Prague Concert Life, 1850-1881

Event title:

Society of Musical Artists [Jednota hudebních umělců / Tonkünstler-Gesellschaft] benefit concert in aid of the Prague Institute for the Widows and Orphans of Musical Artists

Venue: Žofín Island (Žofín Hall)

Event type: Art music culture

Date: 30/03/1863 5pm

Season: Lent

Benefactor: Society of Musical Artists

Programme comprising:

General participants:
  • Society of Musical Artists: organizing institution
  • Cecilia Society: participating institution, vv, orch
  • Estates Theatre orchestra: participating orchestra
  • Estates Theatre chorus: participating institution, vv
  • Prague Conservatory: participating institution, vv, orch
  • Žofín Academy: participating institution, vv
  • Prague Men's Singing Society [Prager Männergesangsverein]: participating institution, vv
  • Hlahol: participating institution, vv
SPOHR, Louis : oratorio Die letzten Dinge, solo vv, chorus, orch, WoO61
     • Ehrenbergů, Eleonora z : v (Mary) Rokitansky, Hans : v, (Peter) Lukes, Jan Ludevít : v, (John) Bernard, Joseph Karl : v (Joseph of Arimathea) Schmidt-Procházková, Josefa : v Macháčková, Marie : v Bláha, Jan : v Eilers, Albert : v Polák, ? : v Rafael, J. : v

Commentary:

Prager Morgenpost 23/3/1863 published advance information concerning this event, noting: ‘Oratorium. The Society of Musical Artists will on 30th March in the Hall of Žofín Island with the participation of very numerous musical forces perform for the benefit of its Widows and Orphans Institute, Spohr’s Oratorium: „Des Heilands letzte Stunden“ [Die letzten Dinge]’. On 30/3/1863 Prager Morgenpost again reported news of the event: ‘Spohr’s Oratorium „Des Heilands letzte Stunden“ [Die letzten Dinge] is being performed today at 5pm in the Hall of the Žofín Island by the Society of Musical Artists with the participation of the musical and singing forces of Prague. The solo parts are being undertaken by the ladies Prohaska-Schmit [Schmidt-Procházková], von Ehrenberg [z Ehrenbergů], Machozet, then the gentlmen Bernard, Blaha [Bláha], Eilers, Emminger, Lukas, Pollak, Raphael and Rokitanski.’

Národní listy 30/3/1863 reported in its section of daily news: ‘Society of Musical Artists performs today at 5pm on Žofín to benefit its Institute for the Support of Widows and Orphans Spohr’s oratorio: Poslední doby Spasitelový
[Die letzten Dinge]. Kindly performing the solo parts will be: Mrs Procházka-Schmidtová, Misses: z Ehrenbergů and Macháčková, Messrs: Bernard, Bláha, Eilers, Emminger, Lukes, Polák. Rafael, Rokitanský.’

Extended reviews were published by most Prague musical-event covering periodicals of the time. Mixed receptions were given to Spohr’s work, mainly from the persepctive of positive or negative attitudes to Spohr’s musical language and aesthetic.

Over half of the Národní listy 8/4/1863 review, signed ‘Zvř.’, of this concert comprised a critical commentary of Spohr’s creative style and aesthetic. The periodical remarked that ‘this great master at times had many friends and admirers in Prague, and up until the present day his name had enjoyed a glorious reputation. However, it is impossible to conceal, that the musical world now has another opinion about Spohr’s music.’ The subsequent commentary reflected the general antipathy to this composer’s music that developed throughout European music circles during the second half of the nineteenth century, an antipathy that was rooted in inevitable changes of musical taste and fashion. Thus, the Národní listy review maintained that the ‘purely elegiac’ musical language of the composer was now ‘completely outdated’. Its ‘great serenity, noblesse... and tastefulness’ was thought to be mannered in comparison with the more extrovertly expressive, ‘titanic, world-shaking ideas of a whole series of composers’ beginning, ‘if not with Bach and Handel, then with Beethoven’. Although the reviewer grudgingly admitted that Die letzten Dinge did have some some positive attributes, noting that at certain expressive moments the work contained ‘spirited, greatly-expressive, excellently comprehensible music’, even these cases needed to be re-evaluated by the ‘more sober’ critic. As an example was cited the aria of Mary beneath the Cross, scored for soprano, violin, harp and horn solo. This, the reviewer found, was ‘by itself a beautiful musical work.’ However, the critic asserted that ‘in form and content it reminds us too much of a lovers’ aria from any opera.’ In short, Spohr’s writing was expressively and stylistically inadequate to the task of depicting the highly charged, profound emotion of this scene, his music in ‘form and content’ reminding the reviewer more of ‘a usual situation in ordinary life.’ Finally, the Národní listy correspondent noted that the oratorio suffered from a lack of balance between constituent elements of the epic, lyric and dramatic, with the dramatic element considered to be wanting. The performance itself was praised by the Národní listy critic. Miss z Ehrenbergů, Lukes and Eilers were singled out among the solo vocalists for particular compliment. The ‘not at all easy’ choruses ‘went well’, and the instrumental soloists, the violinist Mořic Mildner, and an unidentified harpist (probably Staněk) were praised for their performance in the aria of Mary beneath the Cross. This aria, sung ‘excellently’ by Miss z Ehrenbergů, had to be encored.

