Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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12. France and elsewhere, early Classical and Classical styles.

The history of oratorio in France in the second half of the 18th century divides into two phases, the first from 1758 to the early 1760s and the second from 1774 to 1790; the second phase terminated when events of the French Revolution brought to an end the concerts spirituels, the Lenten concert series in Paris at which most French oratorios in this period were performed. The first of these two phases falls within J.-J.C. de Mondonville's directorship of the Concert Spirituel (1755–62); five oratorios are known to have been performed in these concerts between 1758 and 1761: Mondonville's Les Israëlites à la Montagne d'Horeb (1758), Les fureurs de Saül (1759) and Les titans (1761); J.-N.L. de Persuis' Le passage de la Mer Rouge (1759); and P.J. Davesne's La conquête de Jéricho (1760). The music of these five works has not survived, but printed librettos and comments about them by contemporary observers indicate that they were relatively brief works (of about 25 to 30 minutes) and that they all had French texts. Of these works only Mondonville's Les titans is outside the mainstream of oratorio history, since it has a secular text. The term ‘oratorio’ was not consistently applied to oratorios by French composers or observers in the period, but a variety of terms were used, including ‘motet françois’, ‘poëme françois’, ‘motet françois en forme d’oratorio’, ‘oratorio françois’ and ‘hiérodrame’.

The second phase of the French oratorio, 1774–90, coincides with the period during which the concerts spirituels were under the directorship of Pierre Gaviniès, Simon Leduc and Gossec. During this period several oratorios were performed every year at the Concert Spirituel, among them the following (unless otherwise indicated, the dates are those of the first performances; most of these works were performed more than once in the period, and some many times): N.-J. Méreaux's Samson (1774), Esther (1775) and La Résurrection (1780); G.M. Cambini's Le sacrifice d'Isaac (1774), Joad (1775) and Samson (1779); H.-J. Rigel's La sortie d'Egypte (1774), La déstruction de Jéricho (1778) and Jephté (1783); Gossec's La nativité (1774) and L'arche d'alliance devant Jérusalem (1781); F.-A.D. Philidor's Carmen saeculare (first performed in London, 1779, and in Paris the next year); Sacchini's Esther (originally in Italian as Ester, Rome, 1777, revised in French for Paris, 1786) and Salieri's Le jugement dernier (1787). At least 20 other composers, mostly obscure, composed oratorios for the concerts spirituels during this period. Nearly all the oratorios performed at these concerts were settings of French sacred texts; a notable exception, however, is Philidor's Carmen saeculare, which uses a non-dramatic, classical Latin text by Horace. Such a text places this work outside the mainstream of oratorio history, but it was clearly considered an oratorio by contemporary French commentators.

Of special interest in this period are Le Sueur's four ‘mass-oratorios’ for the feasts of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, performed in 1786–7 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. These highly original, experimental works were elaborate dramatic and programmatic expansions of the Ordinary of the Mass. For each one Le Sueur published an extensive booklet that described the music and his programmatic interpretation of it. The performing forces included an orchestra, chorus and soloists, and the musical numbers consisted of recitatives, arias, ensembles, and large and small choruses. The music for the mass-oratorios is lost, but the descriptions in the published booklets provide a clear notion of the compositional prcedures. Le Sueur's Oratorio de Noël, which survives in published form, is not the same as the mass-oratorio for Christmas, but apparently borrows some of its music.

In England Handel's oratorios were seldom given in their entirety after his death, but performances of the most popular selections from them were common. Of special importance for the provincial cultivation of Handel's oratorios was the Three Choirs Festival, which had begun to present Handel's oratorios during his lifetime and which became virtually a Handel festival in the late 18th century. At this festival and elsewhere, Messiah was the favoured oratorio. Handel did not found a ‘school’ of oratorio composition, and relatively few English oratorios were composed in the post-Handelian 18th century. Among the composers who contributed to the small oratorio production in this period are J.C. Smith, John Stanley, Arne, John Worgan, Charles Avison, Samuel Arnold and Luffman Atterbury.

In North America, the performance of selections from oratorios dates from the 18th century and coincides with the rise of concert life and the establishment of singing societies in the principal cities, particularly Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Numbers from Handel's oratorios were occasionally performed, particularly from Messiah. It is not known when the first complete oratorio performance in America took place, but Samuel Felsted's oratorio Jonah (printed in London, 1775) was performed in New York in 1788 and in Boston in 1789. In 18th- and 19th-century America the word ‘oratorio’ was applied not only to the genre but also to virtually any concert of sacred music. (The latter use of the term is similar to Handel's exceptional use of it for a concert of his music in 1738.) For instance, in the public announcement of the programme in which Felsted's Jonah was to appear at Boston in 1789, the concert itself was called ‘an Oratorio, or, Concert of Sacred Musick’, and the second half of the programme consisted of ‘The oratorio of Jonah, complete’. ‘Oratorios’ in the concert sense were presented either in public concert halls in a secular context or in churches in a context that sometimes included prayers and biblical readings.

The influence of the Italian oratorio in countries to which it was exported in the 18th century resulted, at times, in the composition of italianate oratorios by native composers in their own language. Spanish oratorios of this type, for example, were composed in 18th-century Barcelona by the successive directors of music of Barcelona Cathedral, Francisco Valls, José Pujol, José Durán and Francisco Queralt. Danish composers who wrote oratorios in their native language are P.M. Lem, H.O.C. Zinck and J.E. Hartmann.

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