Theodore Thomas [see also Thomas Orchestra]
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3 October 2017
"Miss Adelaide Phillips, Mr. S.B. Mills, Mr. Ed. Mollenhauer and Mr. F. Bergner, are the soloists."
"The third symphonie soirée of Theodore Thomas takes place this evening at Irving Hall. The announcement, we presume, is sufficient to secure a large audience, the excellence of these entertainments being already fully known and appreciated. Miss Adelaide Phillipps and Mr. S. B. Mills are the soloists. The selections are from the best works of eminent German composers, including Beethoven, Gluck, Spohr and Raff. The house will, undoubtedly, as heretofore, be crowded this evening."
“Mr. Thomas’ concert opened with a symphony by Raff–a composer who can no longer be considered young, this being his Ninety-sixth work. . . . [a brief history of the inception of the work] . . . he read eagerly in the newspapers that the Society of the ‘Musik-Freunde’ of the Austrian empire had offered a prize for the best symphony which should be sent to them. . . . It formed one of thirty-two symphonies, and being the best was preferred by the judges. Let us pause, in respectful silence—after having heard the work—on this overwhelming fact. Thirty-one symphonies worse than Raff’s! There is a sublimity in life which all men admire; there is a profundity in death which each must respect. They inspire us with hope, or depress us with dread. But thirty-two symphonies! Human sympathy turns involuntarily to the judges and inquire do they still live; can we yet extend to them our poor service of consolation and comfort? We know of no ordeal since the middle ages equal to what they were compelled to go through. Yes—on second thoughts—there was one, and it has been recorded by Hector Berlioz. [Long anecdote about a competition on 299 pianos on which the only piece played was Chopin’s Etude in F minor.]
The gravity of Mr. Raff’s work may be inferred from the fact that it possesses five movements, and consumes one hour and twenty-five minutes in performance; throughout, too, it is specific gravity, the weight of each part being equal. We cannot, at this moment, recall a movement that was not superfluously long, and after careful examination of the score, we cannot detect a simple subject that justifies the length bestowed on it. We do not by this mean to infer that the work is destitute of merit in the matter of treatment. It is often vigorous and always respectable; but, as Carlyle remarked of Coleridge, it is provocative of locked-jaw to sit passive, like a bucket, and be pumped into for so long a period of time. The themes are inconsequential; after the suggestion of mere modulation; sometimes a simple and inevitable instrumental phrase; but whatever their value they are pursued with unrelenting industry. We complain of Schubeth [sic] for his diffusiveness. He is epigrammatic in comparison with Raff. Moreover, the one possesses melody and the other does not. It was hard mechanical industry that produced the symphony ‘An das Vaterland,’ and it is sad to think that only four years ago so poor a work was regarded as the best that Germany could produce. Sadder still to find that such prolonged mechanism should have found after-acceptance, even here.
The technical knowledge of the composer, so far as symphonic writing is concerned, is sufficient only in one respect. He knows the capacity of instruments, and the groups to which they belong. He does not know the infinite combinations of which they are susceptible. The consequence is that we have vigor, not variety. The violins are forever tearing away at passages which must be called variations, because they have no greater signification; the wood instruments are continually drawing out a husky motive, and the brass instruments incontinently rush in, fortissimo, like policemen, to quell the disturbance in each and every movement. In absolute distress, the composer introduces a national air, but he begins so largely, and ends so obscurely, that one may well ask: ‘Where is the German’s Fatherland?’ Pretence and a certain degree of facility belong to dilletantism [sic], not to art. If we did not know that Mr. Raff had written much that was good, we should certainly place him among dilletants [sic], especially after reading his very absurd and priggish preface, beginning Die letzten Jahre haben wenige Deutsche et seq.
Although one cannot speak favorably of the work itself, we can assuredly do so of the performance. The orchestra was handled with remarkable steadiness by Mr. Thomas, and that gentleman kept it up to its thankless task with a degree of spirit and intelligence which we have never seen surpassed. This was also the case in the ‘Jessonda’ overture by Spohr. The remaining instrumental piece was Beethoven’s concerto for piano, violin and violoncello, with accompaniment of orchestra—an experiment of the great master which has never been regarded as a success. The gentleman who was to have performed the violoncello part was indisposed, and a substitute had to be found as the last moment who read the notes at sight. This is very good in a dance, but very bad in a concerto. We prefer, therefore, not to dwell on the consequences, although perfectly aware that Mr. Mills (piano) played superbly.