The Lumír 2/4/1863 review presented a far more complimentary description of Spohr’s work. The Lumír critic remarked that this ‘Sublime composition describes with excellent harmonic combinations and touching melodies, [and assisted by] masterful orchestration, a truly personal characterization of Christ’s suffering. Particularly sublime are the numbers: the aria of the despairing Jidáš (Judas), the heartfelt aria of Peter, and the passionate final chorus of the first part. In the second part our attention was captivated mainly by the tender and deeply pained aria of Marina, which had to be repeated, and the penultimate chorus of this part. It is a regret to us, that for shortage of space we are unable to comment more broadly upon this excellent work, as in all truth it merits.’ The performance ‘was on the whole accurate. The numerous audience honoured the spirited singing of Miss Ehrenbergová [z Ehrenbergů], Rokytanský, Lukes and Bernard with loud applause. Mr Jahn took the baton prudently, which contributed not a little to the splendid success of the concert.’

Prager Morgenpost 1/4/1863 published a substantial review, signed ‘ý.’ of this event. The correspondent reported: ‘Concert of Sacred Music, 30 March. For this year’s Easter production the Society of Musical Artists chose Spohr’s oratorio
„Des Heilands letzte Stunden“ [Die letzten Dinge]. Before I move to an assessment of his composition, allow me to give a brief interpretation of the text, as some may have wished. We see the Saviour being hated and persecuted by the ruling party; we see him sold to his enemy by a young man given to betrayal; he is seized by armed forces and abandoned and disowned by his faithful friends, who, in momentary fear for their own safety, fall into despair. A council of proud, power-seeking Pharisees is called together and he is placed before them. People from the lowest rungs of society come forward and use his speeches full of divine wisdom and his noble actions, interpreted in the manner of the rabble, as evidence against him. Finally the death sentence is passed. The second section of the work begins with the journey of Christ’s Passion to the place of death. The crucifixion takes place. The Divine Redeemer is abhorrently mocked by the people he taught: Arzt, hilf Dir selbst; and only his deeply afflicted mother and the closest disciples stand faithfully beside him during his final struggle. The last words fade away; death looms; all nature is aghast. Yet it is not in this wild commotion that the work ends, but rather with the clement and conciliatory words of the burial chorus. Spohr’s oratorio begins with an Andante grave whose broad imposing phrases express a noble lament. This prepares the listener for the elegiac opening, the chorus Senke Dich heilige Nacht and the recitative of St. John. Now Judas appears and creates an effective counter-subject to the previous gentle melancholy with his passionate aria Weh, Judas, über Dich. This is followed in turn by a very tender number, Mary’s aria with chorus, Und wenn sie Alle weichen. From here, an effective progression via an alla marcia and a short recitative lead to the aria of St Peter:Ewig fließet, meine Zähren. (One might consider how deeply the nature of contrition in Peter differs from that of Judas.) Out of the gloom lifts the comforting and powerful Der Du mit Allgewalt. Now the court session begins, and the chorus of the disciples and the priests is effective in drawing out the differences between the friends of Jesus and his antagonists. The harrowing chorus that follows, Über uns komme sein Blut, completes the first part. A big introduction opens the second part. Now begins the Passion itself. Only a brief recitative separates the sharply contrasting choruses Blicke strahlende Sonne and Arzt, der allen half. Now follow the Saviour’s last words, interrupted by an aria of Mary, Rufe aus der Welt der Mängel, a trio, Jesus himmlische Liebe and various short choral phrases. Now comes the death of the Saviour, and a soft chorus of his friends leads into the approaching lightning storm. The chorus of the crowd, Welch’ drohend Ungewitter, begins softly and mysteriously, then grows with the gathering tumult of the elements to reach a truly dramatic fervour. Yet not feverishly (as suggested by the text of the above), but rather with a gentle chorus in 12/4 time, Wir drücken Dir die Augen zu, this expression of real, true Christian atonement, brings the work to a close. It can be seen that in the first part a buildup of dramatic effect occurs up to the last number, and in the second part up to the penultimate number. Spohr refused to end with the cataclysmic conclusion of the penultimate chorus: he finishes with a number that, in rounding off, elucidates the introduction to the work and invites an exalted spirit and feeling of compassion to resound in the heart of the listener.

