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Edward Elgar’s “King Olaf”

The English Composer’s Cantata Sung By The Brooklyn Oratorio Society

The Brooklyn Oratorio Society may have been impelled by ambitions for a hearing in the Borough of New York to cross the river to Carnegie Hall for its concert last evening; but its immediate occasion for its appearance there was the burning of the Academy of Music, where its performances have previously been given. The concert offered an unusual element of interest that it gave the first hearing in this country to a cantata by Edward Elgar— the Englishman who has undertaken the task of putting new wine into the old bottles of the oratorio and the cantata, and breaking away from the immemorial traditions of British music to write choral music with strong ferment of modern spirit in them.

“King Olaf” is only eight years old, but so rapidly has Dr. Elgar’s progress been made that it counts as one of his later works. It was written for one of the smaller provincial English music festivals, that of North Staffordshire, in 1896, and created no very great impression then. Its production now, like Dr. Elgar’s still earlier work, “The Light of Life,” that the Church Choral Society brought forth last year, is due to the profound interest aroused in his “The Dream of Gerontius” and “The Apostles,” which have both been sung twice by the Oratorio Society of New York. And curiosity as to the composer’s earlier works is accentuated by the dearth of newer compositions in this form that can make good any claim to the serious attention of music lovers. So Mr. Water Henry Hall, conductor of the Brooklyn singers, did well in bringing out “King Olaf.” There was a fair sized audience that showed appreciation and interest in the performance.

“King Olaf” is founded on that ”wondrous book of legends/in the old Norse tongue/of the dead Kings of Norroway” from which the “blue-eyed Norseman” in Longfellow’s “Tales of a Wayside Inn” took the story he told as “The Musician’s Tale.” But to fit it for musical treatment the aid of an English adaptor was called in, one H.A. Acworth, who has written rather more than half the lines Dr. Elgar has set. There has also been a departure from Longellow’s method of telling the story. By Dr. Elgar, as he informs us in a preparatory note, “it is intended that the performers should be looked upon as a gathering of skalds (bards), all in turn take part in the narration of the Saga and occasionally, at the more dramatic parts, personify for the moment some important character.”

The form is this a compromise between the epic and the quasi-dramatic, and the listener is required to make some sudden transfers of his attitude from that of listening to a narrative and gazing upon a spectacle. King Olaf is that ‘magnificent far-shining man’ of Carlyle’s admiration, “essentially definable as a wild bit of  heroism,” and long celebrated in the tales of the Norse people. A number of his different adventures are recited by Longfellow, and, following him, by Elgar, mostly of a gruesome and violent character, that give opportunity for much stirring and vigorous music, and also for much characterization.

In this Dr. Elgar’s skill in orchestration– it was highly developed even when “King Olaf” was composed– comes to the fore, as well as his predilection for the use of leading motives. The score employs considerable number of these, several of which are of sharply defined outline, and used with skill in the composition part. They are veritable typical phrases and are in many instances suggestive of the characters and situations they typify. Mr. Elgar’s orchestration is not so fine nor mellow as it is in the choral works that are best known here, but he shows a wide knowledge of brilliant and effective combinations of realistic touches, such as those that represent Olaf’s “cruisings o’er the seas,” the martial clangor of armed men, and the glimmer of men when Gudrun stands with her dagger to killer her bridegroom.

The choruses evince something of the skill in the treatment of voices that distinguishes “The Dream of Gerontius”; there are strength and vigor and gloomy northern coloring in many of them, and they are frequently composed with an uncommon distinction and richness of harmonic sense. The solo passages, of which there are many, are the least successful element of the work; they are largely in a declamatory arioso style, over a thematic treatment of the orchestra, but the effect too often is monotony. “King Olaf” is on the whole a work of originality and power as to distinguish it above modern works of its kind, and it shows the unmistakable touch of originality that was destined to rise to such lofty heights in his later works.

It received substantial justice at the hands of the chorus last night, although there was something to be desired in its incisiveness of attack and its delicacy of shading. It rarely succeeded in reaching a real pianissimo. Unfortunately, the orchestra was not equal to the demands made upon it by the score. The solo singers were Mrs. Shana Cumming, Mr. Herbert Witherspoon and Mr. Theodore Van Yorx. Mr. Witherspoon sang with excellent voice and with a feeling for the dramatic element in the music.

— New York Times, April 30, 1940

Caz Dolowicz isn’t a natural born Norseman.

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