The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

Presented by

Public Domain Books


For music-lovers in America the great event of the season has been the performance of Mr. Paine’s oratorio, “St. Peter,” at Portland, June 3. This event is important, not only as the first appearance of an American oratorio, but also as the first direct proof we have had of the existence of creative musical genius in this country. For Mr. Paine’s Mass in D—a work which was brought out with great success several years ago in Berlin—has, for some reason or other, never been performed here. And, with the exception of Mr. Paine, we know of no American hitherto who has shown either the genius or the culture requisite for writing music in the grand style, although there is some of the Kapellmeister music, written by our leading organists and choristers, which deserves honourable mention. Concerning the rank likely to be assigned by posterity to “St. Peter,” it would be foolish now to speculate; and it would be equally unwise to bring it into direct comparison with masterpieces like the “Messiah,” “Elijah,” and “St. Paul,” the greatness of which has been so long acknowledged. Longer familiarity with the work is needed before such comparisons, always of somewhat doubtful value, can be profitably undertaken. But it must at least be said, as the net result of our impressions derived both from previous study of the score and from hearing, the performance at Portland, that Mr. Paine’s oratorio has fairly earned for itself the right to be judged by the same high standard which we apply to these noble works of Mendelssohn and Handel.

In our limited space we can give only the briefest description of the general structure of the work. The founding of Christianity, as illustrated in four principal scenes of the life of St. Peter, supplies the material for the dramatic development of the subject. The overture, beginning with an adagio movement in B-flat minor, gives expression to the vague yearnings of that time of doubt and hesitancy when the “oracles were dumb,” and the dawning of a new era of stronger and diviner faith was matter of presentiment rather than of definite hope or expectation. Though the tonality is at first firmly established, yet as the movement becomes more agitated, the final tendency of the modulations also becomes uncertain, and for a few bars it would seem as if the key of F-sharp minor might be the point of destination. But after a short melody by the wind instruments, accompanied by a rapid upward movement of strings, the dominant chord of C major asserts itself, being repeated, with sundry inversions, through a dozen bars, and leading directly into the triumphant and majestic chorus, “ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The second subject, introduced by the word “repent" descending through the interval of a diminished seventh and contrasted with the florid counterpoint of the phrase, “and believe the glad tidings of God,” is a masterpiece of contrapuntal writing, and, if performed by a choir of three or four hundred voices, would produce an overpowering effect. The divine call of Simon Peter and his brethren is next described in a tenor recitative; and the acceptance of the glad tidings is expressed in an aria, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” which, by an original but appropriate conception, is given to the soprano voice. In the next number, the disciples are dramatically represented by twelve basses and tenors, singing in four-part harmony, and alternating or combining with the full chorus in description of the aims of the new religion. The poem ends with the choral, “How lovely shines the Morning Star!” Then follows the sublime scene from Matthew xvi. 14-18, where Peter declares his master to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,"—one of the most impressive scenes, we have always thought, in the gospel history, and here not inadequately treated. The feeling of mysterious and awful grandeur awakened by Peter’s bold exclamation, “Thou art the Christ,” is powerfully rendered by the entrance of the trombones upon the inverted subdominant triad of C-sharp minor, and their pause upon the dominant of the same key. Throughout this scene the characteristic contrast between the ardent vigour of Peter and the sweet serenity of Jesus is well delineated in the music. After Peter’s stirring aria, “My heart is glad,” the dramatic climax is reached in the C-major chorus, “The Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”

