Soon after the death of Purcell, the craze for Italian opera seems to have banished native art completely from the English stage. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the most popular form of entertainment consisted of operas set to a mixture of English and Italian words, but after a time the town, to quote Addison, tired of understanding only half the work, determined for the future to understand none of it, and these hybrid works gave place, after the arrival of Handel, to the splendid series of masterpieces extending from 'Rinaldo' to 'Deidamia.' From time to time attempts were made to gain a footing for English opera in London, and in 1728 'The Beggar's Opera' achieved a triumph so instantaneous and overwhelming as seriously to affect the success of Handel's Italian enterprise at the Haymarket Theatre. It is supposed, that the origin of 'The Beggar's Opera' is due to a remark of Swift's that 'a Newgate pastoral might be made a pretty thing.' Gay borrowed the idea, and constructed 'The Beggar's Opera' round a cut-
Meanwhile an attempt had been made by Arne to adapt the mannerisms of the Italian stage to English opera. His 'Artaxerxes,' which was produced in 1762, was constructed strictly upon the lines of Italian opera, being made up throughout entirely of airs and recitative. It had a most encouraging reception, but the enterprise seems to have borne little fruit, for after a few years we hear no more of English opera 'after the Italian manner,' and London seems to have been content with Italian opera and ballad operas of the already familiar type. The traditions of the latter were successfully carried on by Storace, a naturalised Italian, Dibdin, Shield, Hook, and many others, many of whose songs are still popular, though the works of which they once formed part have long been forgotten. The ballad operas of these composers were of unimaginable naïveté and depended entirely upon their simple tunefulness for such favour as they won. Sir Henry Bishop (1786-
To John Barnett (1802-
It is unfortunate for the memory of Balfe (1808-
Balfe had to the full his share of that vein of maudlin sentiment which is typical of one side of the Irish character. He appears to have had little ambition, and was content throughout his career to fit his saccharine melodies to whatever words the librettists of the day chose to supply. No one can deny him the possession of fluent and commonplace melody, but there his claim to musicianship ends.
Wallace rivalled Balfe in the facility and shallowness of his melody. Yet with all their weaknesses, his operas contain many tunes which have wound themselves into popular affection, and in the eyes of Bank-
Sir Julius Benedict (1804-
It is founded upon Boucicault's famous drama, 'The Colleen Bawn.' Hardress Cregan, a young Irish landowner, has married Eily O'Connor, a beautiful peasant girl of Killarney. The marriage has been kept secret, and Hardress, finding that an opportunity has arisen of repairing the fallen fortunes of his house by a rich marriage, contemplates repudiating Eily. Eily refuses to part with her 'marriage lines,' whereupon Danny Mann, Hardress's faithful henchman, attempts to drown her in the lake. She is saved by Myles na Coppaleen, a humble lover of her own, who shoots Danny Mann. Eily's narrow escape has the result of bringing Hardress to his senses. He renounces his schemes of ambition, and makes public his marriage with Eily. Benedict's music touches a higher level than had been reached by English opera before. He was, of course, directly inspired by Weber, but there runs through the opera a vein of plaintive melancholy which is all his own. The form in which 'The Lily of Killarney' is cast is now somewhat superannuated, but for tenderness of melody and unaffected pathos, it will compare very favourably with many more pretentious works which have succeeded it. Sir George Macfarren (1813-
About the middle of the nineteenth century the destinies of English opera were controlled by a company presided over by Miss Pyne and Mr. Harrison, for which Balfe and Macfarren wrote a good many of their works. In more recent times the place of this institution was taken by the Carl Rosa company, which was founded in 1875 by a German violinist named Carl Rosa. Such opportunities as were presented to English musicians, during the latter part of the last century, of hearing their works sung upon the stage were principally due to his efforts. One of the first works actually written in response to a commission by Carl Rosa was 'Esmeralda,' an opera by Arthur Goring Thomas (1851-
Esmeralda, a gipsy street singer, is loved by the profligate priest Claude Frollo, who with the assistance of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-
In 'Nadeshda,' an opera written upon a Russian subject, which was produced in 1885, there was much charming music, but the libretto was uninteresting, and the success of the work never equalled that of its predecessor. The most attractive part of the opera was the delightfully quaint and original ballet music, to which local colour was given by clever orchestration and ingenious use of Russian rhythms.
