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- A Second Book Of Operas - 5/31 -


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


A Second Book Of Operas - 5/31

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