The second scene is carried out to somewhat greater length, corresponding nearly to the last half of the first part of “Elijah,” from the point where the challenge is given to the prophets of Baal. In the opening passages of mingled recitative and arioso, Peter is forewarned that he shall deny his Master, and his half-indignant remonstrance is sustained, with added emphasis, by the voices of the twelve disciples, pitched a fourth higher. Then Judas comes, with a great multitude, and Jesus is carried before the high-priest. The beautiful F-minor chorus, “We hid our faces from him,” furnishes the musical comment upon the statement that “the disciples all forsook him and fled.” We hardly dare to give full expression to our feelings about this chorus (which during the past month has been continually singing itself over and over again in our recollection), lest it should be supposed that our enthusiasm has got the better of our sober judgment. The second theme, “He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, yet he opened not his mouth,” is quite Handel-like in the simplicity and massiveness of its magnificent harmonic progressions. With the scene of the denial, for which we are thus prepared, the dramatic movement becomes exceedingly rapid, and the rendering of the events in the high-priest’s hall—Peter’s bass recitative alternating its craven protestations with the clamorous agitato chorus of the servants—is stirring in the extreme. The contralto aria describing the Lord’s turning and looking upon Peter is followed by the orchestra with a lament in B-flat minor, introducing the bass aria of the repentant and remorse-stricken disciple, “O God, my God, forsake me not.” As the last strains of the lamentation die away, a choir of angels is heard, of sopranos and contraltos divided, singing, “Remember from whence thou art fallen,” to an accompaniment of harps. The second theme, “He that overcometh shall receive a crown of life," is introduced in full chorus, in a cheering allegro movement, preparing the way for a climax higher than any yet reached in the course of the work. This climax—delayed for a few moments by an andante aria for a contralto voice, “The Lord is faithful and righteous"—at last bursts upon us with a superb crescendo of strings, and the words, “Awake, thou that sleepest, arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” This chorus, which for reasons presently to be given was heard at considerable disadvantage at Portland, contains some of the best fugue-writing in the work, and is especially rich and powerful in its instrumentation.

The second part of the oratorio begins with the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus. Here we must note especially the deeply pathetic opening chorus, “The Son of Man was delivered into the hands of sinful men,” the joyous allegro, “And on the third day he rose again,” the choral, “Jesus, my Redeemer, lives,” and the quartet, “Feed the flock of God,” commenting upon the command of Jesus, “Feed my lambs.” This quartet has all the heavenly sweetness of Handel’s “He shall feed his flock,” which it suggests by similarity of subject, though not by similarity of treatment; but in a certain quality of inwardness, or religious meditativeness, it reminds one more of Mr. Paine’s favourite master, Bach. The choral, like the one in the first part and the one which follows the scene of Pentecost, is taken from the Lutheran Choral Book, and arranged with original harmony and instrumentation, in accordance with the custom of Bach, Mendelssohn, and other composers, “of introducing into their sacred compositions the old popular choral melodies which are the peculiar offspring of a religious age.” Thus the noblest choral ever written, the “Sleepers, wake,” in “St. Paul,” was composed in 1604 by Praetorius, the harmonization and accompaniment only being the work of Mendelssohn.

In “St. Peter,” as in “Elijah,” the second part, while forming the true musical climax of the oratorio, admits of a briefer description than the first part. The wave of emotion answering to the sensuously dramatic element having partly spent itself, the wave of lyric emotion gathers fresh strength, and one feels that one has reached the height of spiritual exaltation, while, nevertheless, there is not so much which one can describe to others who may not happen to have gone through with the same experience. Something of the same feeling one gets in studying Dante’s “Paradiso,” after finishing the preceding divisions of his poem: there is less which can be pictured to the eye of sense, or left to be supplied by the concrete imagination. Nevertheless, in the scene of Pentecost, which follows that of the Ascension, there is no lack of dramatic vividness. Indeed, there is nothing in the work more striking than the orchestration of the introductory tenor recitative, the mysterious chorus, “The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire,” or the amazed query which follows, “Behold, are not all these who speak Galileans? and how is it that we every one hear them in our own tongue wherein we were born?” We have heard the opinion expressed that Mr. Paine’s oratorio must be lacking in originality, since it suggests such strong reminiscences of “St. Paul.” Now, this suggestion, it seems to us, is due partly to the similarity of the subjects, independently of any likeness in the modes of treatment, and partly, perhaps, to the fact that Mr. Paine, as well as Mendelssohn, has been a devoted student of Bach, whose characteristics are so strong that they may well have left their mark upon the works of both composers. But especially it would seem that there is some real, though very general resemblance between this colloquial chorus, “Behold,” etc., and some choruses in “St. Paul,” as, for example Nos. 29 and 36-38. In the same way the scene in the high-priest’s hall might distantly suggest either of these passages, or others in “Elijah;” These resemblances, however, are very superficial, pertaining not to the musical but to the dramatic treatment of situations which are generically similar in so far, and only in so far, as they represent conversational passages between an apostle or prophet and an ignorant multitude, whether amazed or hostile, under the sway of violent excitement. As regards the musical elaboration of these terse and striking alternations of chorus and recitative, its originality can be questioned only after we have decided to refer all originality on such matters to Bach, or, indeed, even behind him, into the Middle Ages.