To the initiative of the Carl Rosa company was due the production of Mr. Frederick Corder's 'Nordisa,' a work of undoubted talent though suffering from a fatal lack of homogeneity, and of two operas by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. The first of these, 'Colomba,' was produced in 1883. It achieved a success, but the gloomy character of the libretto prevented it from becoming really popular. It is founded upon Prosper Mérimée's famous Corsican tale. The father of Orso and Colomba della Rebbia has been treacherously murdered by two of the family of Barracini. Colomba is burning for vengeance, but her brother is an officer in the French army, and has been absent from Corsica for many years. When he returns she finds that his love for Lydia, the daughter of the Count de Nevers, has driven thoughts of revenge from his mind. She succeeds, however, in rousing him to action, and one day he kills both the murderers, though wounded himself by a cowardly ambush. He has to take to the mountains for refuge, and there he remains, tended by Lydia and Colomba, until news of his pardon comes. It is too late, however, to save the life of Colomba, who has been mortally wounded in endeavouring to divert the soldiers from Orso's hiding-
During the closing years of the nineteenth century the fortunes of English opera, never very brilliant, reached a lower point than at any time in our musical history. The Carl Rosa opera company fell upon evil days, and was compelled to restrict its energies almost entirely to the performance of stock operas, while at Covent Garden the opportunities afforded to native composers were few and far between. In these disheartening circumstances it is not surprising that English musicians were not encouraged to devote their powers to a form of art in which so little prospect of success could be entertained. What they might have achieved under happier conditions the operatic career of Sir Charles Stanford suggests in the most convincing manner. Stanford is a composer whose natural endowment conspicuously fits him for operatic work, and he has grasped such opportunities as have been vouchsafed to him with almost unvarying success. Had he been blessed with a more congenial environment he would have taken rank with the foremost operatic composers of his time.
His first opera, 'The Veiled Prophet,' was originally performed at Hanover in 1881, but was not actually heard in London until it was produced at Covent Garden in 1894. The libretto, an admirable condensation of Moore's well-
'The Canterbury Pilgrims,' written to a libretto by Gilbert à Beckett, which was produced in 1884, was happily named by some one at the time an English 'Meistersinger,' and indeed it is not difficult to imagine what model Stanford had in his mind when writing his brilliant and genial opera, Geoffrey, the host of the Tabard Inn, has a pretty daughter named Cicely, who is loved by the jovial apprentice, Hubert. Geoffrey finds out their attachment, and determines to sent Cicely upon a visit to an aunt in Kent, in company with a body of pilgrims who are just starting for Canterbury. Sir Christopher Synge, a knight of Kent, has cast sheep's eyes upon the pretty girl, and hearing of her intended trip bids his factotum, Hal o' the Chepe, assemble a company of ragamuffins, and carry her off on her way to Canterbury. Hubert contrives to get enlisted among them, so as to be able to watch over his sweetheart, and Dame Margery, Sir Christopher's wife, also in disguise, joins the pilgrims, in the hope of keeping an eye upon her errant spouse. In the second act the pilgrims arrive at Sidenbourne. Dame Margery helps the lovers to escape, and taking Cicely's place receives the vows and sighs of her husband. In the third act the lovers have been overtaken and caught by the irate Geoffrey, and Hubert is dragged to trial before Sir Christopher. After an amusing trial scene, the knight discovers that Cicely is one of the culprits, and at once pardons them both. Geoffrey is persuaded to forgive the young couple, and all ends happily, Stanford's music is a happy compromise between old and new. In