeur of the hero or belittling Nature’s phenomenon; but it would obscure our understanding of the Hebrew intellect and profane the Hebrew religion to conceive Samson as anything but the man that the Bible says he was; while to make of him, as Ignaz Golziher suggests, a symbol of the setting sun whose curly locks (crines Phoebi) are sheared by Delilah-Night, would bring contumely upon one of the most beautiful and impressive of Nature’s spectacles. Before the days of comparative mythology scholars were not troubled by such interpretations. Josephus disposes of the Delilah episode curtly: “As for Samson being ensnared by a woman, that is to be ascribed to human nature, which is too weak to resist sin.”
It is not often that an operatic figure invites to such a study as that which I have attempted in the case of Samson, and it may be that the side-wise excursion in which I have indulged invites criticism of the kind illustrated in the metaphor of using a club to brain a gnat. But I do not think so. If heroic figures seem small on the operatic stage, it is the fault of either the author or the actor. When genius in a creator is paired with genius in an interpreter, the hero of an opera is quite as deserving of analytical study as the hero of a drama which is spoken. No labor would be lost in studying the character of Wagner’s heroes in order to illuminate the impersonations of Niemann, Lehmann, or Scaria; nor is Maurel’s lago less worthy of investigation than Edwin Booth’s.
The character of Delilah presents even more features of interest than that of the man of whom she was the undoing, and to those features I purpose to devote some attention presently.
There is no symbolism in Saint-Saens’s opera. It is frankly a piece for the lyric theatre, albeit one in which adherence to a plot suggested by the Biblical story compelled a paucity of action which had to be made good by spectacle and music. The best element in a drama being that which finds expression in action and dialogue, and these being restricted by the obvious desire of the composers to avoid such extraneous matter as Rossini and others were wont to use to add interest to their Biblical operas (the secondary love stories, for instance), Saint-Saens could do nothing else than employ liberally the splendid factor of choral music which the oratorio form brought to his hand.
We are introduced to that factor without delay. Even before the first scene is opened to our eyes we hear the voice of the multitude in prayer. The Israelites, oppressed by their conquerors and sore stricken at the reflection that their God has deserted them, lament, accuse, protest, and pray. Before they have been heard, the poignancy of their woe has been published by the orchestra, which at once takes its place beside the chorus as a peculiarly eloquent expositor of the emotions and passions which propel the actors in the drama. That mission and that eloquence it maintains from the beginning to the final catastrophe, the instrumental band doing its share toward characterizing the opposing forces, emphasizing the solemn dignity of the Hebrew religion and contrasting it with the sensuous and sensual frivolity of the worshippers of Dagon. The choral prayer has for its instrumental substructure an obstinate syncopated figure,
[figure: an musical score excerpt]
which rises with the agonized cries of the people and sinks with their utterances of despair. The device of introducing voices before the disclosure of visible action in an opera is not new, and in this case is both uncalled for and ineffective. Gounod made a somewhat similar effort in his “Romeo et Juliette,” where a costumed group of singers presents a prologue, vaguely visible through a gauze curtain. Meyerbeer tried the expedient in “Le Pardon de Ploermel,” and the siciliano in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and the prologue in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” are other cases in point. Of these only the last can be said to achieve its purpose in arresting the early attention of the audience. When the curtain opens we see a public place in Gaza in front of the temple of Dagon. The Israelites are on their knees and in attitudes of mourning, among them Samson. The voice of lamentation takes a fugal form–
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
as the oppressed people tell of the sufferings which they have endured:–
Nous avons vu nos cites renversees
Et les gentils profanants ton autel, etc.
The expression rises almost to the intensity of sacrilegious accusation as the people recall to God the vow made to them in Egypt, but sinks to accents of awe when they reflect upon the incidents of their former serfdom. Now Samson stands forth. In a broad arioso, half recitative, half cantilena, wholly in the oratorio style when it does not drop into the mannerism of Meyerbeerian opera, he admonishes his brethren of their need to trust in God, their duty to worship Him, of His promises to aid them, of the wonders that He had already wrought in their behalf; he bids them to put off their doubts and put on their armor of faith and valor. As he proceeds in his preachment he develops somewhat of the theatrical pose of John of Leyden in “The Prophet.” The Israelites mutter gloomily of the departure of their days of glory, but gradually take warmth from the spirit which has obsessed Samson and pledge themselves to do battle with the foe with him under the guidance of Jehovah.
Now Abimelech, Satrap of Gaza, appears surrounded by Philistine soldiers. He rails at the Israelites as slaves, sneers at their God as impotent and craven, lifts up the horn of Dagon, who, he says, shall pursue Jehovah as a falcon pursues a dove. The speech fills Samson with a divine anger, which bursts forth in a canticle of prayer and prophecy. There is a flash as of swords in the scintillant scale passages which rush upward from the eager, angry, pushing figure which mutters and rages among the instruments. The Israelites catch fire from Samson’s ecstatic ardor and echo the words in which he summons them to break their chains. Abimelech rushes forward to kill Samson, but the hero wrenches the sword from the Philistine’s hand and strikes him dead. The satrap’s soldiers would come to his aid, but are held in fear by the hero, who is now armed. The Israelites rush off to make war on their oppressors. The High Priest comes down from the temple of Dagon and pauses where the body of Abimelech lies. Two Philistines tell of the fear which had paralyzed them when Samson showed his might. The High Priest rebukes them roundly for their cowardice, but has scarcely uttered his denunciation before a Messenger enters to tell him that Samson and his Israelitish soldiers have overrun and ravaged the country. Curses and vows of vengeance against Israel, her hero, and her God from the mouth of Dagon’s servant. One of his imprecations is destined to be fulfilled:–
Maudit soit le sein de la femme
Qui lui donna le jour!
Qu’enfin une compagne infame
Trahisse son amour!
Revolutions run a rapid course in operatic Palestine. The insurrection is but begun with the slaying of Abimelech, yet as the Philistines, bearing away his body, leave the scene, it is only to make room for the Israelites, chanting of their victory. We expect a sonorous hymn of triumph, but the people of God have been chastened and awed by their quick deliverance, and their paean is in the solemn tone of temple psalmody, the first striking bit of local color which the composer has introduced into his score–a reticence on his part of which it may be said that it is all the more remarkable from the fact that local color is here completely justified:–
[figure: a musical score excerpt, sung to the words “Praise, ye Jehovah! Tell all the wondrous story! Psalms of praise loudly swell!]
“Hymne de joie, hymne de deliverance Montez vers l’Eternel!”
It is a fine piece of dramatic characterization; which is followed by one whose serene beauty is heightened by contrast. Dalila and a company of singing and dancing Philistine women come in bearing garlands of flowers. Not only Samson’s senses, our own as well, are ravished by the delightful music:–
Voici le printemps, nous portant des fleurs Pour orner le front des guerriers vainquers! Melons nos accents aux parfums des roses A peine ecloses!
Avec l’oiseau chantons, mes soeurs!