After the preaching of Peter, and the sweet contralto aria, “As for man, his days are as grass,” the culmination of this scene comes in the D-major chorus, “This is the witness of God.” What follows, beginning with the choral, “Praise to the Father,” is to be regarded as an epilogue or peroration to the whole work. It is in accordance with a sound tradition that the grand sacred drama of an oratorio should conclude with a lyric outburst of thanksgiving, a psalm of praise to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Thus, after Peter’s labours are ended in the aria, “Now as ye were redeemed,” in which the twelve disciples and the full chorus join, a duet for tenor and soprano, “Sing unto God," brings us to the grand final chorus in C major, “Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty.”

The cadence of this concluding chorus reminds us that one of the noteworthy points in the oratorio is the character of its cadences. The cadence prepared by the 6/4 chord, now become so hackneyed from its perpetual and wearisome repetition in popular church music, seems to be especially disliked by Mr. Paine, as it occurs but once or twice in the course of the work. In the great choruses the cadence is usually reached either by a pedal on the tonic, as in the chorus, “Awake, thou that sleepest,” or by a pedal on the dominant culminating in a chord of the major ninth, as in the final chorus; or there is a plagal cadence, as in the first chorus of the second part; or, if the 6/4 chord is introduced, as it is in the chorus, “He that overcometh,” its ordinary effect is covered and obscured by the movement of the divided sopranos. We do not remember noticing anywhere such a decided use of the 6/4 chord as is made, for example, by Mendelssohn, in “Thanks be to God,” or in the final chorus of “St. Paul.” Perhaps if we were to confess our lingering fondness for the cadence prepared by the 6/4 chord, when not too frequently introduced, it might only show that we retain a liking for New England “psalm-tunes"; but it does seem to us that a sense of final repose, of entire cessation of movement, is more effectually secured by this cadence than by any other. Yet while the 6/4 cadence most completely expresses finality and rest, it would seem that the plagal and other cadences above enumerated as preferred by Mr. Paine have a certain sort of superiority by reason of the very incompleteness with which they express finality. There is no sense of finality whatever about the Phrygian cadence; it leaves the mind occupied with the feeling of a boundless region beyond, into which one would fain penetrate; and for this reason it has, in sacred music, a great value. Something of the same feeling, too, attaches to those cadences in which an unexpected major third usurps the place of the minor which the ear was expecting, as in the “Incarnatus” of Mozart’s “Twelfth Mass,” or in Bach’s sublime “Prelude,” Part I., No. 22 of the “Well-tempered Clavichord.” In a less degree, an analogous effect was produced upon us by the cadence with a pedal on the tonic in the choruses, “The Church is built,” and “Awake, thou that sleepest.” On these considerations it may become intelligible that to some hearers Mr. Paine’s cadences have seemed unsatisfactory, their ears having missed the positive categorical assertion of finality which the 6/4 cadence alone can give. To go further into this subject would take us far beyond our limits.