Miss Adelaide Phillips was the vocalist, and sang two pieces; one with exaggeration of expression, the other with utter extravagance of ornamentation. For these reasons she was warmly applauded. The lady's voice has not ipmroved during the three years of her retirement from the New York stage. It has become vailed [sic] and reveals the cost and the cause of her excessive execution."
“For a composer to set one of Carlyle’s essays to music would be considered a rather thankless task. Yet a similar work has been undertaken by the German composer Raff. He had ideas about German unity and other political phases about fatherland, and these ideas he has tried to express in a symphony in five parts . . . The completion of the work occupied the composer nearly two years; and the performance thereof takes nearly as much time. To an ordinary audience an hour and a half of intricate symphonic performance is as a thousand days; and the inordinate length of Raff’s symphony produced a weariness which necessitated the overlooking of those beauties which the work really contains. As being in any way descriptive of German unity, that is mainly an absurdity. It is quite as descriptive of Italian unity or American unity or individual vicissitudes and aspirations. Music has its sphere, and descriptive music can necessarily have but a limited range, and will be interpreted to suit individual taste. A violinist once played a descriptive composition. One hearer thought it was the anguish of a wailing beast; another thought it was a saw; a third deemed it a capital representation of a cat falling off a fence; the composer said it was Niagara Falls.
At this music concert, Adelaide Phillips appeared after a three years absence and sang airs from Gluck and Rossini, the latter overladen with ornamentation. The lady was cordially received. A Mendelssohn [sic] concerto (op. 56) was admirably played, Mr. Mills at the piano, Mr. Mollenhauer at the violin, and another Mollenhauer (in place of the absent Bergner) at the violoncello. The overture to Spohr’s ‘Jessonda’ closed the performance. Mr. Thomas certainly shows untiring industry and care in these admirable concerts.”
“The ideas upon which this symphony is based seem to us impracticable for direct expression in music. These related to a German’s reflections upon the political and social state of his country and his aspirations for the union of the whole into one sovereign people. The first movement is intended to describe the lofty flight of the German mind, deep power of thought, purity and gentleness and perseverance unto victory. The second movement is supposed to conduct the hearer to the chase with the men in the German forest, and afterward to lead him, to the gay sounds of national songs, with the youths and maidens in their merry walks through the fields rich with harvests. The third movement takes us to the German homes and firesides hallowed by the muses and faithful love of wife and children. But his pleasant view ends when the tone-poet directs his glance to another side of the German national life. What the ‘other side’ is, is not stated. The fourth movement, describes the repeated attempts for the unity of the Fatherland, which are frustrated by a hostile power—the well-known national melody ‘Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland.’ The fifth movement expresses the melancholy which fills the poet’s heart at the want of unity of his countrymen. But hope draws nigh, and led by her, he sees with longing and prophetic eyes a new and victorious uprising of his country in unity and majesty.
From the above description, which is the composer’s own, it will be perceived that the task he has imposed upon himself was by no means an easy one. To us the whole plan seems vague—a mere abstraction—too metaphysical for musical treatment in a broad and intelligent manner. The [illeg.] distinctions which the subjects necessitate are impossible expressions in music, which deals chiefly with the sentiments and passions, and with fancy which is intangible, and is born of the imagination. Graff [sic] has attempted in his symphony to define these distinctions, but has only succeeded in generalities; his music expresses joy and sadness; the horns denote the ‘chase,’ a light measure the mirth of youths and maidens; but beside these, and a contentious movement descriptive of the struggle for unity of the fatherland, we confess we were unable to follow out the subtler distinctions. The symphony is very long, the last movement painfully and wearisomely so, and there is a positive want of contrasts between the movements, which, producing a sameness, renders the composition inevitably tedious. It contains many beautiful points, the second movement especially, some passages for the wind instruments deserving especial notice, and the subject of the larghetto is admirable. It seems to us, on the first hearing from which a true judgment can hardly be formed, that the fault of the symphony is a want of coloring and dramatic power. The ideas are not squarely stated and they lack marked individuality. The instrumentation gives the impression of being very labored, and seems to demand a greater variety in treatment. Still we recognize the work as one of great merit, and feel that it would grow into favor if heard more frequently. It would be well, if it were possible, if Mr. Thomas would afford his subscribers an opportunity to be present, at least, at one rehearsal, so that they might become, in a measure, familiar with the works to be performed.