his use of guiding themes, and in his contrapuntal treatment of the orchestra he follows Wagner, but his employment of new devices is tempered by due regard for established tradition. He is happiest in dealing with humorous situations, and in the lighter parts of the opera his music has a bustling gaiety which fits the situation very happily. In the more passionate scenes he is less at home, and the love duet in particular is by no means entirely satisfactory. Stanford's next work, 'Savonarola,' was performed in London for the first time by a German company under Dr. Hans Richter in 1884. Interesting as much of the music is, the performance was not successful, partly owing to the almost unmitigated gloom of the libretto. Far the best part of the work, both musically and dramatically, is the prologue, which tells of the love of Savonarola for Clarice, of her marriage, and of his renouncement of the world. The merit of this scene is so great that it might be worth the composer's while to produce it as a one-
Stanford's next work for the stage was 'Shamus O'Brien,' a romantic opera dealing with a typically Irish subject, which was produced in 1896 with great success. The form of the work is that of a genuine comic opera, the dialogue being interspersed throughout with music, but although less ambitious in form than his earlier works, 'Shamus O'Brien' has a deeper artistic importance. With all its cleverness and ingenuity, 'The Canterbury Pilgrims' is German in method and expression, and it is merely by the accident of language that it can be classed as British opera at all. In 'Shamus O'Brien' the composer drew his inspiration from the melodies and rhythms of his native Ireland, and the result is that his work ranks as an original and independent effort, instead of being merely a brilliant exercise.
In 1901 Sir Charles Stanford's 'Much Ado about Nothing' was produced at Covent Garden. The libretto by Julian Sturgis is a clever adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy, in which the action is judiciously compressed into four scenes without any incidents of importance being omitted. First we have the ball at Leonato's house, with some love-
Dr. Frederic Cowen is another of our English musicians who, in more favourable circumstances, would doubtless have proved himself an operatic composer of distinction. 'Pauline,' a work founded upon 'The Lady of Lyons,' which was played by the Carl Rosa company in 1876, seems to have won little success. 'Thorgrim,' produced by the same company in 1889, was more fortunate. The plot is founded upon an Icelandic saga, and has but little dramatic interest. There is much charm in Dr. Cowen's music, and some of the lighter scenes in the opera are gracefully treated, but his talent is essentially delicate rather than powerful, and the fierce passions of the Vikings scarcely come within its scope.
'Signa' (1893), an opera founded upon Ouida's novel of that name, showed traces of Italian influence. It was produced at Milan with considerable success, and was afterwards given in London. In 'Harold' (1895), Dr. Cowen attempted too ambitious a task. The tale of the conquest of England was ill suited to his delicate muse, and the opera achieved little more than a succès d'estime.
Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-
The experiment made by the Carl Rosa company in 1899 of playing his early oratorio, 'The Martyr of Antioch,' as an opera had, not unnaturally, very little success, but 'Ivanhoe' (1891) showed that Sullivan could adapt his style to the exigencies of grand opera with singular versatility. 'Ivanhoe' was handicapped by a patchy and unequal libretto, but it contained a great deal of good music, and we have probably not heard the last of it yet. For the present generation, however, Sullivan's fame rests almost entirely upon his comic operas, which indeed have already attained something like the position of classics and may prove, it is sincerely to be hoped, the foundation of that national school of opera which has been so often debated and so ardently desired, but is still, alas! so far from practical realisation.
