Mr. Runciman's 'Old Scores and New Readings' is a collection of entertaining papers on musical topics which must be cordially commended to the attention of all lovers of the art who like to be stimulated to thought, and are not afraid to be shocked once in a. while by an opinion outrageously opposed to everything they have ever heard and believed. The author is one of the leaders among the new school of English critics who are making life a burden to Joseph Bennett and other veterans in the profession. Early in his career he involved the Saturday Review in a law suit by some indiscretion. That was six years ago, and he has since toned down a little; yet he is not afraid to refer, in the book now before us, to one of the English idols, the late eminent MacFarren, as "the worst enemy music has ever had" in England; and he will arouse much indignation by his remarks on the "Messiah." Not that he underrates that oratorio or its composer; be rather overrates them; but he tells his countrymen bluntly (and truly) that the real "Messiah" is practically unknown, and that its vogue in the provinces is due to the fact that it has become a Christmas institution, like plum pudding and mince pie. Greatly as he admires Handel-the real Handel-Mr. Runciman points out his enormous debt to Purcell, England's "last great musician" (1658-95), and quotes with approval Burney's opinion that, "in the accent of passion, and expression of English words, the vocal music of Purcell is... as superior to Handel's as an original poem to a translation." Mr. Runciman's general attitude is well illustrated in the remark, anent the latest phase of German music, that "it is high time for a return to the simplicity of Mozart, of Handel, of our own Purcell; to dare, as Wagner dared, to write folk-melody, and to put it on the trombones at the risk of being called vulgar and rowdy by persons who do not know great art when it is original, but only when it resembles some great art of the past which they have learnt to know."
Perhaps the best of Mr. Runciman's twenty essays are those on six of Wagner's operas. They show much more true critical insight than the comments of any of the German essayists, be their name Hanslick, Ehlert, Ehrlich, Chamberlain, Porges, Wolzogen, or what not. He begins one of his essays with the statement that " 'Lohengrin' has been sung scores of times at Covent Garden in one fashion or another; but I declare that we heard something resembling the real 'Lohengrin' for the first time when Mr. Anton Seidl crossed the Atlantic to conduct it and other of Wagner's operas. Mr. Seidl came all the way from New York city to show us how out of sweetness can come forth strength"; and he specifies the reasons for this judgment. in the paper on "Siegfried" he remarks that "the music Siegfried has to sing is the richest. most copious stream of melody ever given to one artist"; and he has some eloquent pages regarding the scenic charms of these operas, closing with the words that, "had Wagner not lived in Switzerland, and gone his daily walks amongst the mountains, the 'Ring' might have been written; but certainly it would have been written very differently."
The real secret of Brahms's success Mr. Runciman has summed up in six pages better than anyone else has done it. There are also interesting papers on Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, "Fidelio," Verdi, "Italian Opera, Dead and Dying," Dvorak, Lamoreux and his orchestra, all of them worth reading and re-reading...
- "The Nation," Volume 70 show more