The arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Albany in the morning, their reception by the civic dignitaries at the station, and by an enthusiastic crowd in the streets, a rainy day and well filled hall in spite of it, were incidents of the second day as they had been of the first day of the festival. The work performed at this morning's concert, although not written for the present meeting, is in a certain sense connected with it. Herr Joachim Raff had it appears, been invited to conduct his Weltende at Leeds, and had accepted the invitation, when death prevented what would have been his first visit to this country. "It was," writes the composer's widow to the committee, "one of my husband's last occupations to enter the excellently translated words of his oratorio into the manuscript, in order to get the work ready for the Leeds Musical Festival. He had quite made up his mind to attend the performance at Leeds personally. But, alas! it was not to be." As to "excellently translated" words, I may add in parenthesis, that those who have a more intimate knowledge of the English language than Madame Raff can be expected to possess, will probably hold a different opinion when they read the curious verbal and grammatical eccentricities placed in the mouth of the singers. But of this, it is useless to complain, seeing that the improvement in this department of literature for the present, at least, seems impossible.
The subject of Herr Raff's oratorio, if thus it may be called, is taken from the Apocalypse, and is divided in three parts. The first part bears the sub-title "The World's End," and is again divided into four sections, respectively called "The visions of St. John," "The Apocalyptic Riders," "Petition and Thanksgiving of the Martyrs," and "Last Signs in nature and Despair of Mankind." "In the first section we have" to quote the summary prefixed to the book of words "the vision of the book sealed with seven seals, and of the Lamb who alone was found worthy to open it. The second section depicts the riding forth of the horseman, pestilence, war, famine, and death. The third deals with the vision of the martyrs; their despairing cry, 'How long, O Lord!' and their consolation; while the fourth describes the awful phenomena of the last day. In part II., called "Judgement," which is not subdivided, the seventh angel sounds the trumpet of doom; the quick and dead stand before God, and the lost and saved express their despair and joy. In part III, 'The new world,' a new Heaven and a new earth are revealed, the praises of whose Creator are sung; the whole ending with the benediction 'the grace of Our Lord be with us all, Amen.'"
The choice of a theme thus fraught with terror will not surprise those who know Raff's artistic leanings. It is related that when the "Divine Comedy" had reached the masses of the Italian people, Dante was pointed at in the streets as one who had come back from the Inferno, and whose face shone with the reflex of unearthly flames. The same might be said of a group of modern composers, who follow in the steps of Hector Berlioz. To these "Death rides," damnations de Faust, and the terrors of death and judgement are "familiar in the mouth as household words." The musical treatment of such themes could not well be confined within the limits of classical "form," and it is not, therefore, a matter for surprise that the composers here referred to belong more or less to the so-called "advanced" school, although Wagner, the greatest representative of that school, knew nothing of those ghastly horrors. Raff in his "Leonora" symphony shows himself a consummate master of this kind of "machinery;" at the same time he never swore unqualified allegiance to the new school. He was essentially an eclectic, and this eclecticism has led to singular results in his present work, the last of importance that fell from his pen.
The composer seems to have drawn a line of demarcation in his mind between his classical and his modern tendencies, devoting to the former the choral and to the latter the instrumental portions of his work. As long as he writes for the voice there is nothing in his score to which even such a purist as Mendelssohn would have objected; as soon as he confines himself to the orchestra he spreads the sails of his fancy and at the same time throws the trammels of abstract form overboard. The result is a curious mixture of styles, a mixture which an original master of the first order would disdain, but which only an extremely gifted writer of the second could attempt with success. The Weltende confirm's one's opinion that Raff fell little short of being a great composer. Being unfortunately compelled by circumstances to write much he had no time always to realize if what he wrote came from his inspiration or his
Regarding the form of the present work, it should be explained that the instrumental parts - intermezzi, as they are called - occupy a much more important place than is common in oratorio. It is to these intermezzi that the descriptive side of the subject is intrusted. As each of the seals is opened, as each of the mystic horsemen rides forth, the orchestra depicts in an elaborate piece the evils which fall upon mankind. Whatever may be thought of Raff's success in bringing home his intention to the hearer's mind his imaginative power and his absolute mastery over the resources of the modern orchestra must at least be admitted, The "pestilence" movement, for example, is a consummate masterpiece of orchestral colouring, painted in the sombrest gris-en-gris. There is no variety of light and shade, no gradation of dynamic nuance; not a single piano or forte is marked in the pianoforte score, and the rhythm, suggested by the tramping of the horse, remains the same throughout. It is as if the mystic horseman were riding through the land scattering slow but certain death wherever he comes. Monotony here becomes a powerful pictorial motive. Equally impressive is the "War" intermezzo which follows after the breaking of the second seal. Here again the colour is at first subdued. We witness the vision of the battle, not the battle itself. The weird sounds of drum and fife are heard from afar as if the fight were carried on at a distance or by departed spirits in the clouds, as in Kaulbach's picture of the "Battle of the Huns." Gradually, however, the strife grows louder, till at last a splendid fortissimo is reached, followed in its turn by the solemn chords of the representative theme betokening Death. Of this theme and of another "leit-motive," which may be identified with the power and mercy of "Him that sat upon the Throne," Raff makes excellent use in the course of the oratorio. In the most important orchestral piece entitled "Death and Hell" the composer is somewhat overpowered by his subject. The fugal treatment of the "death motive" is in its way excellent, but the chromatic scales subsequently employed to depict the terrors of the nether world have been worked too much by Berlioz and others to be any longer impressive.
The choral portion of the oratorio may be treated with comparative brevity. Here everything explains itself. The voice parts are effectively treated and the design of most of the pieces is strictly secundum ordinem. A very scholastic and dry fugue, which brings the oratorio to a close, may have been designed, on is tempted to suspect, with an ulterior view to a performance in England, which in the continental mind continues to be identified with the most rigorous Handel worship. Among very effective choral pieces I may mention the two choruses of the Martyrs, the grandly designed movement which illustrates the words, "Fall on us, fall down and hide us from Him who sitteth upon the throne of Judgement," and the impressive chorale. "For thou, Lord, blessest all the righteous."
In the matter of soli Raff has followed a singular course. The only character of the sacred drama is St. John, who takes upon himself the office of narrator. Mr. Santley, the representative of that garb, evidently looked upon his task as a duty rather than a pleasure. The composer has given him nothing but recitative till near the end of the piece, when a so-called aria, neither very interesting nor very effective, is vouchsafed to the fatigued voice. Under such circumstances it was, perhaps, not to be wondered as that Mr. Santley's declamation was cold and colourless, the tempo being, moreover, frequently hurried.
A little of the same character clung to the entire performance. Sir Arthur Sullivan had evidently studied the score with every care, but it may well be doubted from the artistic tendencies of his own work, whether he was altogether in sympathy with Raff's music. Perhaps also insufficient time for the rehearsals was the cause of a performance which in its orchestral part at least was decidedly wanting in fire. The chorus, as far as accuracy and volume of sound went, left nothing to be desired; refinement of expression was less conspicuous than might have been desired. But this is a point to which I shall to return on a later occasion.
The most unalloyed praise, on the other hand, is due to the representative of the contralto part, Miss Damian, who gave the three very melodious albeit slightly conventional airs assigned to "A Voice" with great earnestness and perfect finish of vocalization. This young artist has, since I heard her last, made marked progress, and has on this occasion considerably enhanced her reputation.