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The musical festivals.

Though it can hardly be said that the Birmingham Musical Festivals have had any direct bearing upon the progress and development of town and city, the world-renowned musical gatherings associated with the name of Birmingham have had something to do with the fame and fortunes of the Midland capital. Established more than a century and a quarter ago, they attained a pitch of musical excellence and importance that attracted the attention of the civilised world. Birmingham, indeed, was for a time, and is still to some extent, the Mecca of musicians, and the Birmingham Musical Festival is generally regarded as the premier musical meeting of the country.

One specially fortuitous event has stamped the Birmingham “music meeting” with a glory and prestige all its own. I refer to the production of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” in 1846. This was, indeed, a piece of great good fortune, for Mendelssohn’s oratorio aroused an interest and enthusiasm throughout the musical world that has not yet died down. The occasion certainly gave the Birmingham Festivals a new lease of life, and attracted more musical pilgrims to our town than ever.

I am not old enough myself to recollect the first performance of the “Elijah,” and as I only propose to write down now what I have myself seen and heard, I refer those who desire to learn the history of the Festivals to the records written by other more or less accurate writers.

The first Festival at which I was present was that of 1852, and I have been at every Festival and at nearly every performance since that date. In the year mentioned I sang as a boy in the chorus, and experienced a great and novel joy that I have never known since. I revelled in the rehearsals, and when the week’s performances came I seemed to be up in the clouds amid cherubim and seraphim. Indeed, when at the last performance the National Anthem was sung and the meeting came to an end I could have sat down and wept.

Of course I recollect the stir made by the production of Costa’s “Eli” in 1855, and especially do I seem to remember Mr. Sims Beeves then in his primest prime and his thrilling declamation of the “War Song.” At the end of this stirring solo I recall how the voice of the great tenor rang out above the combined power of the full band and chorus.

In this connection I may mention that it was at the Festival of 1855 that I heard Mario for the first time. I had of course heard much of the great Italian tenor, but till the year mentioned had never heard the sound of his voice. Curiously enough, too, I heard him sing in juxtaposition with Mr. Sims Reeves. It was, indeed, a little bit of a contest between the two great tenors, and I am bound to say the English singer did not come off second best.

The fact is Mario was then past his prime, whilst Mr. Sims Reeves was in his fullest strength. The opportunities for comparison on the occasion referred to were irresistible, since the two tenors sang together in a trio in which they both had to sing the same notes. The result was as I have hinted, but I wondered, however, that comparisons should have been challenged in such a direct way, and I marvelled much that Mario should have submitted to such a trial.

It was at the Festival of 1858 that I heard the great Lablache for the first and only time. His appearance excited as much interest, perhaps more, than his singing he was so very large. His ruddy countenance, his white hair, and his great girth, combined to make him something to see as well as hear. When he sang his notes were as the tones emitted from a sort of human tun.

Then, how I remember hearing Adelina Patti at the Festival of 1861. Oh! how the sweet girl singer charmed, indeed fascinated, her audience with her delightfully fresh voice, and by her attractive appearance and winning manner. How fatherly, and even tenderly, Costa seemed to watch over the little maiden, and his usual autocratic manner for he was an autocrat at the conductor’s desk seemed to soften when he came in contact with the pretty young Italian vocalist. Even the stern unbending general of the orchestra was once so touched with her delightful rendering of an air in one of his oratorios, that he was actually seen to imprint a paternal kiss upon her cheek.

It was also at the Festival of 1861 that I remember hearing Giuglini the “golden-throated Giuglini,” as he was called. Was there ever such sweet, luscious tenor voice, or a more charming and graceful style of vocalization? He literally sang like a bird. He opened his mouth and the notes were warbled forth with exquisite volubility and ease. Giuglini’s voice had not the power and breadth which Sims Reeves could command, nor was his style so impassioned and fervent as Mario’s, but his tones and vocalization were something to hear once and remember always.

But I am pausing too long over details. Let me hurry on. I remember the disappointment with which Sullivan’s cantata “Kenilworth” was received at the Festival of 1867. The then young composer had made such a very “palpable hit” by his “Tempest” music that great things were expected from the new cantata he composed for Birmingham. But “Kenilworth” fell very flat, and nothing afterwards happened to stir it up into a success. Indeed, the work may almost be said to have died “still-born.”

I fancy Sullivan himself had some premonition as to the fate of his new composition. At least I know that I saw him in the Society of Artists’ Rooms on the day when his work was to be performed in the evening, and on my asking him how he was he smiled “a kind of sickly smile,” and told me he felt very squeamish.