Sullivan's first essay in comic opera dates from the year 1867, which saw the production of his 'Contrabandista' and 'Cox and Box,' both written to libretti by Sir Frank Burnand, and both showing not merely admirable musicianship and an original vein of melody, but an irresistible sense of humour and a rare faculty for expressing it in music. 'Thespis' (1871) first brought him into partnership with Mr. Gilbert, a partnership which was further cemented by 'Trial by Jury' (1875). It was 'Trial by Jury' that opened the eyes of connoisseurs to the possibilities lying within the grasp of these two young men, whose combined talents had produced a work so entirely without precedent in the history of English or indeed of any music. The promise of 'Trial by Jury' was amply borne out by 'The Sorcerer' (1877), which remains in the opinion of many the best of the whole series of Gilbert and Sullivan operas—but indeed there is hardly one of them that has not at one time or another been preferred above its fellows by expert opinion. 'The Sorcerer' naturally gave Sullivan more scope than 'Trial by Jury.' Here for the first time he showed what he could do in what may be called his old English vein, in reproduction of the graceful dance measures of old time, and in imitations of Elizabethan madrigals so fresh and tuneful that they seem less the resuscitation of a style long dead than the creation of an entirely new art-
In 'H.M.S. Pinafore' (1878) Sullivan scored his first great popular success. 'The Sorcerer' had appealed to the few; 'Pinafore' carried the masses by storm. In humour and in musicianship alike it is less subtle than its predecessor, but it triumphed by sheer dash and high spirits. There is a smack of the sea in music and libretto alike. 'Pinafore' was irresistible, and Sullivan became the most popular composer of the day. 'The Pirates of Penzance' (1880) followed the lines of 'Pinafore,' with humour perhaps less abundant but with an added touch of refinement. There are passages in 'The Pirates' tenderer in tone, one might almost say more pathetic, than anything Sullivan had previously written, passages which gave more than a hint of the triumphs he was later to win in that mingling of tears and laughter of which he had the secret In 'Patience' (1881) musician and librettist mutually agreed to leave the realm of farcical extravagance, and to turn to satire of a peculiarly keen-
'The Yeomen of the Guard' has a serious plot, and at times lingers on the threshold of tragedy. Sullivan caught the altered spirit of his collaborator with perfect sympathy, and struck a note of romantic feeling unique in his career. With 'The Gondoliers' (1889) the scene brightened again, and merriment reigned supreme once more. Perhaps at times there was a suspicion of weariness in Mr. Gilbert's wit, and some of Sullivan's melodies had not all the old distinction of manner, but the piece was an incarnation of liveliness and gaiety, and its success rivalled the historic glories of 'The Mikado.' With 'The Gondoliers' came the first solution of continuity in the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Differences arose; Mr. Gilbert retired from the councils of the Savoy Theatre, and Sullivan had to look out for a new collaborator. He found one in Mr. Sydney Grundy, and their 'Haddon Hall' was produced in 1892. In spite of charming music, reflecting very gracefully the old English atmosphere of the story, its success was only moderate, and the world of music was much relieved to hear that the differences between Mr. Gilbert and the Savoy authorities had been adjusted, and that the two famous collaborators were to join forces once more. Unfortunately 'Utopia' (1893) echoed but faintly the magical harmonies of the past. The old enchantment was gone; the spell was shattered. Both collaborators seemed to have lost the clue that had so often led to triumph. Again they drifted apart, and Sullivan turned once more to his old friend, Sir Frank Burnand. Together they produced 'The Chieftain' (1894), a revised and enlarged version of their early indiscretion, 'The Contrabandista.' Success still held aloof, and for the last time Sullivan and Mr. Gilbert joined forces. In 'The Grand Duke' (1896) there were fitful gleams of the old splendour, notably in an amazing sham—Greek chorus, which no one but Sullivan could have written, but the piece could not for a moment be compared to even the weakest of the earlier operas. The fate of 'The Beauty Stone' (1898), written to a libretto by Messrs Pinero and Comyns Carr, was even more deplorable. Fortunately Sullivan's collaboration with Captain Basil Hood brought him an Indian summer of inspiration and success. 'The Rose of Persia' (1900), if not upon the level of his early masterpieces, contained better music than he had written since the days of 'The Gondoliers,' and at least one number—the marvellous Dervish quartet—that for sheer invention and musicianship could hardly be matched even in 'The Mikado' itself. There was a great deal of charming music, too, in 'The Emerald Isle' (1901), which Sullivan left unfinished at his death, and Mr. Edward German completed.