The pleasant little town of Portland has reason to congratulate itself, first, on being the birthplace of such a composer as Mr. Paine; secondly, on having been the place where the first great work of America in the domain of music was brought out; and thirdly, on possessing what is probably the most thoroughly disciplined choral society in this country. Our New York friends, after their recent experiences, will perhaps be slow to believe us when we say that the Portland choir sang this new work even better, in many respects, than the Handel and Haydn Society sing the old and familiar “Elijah"; but it is true. In their command of the pianissimo and the gradual crescendo, and in the precision of their attack, the Portland singers can easily teach the Handel and Haydn a quarter’s lessons. And, besides all this, they know how to preserve their equanimity under the gravest persecutions of the orchestra; keeping the even tenour of their way where a less disciplined choir, incited by the excessive blare of the trombones and the undue scraping of the second violins, would be likely to lose its presence of mind and break out into an untimely fortissimo.

No doubt it is easier to achieve perfect chorus-singing with a choir of one hundred and twenty-five voices than with a choir of six hundred. But this diminutive size, which was an advantage so far as concerned the technical excellence of the Portland choir, was decidedly a disadvantage so far as concerned the proper rendering of the more massive choruses in “St. Peter.” All the greatest choruses—such as Nos. 1, 8, 19, 20, 28, 35, and 39—were seriously impaired in the rendering by the lack of massiveness in the voices. For example, the grand chorus, “Awake, thou that sleepest,” begins with a rapid crescendo of strings, introducing the full chorus on the word “Awake,” upon the dominant triad of D major; and after a couple of beats the voices are reinforced by the trombones, producing the most tremendous effect possible in such a crescendo. Unfortunately, however, the brass asserted itself at this point so much more emphatically than the voices that the effect was almost to disjoin the latter portion of the chord from its beginning, and thus to dwarf the utterance of the word “Awake.” To us this effect was very disagreeable; and it was obviously contrary to the effect intended by the composer. But with a weight of four or five hundred voices, the effect would be entirely different. Instead of entering upon the scene as intruders, the mighty trombones would only serve to swell and enrich the ponderous chord which opens this noble chorus. Given greater weight only, and the performance of the admirable Portland choir would have left nothing to be desired.

We cannot speak with so much satisfaction of the performance of the orchestra. The instrumentation of “St. Peter” is remarkably fine. But this instrumentation was rather clumsily rendered by the orchestra, whose doings constituted the least enjoyable part of the performance. There was too much blare of brass, whine of hautboy, and scraping of strings. But in condonation of this serious defect, one must admit that the requisite amount of rehearsal is out of the question when one’s choir is in Portland and one’s orchestra in Boston; besides which the parts had been inaccurately copied. For a moment, at the beginning of the orchestral lament, there was risk of disaster, the wind instruments failing to come in at the right time, when Mr. Paine, with fortunate presence of mind, stopped the players, and the movement was begun over again,—the whole occurring so quickly and quietly as hardly to attract attention.

In conclusion we would say a few words suggested by a recent critical notice of Mr. Paine’s work in the “Nation.” While acknowledging the importance of the publication of this oratorio, as an event in the art-history of America, the writer betrays manifest disappointment that this work should not rather have been a symphony,[63] and thus have belonged to what he calls the “domain of absolute music.” Now with regard to the assumption that the oratorio is not so high a form of music as the symphony, or, in other words, that vocal music in general is artistically inferior to instrumental music, we may observe, first, that Ambros and Dommer—two of the most profound musical critics now living—do not sustain it. It is Beanquier, we think, who suggests that instrumental music should rank above vocal, because it is “pure music,” bereft of the fictitious aids of language and of the emotional associations which are grouped about the peculiar timbre of the human voice.[64] At first the suggestion seems plausible; but on analogous grounds we might set the piano above the orchestra, because the piano gives us pure harmony and counterpoint, without the adventitious aid of variety in timbre. And it is indeed true that, for some such reason as this, musicians delight in piano-sonatas, which are above all things tedious and unintelligible to the mind untrained in music. Nevertheless, in spite of its great and peculiar prerogatives, it would be absurd to prefer the piano to the orchestra; and there is a kindred absurdity involved in setting the orchestra above that mighty union of orchestra, organ, and voices which we get in the oratorio. When the reason alleged for ranking the symphony above the oratorio leads us likewise to rank the sonata above the symphony, we seem to have reached a reductio ad absurdum.