How different was the fate of Mr. J.F. Barnett’s “Ancient Mariner.” Though the composer was a well-known musician no great things were expected from his new cantata, but it took the musical world by storm. It achieved instant success, and although it was regarded by many as being nice innocent “bread and butter” music it is still alive and popular, and will be while there is an ear left for spontaneous flowing melody.

Of course I recollect Sullivan’s second venture at the Birmingham Musical Festival of 1873, when he produced his oratorio “The Light of the World.” Contrary to what should have been, the work was at best only a succès d’estime. Yet it contains some of the best music its composer has written. Parts of it are magnificent and masterly, whilst others are strikingly impressive inspirations. That the oratorio is unequal may be admitted, and it is decidedly heavy in places; moreover, it is too long. Still, looking at its merits as a whole, it deserved better fortune. It is enough to dishearten a composer when he finds his best work comparatively unappreciated, and it is hardly surprising if it was in consequence of disgust and disappointment that Sullivan turned his thoughts to lighter things. By doing so he has filled his purse, he has delighted a large public that cannot appreciate serious music, and he has raised comic opera to a level far above the thin and trivial emanations of foreign “opera bouffists.”

When some of us recall past Birmingham Musical Festivals, and scan the schemes of bygone years, we cannot fail to be struck by the change that has taken place in musical taste and fashion. Especially do we note this in looking at the programmes of the festival evening concerts. In these programmes quantity as well as quality was an element not forgotten in the consideration and arrangement of the miscellaneous selections.

Twenty or thirty years ago we used to have in addition to some one or more important works a long string of scraps and snatches, chiefly from well-known operas, which protracted the concerts to a late hour. The liberal introduction of these excerpts was attractive to a large section of the public who did not care for fine works of musical art or “too much fiddling.” Moreover, it was in accordance with the taste and proclivities of the conductor, who gave, perhaps, an inkling of his real mind in a jocular remark made under the following circumstances.

It used to be the custom, after the morning performances, to ask the band and principal singers to stay and run through some of the operatic selections, &c., to be given in the evening. On one of these occasions, after a morning performance of “The Messiah,” Costa quietly and cynically remarked, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, let us have a little music.”

To come now to speak of more personal associations with the Birmingham Musical Festivals, it was in the year 1873 that I experienced the novel sensation of standing at the conductor’s desk. A trio of my composition a setting of Tennyson’s “Break, break,” was included in the programme of one of the evening concerts, and I had to conduct its performance. I tell you, my reader, it was a trying ordeal, and I hardly know how I got through it, but I did in some sort of fashion. Costa, I may explain, made it a rigid rule never to conduct a living composer’s music; consequently, he would have nothing to do with the performance even of my small trio. I found, however, a good friend in M. Sainton, the leader of the band. He took a kindly pity on me in my trying situation, and he did more to make my trio go well with his violin than I did with the conductor’s baton.

But it certainly was a sensation to face that immense orchestra, and I had something to do to make my sinews bear me stiffly up. My trio, however, was splendidly sung by Mdlle. Titieus, Madame Trebelli, and Mr. Vernon Rigby pace Mr. Sims Reeves, indisposed and if it did not make a sensation, and was not received with deafening plaudits, I fancy it went smoothly and satisfactorily, and I retired from the field I mean from the conductor’s desk not exactly with glory, but I think I may say without a stain upon my character as a local musical composer.

At the Musical Festival of 1876 Madame Patey sang a song of mine, “The Felling of the Trees,” and I repeated my little experience as a conductor; but in 1885, when my cantata “Yule Tide” was included in the festival scheme, Mr. W.C. Stockley kindly undertook the task of directing the work. I was determined it should not be a personally conducted cantata; consequently, I was spared what would have severely taxed my capacity and nerve.

With regard to my work it will not become me to say much. I frankly own that it did not set the Thames ablaze; it passed muster, and perhaps that is as much as I could expect at a Birmingham Musical Festival. It was somewhat unfortunate that in 1885 there were too many new works. No less than seven original compositions were included in the scheme, and they killed each other. The musical public will not swallow and cannot digest too much new music, consequently they would not make a good, fair musical meal off any of the new dishes so liberally provided, with the result that most of them went into the larder after just; being tasted and no more. Some of them even mine are at times brought out, smelt, turned over, and looked at, but as I have hinted, none, not even those by Gounod, Dvorak, and Cowen, have become standing dishes in constant request at musical feasts.

Speaking generally, many splendid compositions seem to have missed fire through sheer bad luck. To go no further than Sir Arthur Sullivan, some of his finest and most important works have had an ill-starred existence, and even several of his best songs, though introduced to the public under the most favourable auspices, have not “taken on.” Sullivan’s splendid ditty “Love laid his sleepless head,” though sung by Mr. Edward Lloyd all over the country, did not make a hit, whilst the more trivial ballad “Sweet-hearts” became a boom and a property. At least, I remember being told that after Sullivan had been receiving good royalties from this song for years, the publishers offered him L1,000 for his rights.

