A LORDLY SURVEY
'Choral Music in the Nineteenth Century',
reviewed by ROBERT ANDERSON
Whether this book should be regarded as a prelude or postlude to the author's equivalent treatment, six years back, of the twentieth century I leave to any postmodernist skilled in semantic niceties; it is welcome either way. Mr Strimple is ready to expand where the quality of the music demands and performance is most likely. In more shaded areas he is naturally reduced to such formulas as 'also of interest are', 'other works that deserve mention', 'other composers active include' followed by names as foreign to me as to most choral conductors.
It is unnecessary to agree with all Strimple's judgments. In rightly praising the late Haydn Masses, his starting-point, he greatly underestimates The Creation and The Seasons, works tailormade for Haydn's essential genius. Schubert's Deutsche Messe gets more of a spotlight than the far finer if unfinished Lazarus. Certainly Schumann's Faust is more dramatic than the author allows: Gretchen on her knees tormented by the demon of her guilty conscience is agonising enough. I would go no farther than 'noble dreariness' in praise of Brahms's German Requiem. It is difficult to recognise the music of Gerontius as 'sometimes overbearing, stuffy, and dull'. And so on.
Strimple lists a number of works I shall die wretched for never having heard (as maybe will he too). Among the more succulent might be mentioned Gossec's Te Deum scored for three hundred wind instruments, including fifty serpents, even if the music is 'fanatically diatonic'; Alkan's funeral march on the death of a parrot; Borodin's Requiem aeternam on chopsticks; and above all the ever-elusive three oratorios by Raimondi on the subjects of Joseph, Potiphar and Jacob, that might be performed separately or together.
It is indeed a lordly survey, beneficial to any choral conductor, ranging the continents with enviable ease, trickling down to the southern tip of America and ending with burgeoning efforts in the Antipodes. It is a courtesy to the reader that references are bracketed within the text rather than piled into footnoters or banished to the inconvenience of endnotes. Nor is it any surprise that the most cited reference is to the New Grove of 1980 (in certain aspects more reliable than its successor of 2001, before the publication of which Stanley Sadie had been sacked), an essential tool for any such compilation as this.
There are unimportant errors along the way, but Strimple seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of Brahms's compositional procedures. He makes the very misleading statement that 'Variation form in Brahms's hands, is an evolutionary process wherein each variation takes on some aspect of its predecessor'. If applied to Brahms's formal sets of variations, this is manifest nonsense. One only has to think of the Haydn (or St Antony) set. But if it is a partly understood version of Schoenberg's insight into so much of Brahms's symphonic and chamber method as 'developing variation', then a few hours' investigation of representative Brahms scores will clarify Strimple's mind.
The bibliography makes clear that the author's main scholarly investigations have concerned Dvorák; mine have been into the works of Elgar. I can assure Mr Strimple, therefore, that it is superfluous to list Lux Christi and The Light of Life as separate works. The Latin title was Elgar's original name for his short oratorio; but the publisher Novello took fright that this might seem too Catholic, and preferred an English version. Nor can Caractacus by any stretch of imagination be deemed an 'oratorio', unless it be admitted that the Druid god Taranis is hardly more bloodthirsty than Jehovah.
Copyright © 2 September 2008 Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt
Choral Music in the Nineteenth Century
Amadeus Press, 2008
x+284 pages, hardback