The chief characteristic in Spohr’s music in general is nobility and worth. In none of his many works, regardless of the genre to which they belong, does this nobility altogether disappear: because wherever he applies himself, there speaks a tender longing, pertaining to something otherworldly. He is wholly elegiac and therefore impacts only in moments of higher inspiration. As a composer of church music he sets out from the belief that true evangelical effect can only be attained through monumental force: hence the powerful choruses in his oratorios, and hence the solidity, the scale, and the proportionate intricacies in general. What needs to be drawn attention to with regard to the work discussed here, however, is his all too frequent musical onomatopoeia, which cannot be reconciled with the fundamentals of oratorio style, although on the other hand one must admit that these sections, taken out of the context of the whole, are of considerable musical value in themselves. One might even throw in the observation, as it were by way of an apology, that it is in general extremely difficult to attain the proper tone of the sacred aria. Anyone who so wishes can even find examples of how difficult this is to attain in [the lesser numbers of] Beethoven’s
Christus am Oelberge. With the exception of the immense spirit of Handel, that astounding musical genius, and perhaps of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, this is the obstacle at which, so far as I am aware, most others in oratorio come to grief. As is well known, Handel always considered himself a victor in this genre. It is nevertheless remarkable that he always knew how to find the correct religious tone in his arias, since, as we know, he did not devote himself to the oratorio until he was forced by the opposition of the entire peerage in London to turn away from opera. Having worked in the theatre for more than twenty-five years, it was natural that he should carry the dramatic form with him into oratorio. And yet if the outward form of his oratorios is the dramatic, the underlying tone is nevertheless lyrical narrative: for a sweeping idea, such as calls for such development, vivid characterisation, or energetic adherence to the scene of the moment, must ruthlessly exclude any untimely lingering on secondary ideas... I cannot draw these parallels further: there is neither the space nor the time to do so here. Yet I can indicate the result approximately if I equate Handel to the formidable prophet Jeremiah and Spohr to, say, the noble, tender, most-loved disciple of the Saviour, the dear John. The orchestra under the artistic directorship of Kapellmeister Jahn was well rehearsed. Likewise the choir, though a gathering of diverse forces, made a good show and performed to its very best. And given that the principal solo roles, as well as the lesser ones, were in the best of hands, the enterprise had no chance of failing. The Hall of the Žofín Island was full throughout.’

A less rhetorical review, signed ‘M.’, was published by Prager Morgenpost’s sister German-language newspaper, Politik 1/4/1863: ‘Music. The concert of the Society of Musical Artists, given two days ago and which took place as previously in the Island Hall with the participation of notable figures in the singing and instrumental worlds, brought us this time Spohr’s 
Des Heilands letzte Stunden[Die letzten Dinge]. This solemn composition of that composer, who is particularly respected in Prague, is already known to our musical public from previous performances and was executed in a thoroughly commendable manner. The solo parts were taken by Mrs Procházka [Schmidt-Procházková], Misses von Ehrenberg [z Ehrenbergů] and Macháček [Macháčková], and Messrs Bernard, Bláha, Eilers, Lukes, Polák, Rafael and Rokytanský, and all of them earned just recognition for the conscientious fulfilment of their tasks. Many of the so beautiful parts of the work were brought off superbly; after these, as well as at the end of each section of the work, loud applause rang out. Among these passages we can name the sequence of Rokytanský’s aria (Peter): Ewig fließet, meine Zähren, Mr Lukes’ arioso (John), the solo quartet Bosheit sehen wir siegen sung by the ladies Procházka [Procházková] and Macháček [Macháčková] and the gentlemen Bernard and Eilers; the ladies’ trio and the aria of Miss von Ehrenberg (Mary), Rufe aus der Welt der Mängel; the masterful chorus Allgütiger Gott was also moving in its effect, with its imitative entry of the individual voice parts, and also Mr Bernard’s arioso (Joseph of Arimathea), Er war der Christ. Kapellmeister Jahn conducted with circumspection and diligence, but we must criticise his excessive and quite unjustified willingness in giving the signal for Mary’s aria to be repeated. This rather disrupted the elevated atmosphere among the audience, being more in keeping with a friendly gesture in a private social setting. The concert was very well attended, which, in consideration of its so human a purpose, was doubly pleasing.’

According to the unsigned Lumír 2/4/1863 review, Prague societies and institutions participating in this concert included members of the Žofín Academy, of the Cecilia Society, of the Prague Men’s Singing Society [Männergesangverein] and of the Hlahol singing society, pupils of the Conservatory, musicians of the Royal Estates Theatre [probably from both the German Estates Theatre and the Czech Provisional Theatre], and many amateurs. Only the source Politik seems to have offered a complete list all of the solo vocalists performing in the oratorio. The Lumír correspondent noted specifically the principal rôles: Miss Eleonora z Ehrenbergů in the part of Mary; Jan Rokytanský (Peter); Jan Ludevít Lukes (John); K. Bernard (Joseph of Arimathea). The unsigned Národní listy 8/4/1863 review related that other solo rôles were taken by Mrs Josefa Schmidt-Procházková, Albert Eilers, Jindřich Polák, and Jan Bláha, but did not include all of the singers identified by Politik. The Lumír and Politik texts have therefore been adopted in the database event record. The pre-concert report published by Národní listy 30/3/1863 had stated that Josef Emminger was also to appear as soloists. His name did not appear within any of the the specified reviews, indicating that he did not participate in this concert.


Summary of sources:

Národní listy (30/03/1863)
Prager Morgenpost (30/03/1863)
Prager Morgenpost (01/04/1863)
Politik (01/04/1863)
Lumír (02/04/1863)
Národní listy (08/04/1863)
Dalibor, časopis pro hudbu, divadlo a umění vůbec (10/04/1863)