I am afraid I have been guilty of a digression, but I will recall my wandering steps. I have mentioned the Birmingham Festival of 1885, which marked a new order I might almost say a new epoch in the history of the Birmingham Musical Festivals. For the first time for very many years Costa was no longer seen at the conductor’s desk, and his place was taken by Richter. Costa conducted the Birmingham triennial performances for about half a century, and although it was sad to miss his face in 1885, he had done his work.

In 1882 the last Festival in which he took part it was painful to witness his efforts to conduct the performances. He was partly paralysed, and his baton, I believe, had to be fastened to his hand because he could not grasp it. Further, he was becoming deaf, and the result was that the loud brass instruments were allowed to become too blatant and obtrusive. Costa was a good man in his day, and he did good work. He was very autocratic, even despotic, but he introduced two good things into the orchestra order and punctuality. With all his ability, tact, and nerve, it must, however, be admitted that his style of conducting was rough and ready compared with the art, care, and skill that mark musical conductorship of the present day.

With Richter’s appearance as conductor, some important changes and reforms were effected in the orchestral arrangements of the Festival. For one thing, the band was cut down in number. This, it was said, was in consequence of Richter’s opinion that the balance of power was disturbed by too great a preponderance of string tone, but it is just possible that economy was considered when the change was made. Anyway, in 1885 there were over twenty stringed instruments less than in Costa’s last year, 1882.

This alteration was a notable one, and regrettable in some ways. The extra large string band that Costa would have made the Birmingham Festival orchestra something very special, and the result was some striking effects not heard elsewhere. Nowhere now do we hear that tour de force which was almost electrical in the rush of violins at the end of the chorus “Thanks be to God” in the “Elijah,” in Beethoven’s “Leonora” overture, and in the last movement of the overture to “William Tell.” The effect of the violins between fifty and sixty in number was something magical in the works just named. To put the matter in brief detail, under Costa’s conductorship the string band numbered 108 players, when Richter took the orchestra in hand, it was reduced to eighty-six. I will not discuss the expediency of the change. Suffice it to say that the Festival band is now as good, perhaps better, than it ever was, save in the matter of numbers.

To sum up very briefly the Festivals since 1885 the year that Richter succeeded Costa the meeting of 1888 was remarkable for nothing that made any permanent notch in the record of the Festivals. Parry’s oratorio “Judith” was the chief novelty, but, in spite of its masterly merit as a work of musical art, it was hardly received with the favour it deserved.

The Festival of 1891 saw the production of two important new works, namely, Stanford’s dramatic oratorio “Eden” and Dvorak’s “Requiem Mass.” With respect to these compositions, they have scarcely been heard, I think, since their initial performances. Stanford’s “Eden” contains some fine writing, but there was, perhaps, too much of it. Dvorak’s “Requiem” was something of a disappointment, and its first rendering anything but satisfactory; indeed, some of the numbers, I remember, narrowly escaped coming to utter grief.

In 1894 three new productions were heard. These were Parry’s “King Saul” a very recondite, musicianly composition but too long; “The Swan and the Skylark,” a fanciful little cantata by Goring Thomas; and a “Stabat Mater” by G. Henschel.

Nothing at the Festival of 1897 made any mark. There was a new “Requiem” by Stanford, but like many other Requiems, it rather celebrated its own death. A new work by Arthur Somervell was heard, and, though favourably received at first, like some other Festival compositions it seems now to have vanished into the ewigkeit.

With regard to the Festival of 1900 just closed as these lines are being written I will say little. It has been financially successful, and perhaps that is the best that can be said of it. The programme, speaking generally, was a somewhat heavy and dull one, and the special new work, namely, Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius,” was disappointing, in spite of its skilful construction, its splendid orchestration, and its conspicuous touches of character and originality. Mr. Coleridge Taylor’s “Song of Hiawatha” was the hit of the Festival, and its performance at Birmingham has hall marked the young composer’s fresh, picturesque, and melodic music.

I might write a great deal more about the Birmingham Musical Festivals, but time and space forbid. I could, for instance, point out that it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain the prestige of our Festivals as time goes on. There is more competition now-a-days; there are more provincial musical gatherings; and there are now more high-class concerts than formerly. I think I could also show that some mistakes, of more or less importance, have been made, and are still perhaps being made in the management, Nevertheless, those who have most to do with the arrangements are not lacking in energy and enterprise, and in earnest endeavour to uphold the character and reputation of the Birmingham Musical Festivals.