Miss Adelaide Phillips, unquestionably the finest dramatic vocalist that the country has produced, and who stands to-day among the few great contralto singers in the world, sang Gluck’s celebrated aria ‘Che faro’ in a style which fully sustained her reputation. The recitative was given with fine dramatic expression, justly phrased and forcibly delivered, and the aria was a rare specimen of grand and intense passion. We do not hesitate to say that the close of this fine aria, in breadth and intensity of feeling, and powerful dramatic expression, has never been excelled and but rarely equaled. The applause which followed was really a burst of enthusiastic approbation, and no artist ever deserved such a demonstration more entirely. Her second aria, ‘Una voce poco fa,’ as a mere exhibition of vocalism, was excellent. The brilliant fioritura was clearly and rapidly executed in the clear voice, but we do not approve of her reading of the song; it wanted lightness, archness and subtle meaning. It is certainly not suited to her style, which is broad, earnest and dramatic. It was not a wise selection.
The concerto for violin, violoncello and piano-forte, with orchestral accompaniment, is a composition worthy of Beethoven. It is a conception full of force, delicate and passionate thoughts, and grand in its phrases. How clear, bold and vigorous was the instrumentation, when compared with that of the preceding symphony! The violin and violoncello which part was read at sight for some reason, by Mr. Henry Mollenhauer) bears the burden of the composition, the piano part being very subordinate, although it rose in importance by the fine interpretation of Mr. S. B. Mills, whose admirable touch, clear and well-phrased execution, were never heard to better advantage. Mr. H. Mollenhauer has not the breadth of style necessary to interpret Beethoven’s music; his playing exhibits too much of the tender and sentimental style for its broad and vigorous phrases. Still his intonation was true and his execution clear and brilliant. If Mr. H. Mollenhauer read his part a prima vista, acquitting himself as well as he did is an achievement of which he may be proud.
The concluding overture, ‘Jessonda,’ a work in Spohr’s best style, of which we never tire, was played carefully, spiritedly and effectively. The concert was interesting in every respect, and the performance reflected credit on all concerned.”
“Theodore Thomas’ Symphonic Soiree.—The third soirée of Mr. Theodore Thomas was attended at Irving Hall on Saturday evening by a very large audience. The leading feature of the entertainment was Raff’s grand symphony, An das Vaterland. It is a long and difficult work, comprised of five parts, interpreting various emotions, and illustrating scenes in German life, the chase, the domestic fireside, and the devotion to country, inspired by national songs and an earnest desire fir the unity of the German nation. We need hardly say that under the judicious direction of Mr. Thomas, and with the aid of his admired troupe of artists, the symphony was rendered in the best manner, giving universal satisfaction to an audience the most critical perhaps which can attend musical entertainments. A concerto of Beethoven for piano, violin and violoncello gave ample evidence of the recognized talents of Mr. Mills and the brothers Mollenhauer. Miss Adelaide Phillips, the American contralto, was heard for the first time in three years, in an aria of Gluck’s and a cavatina from Il Barbieri, both of which she sang admirably. Her voice has a richness and fullness which characterized it during her previous operatic career, of which we retain a pleasure, and her style gave evidence of the improvement attended by her recent studies in Europe. Her reception was most cordial. The soirée concluded with the overture (Jessonda), work 63, by Spohr, and was delightfully performed by the orchestra. It is an agreeable evidence of the increasing taste for classic music to see these concerts of Mr. Thomas so liberally patronized.”
Includes comments from the program of the concert, which are mainly Raff’s descriptions for each movement of the symphony, as well as the historical events of 1850, when Raff began work on the symphony.
“[The Raff Symphony] is a work of uncommon merit both as regards conception and technical execution. Each movement presents many interesting points, and the composer has not been sparing of his contrapuntal resources; on the contrary, he has been rather too lavish in the exercise of them and, heaping detail upon detail, has spun the movements to an excessive length, which is in some measure injurious to the effect of the meritorious composition. But, if we consider how difficult and ungrateful a task it is for the composer of our days to accomplish anything remarkable in this form, while he has to endure a comparison with such predecessors as Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, we must allow that Raff has been on the whole successful; and we will hope that a composer who has been capable of doing so much will in the future do yet more. The instrumentation is remarkably original.
Another novelty to our audience was Beethoven’s Concerto. This is a work that is rarely heard, on account of the difficulty of finding three efficient artists for the solo parts. It is not a work of such caliber as his violin or some of the piano-forte concertos; but it bears the noble Beethoven stamp throughout.
Miss ADELAIDE PHILLIPS, whose appearance was a welcome one to her many old friends and admirers, sang the Gluck Aria with fine expression; but we must make some objection to the changes which she made, not only in tempo, but also in the notes of the morceau; it is in itself so perfect, so simply beautiful, that any change is for the worse. In the Rossini aria, Miss Phillips displayed uncommon bravura execution; her fine and open trill is especially remarkable. This lady is too seldom heard in public; we have here very few singers of equal ability.”