[63] Now within two years, Mr. Paine’s C-minor symphony has followed the completion of his oratorio.

[64] These peculiar associations are no doubt what is chiefly enjoyed in music, antecedent to a properly musical culture. Persons of slight acquaintance with music invariably prefer the voice to the piano.

Rightly considered, the question between vocal and instrumental music amounts to this, What does music express? This is a great psychological question, and we have not now the space or the leisure requisite for discussing it, even in the most summary way. We will say, however, that we do not see how music can in any way express ideas, or anything but moods or emotional states to which the ideas given in language may add determination and precision. The pure symphony gives utterance to moods, and will be a satisfactory work of art or not, according as the composer has been actuated by a legitimate sequence of emotional states, like Beethoven, or by a desire to produce novel and startling effects, like Liszt. But the danger in purely instrumental music is that it may run riot in the extravagant utterance of emotional states which are not properly concatenated by any normal sequence of ideas associated with them. This is sometimes exemplified in the most modern instrumental music.

Now, as in real life our sequent clusters of emotional states are in general determined by their association with our sequent groups of intellectual ideas, it would seem that music, regarded as an exponent of psychical life, reaches its fullest expressiveness when the sequence of the moods which it incarnates in sound is determined by some sequence of ideas, such as is furnished by the words of a libretto. Not that the words should have predominance over the music, or even coequal sway with it, but that they should serve to give direction to the succession of feelings expressed by the music. “Lift up your heads” and “Hallelujah” do not owe their glory to the text, but to that tremendous energy of rhythmic and contrapuntal progression which the text serves to concentrate and justify. When precision and definiteness of direction are thus added to the powerful physical means of expression which we get in the combination of chorus, orchestra, and organ, we have attained the greatest sureness as well as the greatest wealth of musical expressiveness. And thus we may see the reasonableness of Dommer’s opinion that in order to restrain instrumental music from ruining itself by meaningless extravagance, it is desirable that there should be a renaissance of vocal music, such as it was in the golden age of Palestrina and Orlando Lasso.

We are not inclined to deny that in structural beauty—in the symmetrical disposition and elaboration of musical themes—the symphony has the advantage. The words, which in the oratorio serve to give definite direction to the currents of emotion, may also sometimes hamper the free development of the pure musical conception, just as in psychical life the obtrusive entrance of ideas linked by association may hinder the full fruition of some emotional state. Nevertheless, in spite of this possible drawback, it may be doubted if the higher forms of polyphonic composition fall so very far short of the symphony in capability of giving full elaboration to the musical idea. The practical testimony of Beethoven, in his Ninth Symphony, is decidedly adverse to any such supposition.

But to pursue this interesting question would carry us far beyond our limits. Whatever may be the decision as to the respective claims of vocal and instrumental music, we have every reason for welcoming the appearance, in our own country, of an original work in the highest form of vocal music. It is to be hoped that we shall often have the opportunity to “hear with our ears” this interesting work; for as a rule great musical compositions are peculiarly unfortunate among works of art, in being known at first hand by comparatively few persons. In this way is rendered possible that pretentious kind of dilettante criticism which is so common in musical matters, and which is often positively injurious, as substituting a factitious public opinion for one that is genuine. We hope that the favour with which the new oratorio has already been received will encourage the author to pursue the enviable career upon which he has entered. Even restricting ourselves to vocal music, there is still a broad field left open for original work. The secular cantata—attempted in recent times by Schumann, as well as by English composers of smaller calibre—is a very high form of vocal music; and if founded on an adequate libretto, dealing with some supremely grand or tragical situation, is capable of being carried to an unprecedented height of musical elaboration. Here is an opportunity for original achievement, of which it is to be hoped that some gifted and well-trained composer, like the author of “St. Peter,” may find it worth while to avail himself.

&mbsp; June, 1873.



[Buy at Amazon]
The unseen world, and other essays, by John Fiske.
By Michigan Historical Reprint Series
At Amazon