During his lifetime, Sullivan was called the English Auber by people who wanted to flatter him, and the English Offenbach by people who wanted to snub him. Neither was a very happy nickname. He might more justly have been called the English Lortzing, since he undoubtedly learnt more than a little from the composer of 'Czar und Zimmermann,' whose comic operas he heard during his student days at Leipzig. But Sullivan owed very little to anyone. His genius was thoroughly his own and thoroughly English, and in that lies his real value to posterity. For if we are ever to have a national English opera, we shall get it by writing English music, not by producing elaborate exercises in the manner of Wagner, Verdi, Massenet, Strauss, or anybody else. Most great artistic enterprises spring from humble sources, and our young lions need not be ashamed of producing a mere comic opera or two before attacking a full-
In his younger days Sullivan had many disciples. Alfred Cellier, the composer of the world-
The recent performances of English composers in the field of grand opera have not been very encouraging. Few indeed are the opportunities offered to our native musicians of winning distinction on the lyric stage, and of late we have been regaled with the curious spectacle of English composers setting French or German libretti in the hope of finding in foreign theatres the hearing that is denied them in their own. Miss Ethel Smyth is the most prominent and successful of the composers whose reputation has been made abroad. Her 'Fantasio' has not been given in England, but 'Der Wald,' an opera in one act, after having been produced in Germany was given at Covent Garden in 1902 with conspicuous success. The libretto, which is the work of the composer herself, is concise and dramatic. Heinrich the forester loves Röschen, the woodman's daughter, but on the eve of their marriage he has the misfortune to attract the notice of Iolanthe, the mistress of his liege lord the Landgrave Rudolf. He rejects her advances, and in revenge she has him stabbed by her followers. This is the bare outline of the story, but the value of the work lies in the highly poetical and imaginative framework in which it is set. Behind the puny passions of man looms the vast presence of the eternal forest, the mighty background against which the children of earth fret their brief hour and pass into oblivion. The note which echoes through the drama is struck in the opening scene—a tangled brake deep in the heart of the great stillness, peopled by nymphs and fauns whose voices float vaguely through the twilight. Every scene in the drama is tinged with the same mysterious influence, until at the close the spirit-
The operas of Mr. Isidore de Lara, a composer who, in spite of his name, is said to be of English extraction, may conveniently be mentioned here. It is generally understood that the production of these works at Covent Garden was due to causes other than their musical value, but in any case they do not call for detailed criticism. Mr. de Lara's earlier works, 'The Light of Asia,' 'Amy Robsart,' and 'Moina' failed completely. There is better work in 'Messaline' (1899). The musical ideas are poor in quality, but the score is put together in a workmanlike manner, and the orchestration is often clever. The libretto, which recounts the intrigues of the Empress Messalina with two brothers, Hares and Helion, a singer and a gladiator, is in the highest degree repellent, and it would need far better music than Mr. de Lara's to reconcile a London audience to so outrageous a subject. Mr. de Lara's latest production, 'Sanga' (1906), does not seem to have sustained the promise of 'Messaline.' Another composer whom necessity has driven to ally his music to a foreign libretto is Mr. Herbert Bunning, whose opera 'La Princesse Osra' was produced at Covent Garden in 1902. Mr. Alick Maclean, whose 'Quentin Durward' and 'Petruccio' had already shown remarkable promise, has lately won considerable success in Germany with 'Die Liebesgeige.'
Scanty is the catalogue of noteworthy operas with English words produced in recent years. The most remarkable of them are Mr. Colin MacAlpin's 'The Cross and the Crescent,' which won the prize offered by Mr. Charles Manners in 1903 for an English opera, and Mr. Nicholas Gatty's 'Greysteel,' a very able and musicianly setting of an episode from one of the Norse sagas, which was produced at Sheffield in 1906.
It is difficult to be sanguine as to the prospects of English opera. Circumstances are certainly against the production of original work in this country, though it is legitimate to hope that the recent revival of interest in Sullivan's works may lead our composers to devote their energies to the higher forms of comic opera. Anything is better than the mere imitation of foreign models which has for so long been characteristic of English opera. By turning to the melodies of his native land, Weber founded German opera, and if we are ever to have a school of opera in England we must begin by building upon a similar foundation.
Google Translation Tool: