World Premiere in Palmerston North of 216 year-old work by English composer Samuel Arnold

The Renaissance Singers of Palmerston North presents:

A NEW CREATION – Music by Josef Haydn (1732-1809) and Samuel Arnold (1740-1802)

HAYDN:  Oratorio “The Creation” (1798) – Part Three
ARNOLD:  Oratorio “The Hymn of Adam and Eve” (1802) – World premiere performance
(edited and realised by Robert Hoskins and David Vine)

Pasquale Orchard (soprano) , Shayna Tweed (soprano), Jennifer Little (soprano),
Nigel Tongs (tenor), Lindsay Yeo (bass-baritone)

Renaissance Singers (Music Director – Guy Donaldson)
Schola Sacra Choir, Whanganui (Music Director – Roy Tankersley)
Manawatu Sinfonia (Leader – Gillian Gibb)
Conductor: Guy Donaldson

Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North

Saturday 10th November, 2018

Musical history was made on Saturday evening at Palmerston North’s Regent on Broadway, when local forces (the city’s Renaissance Singers and the Manawatu Sinfonia, plus a clutch of home-grown/nurtured vocal soloists) combined forces with Wellington soprano Pasquale Orchard and neighbouring Whanganui’s Schola Sacra Choir, under the inspired direction of conductor Guy Donaldson, to bring into being a world premiere with a difference.

New Zealand being geographically as far away as one can get from Europe, and the UK in particular, it’s surely something of a red-letter occasion when a significant musical work written by an English composer is given its first-ever performance in this country. Last year, an original manuscript, long thought lost, of an orchestral work by Gustav Holst was discovered in a music Library in Tauranga, and given its first performance anywhere for 111 years (since the 1906 premiere), by local musicians to considerable amazement and acclaim – but this present work, “The Hymn of Adam and Eve”, composed by the little-known Samuel Arnold in 1802(!) trumped even that circumstance, having never previously been performed.

There’s more than a whiff of romance and intrigue surrounding Arnold’s birth and heritage, certain sources suggesting he may have been the illegitimate son of one Thomas Arnold, a commoner, and Princess Amelia, daughter of George II and Queen Caroline, a princess who remained unmarried, and was known for her independent spirit. Arnold was educated at the Chapel Royal, making rapid progress in his music studies, and soon earning his living writing both instrumental and vocal works for performance at various London “Gardens”, including operas and oratorios for Covent Garden and other theatres. He eventually became organist and composer to the Chapel Royal, and afterwards organist to Westminster Abbey, as well as becoming the conductor (so early in the history of that profession!) of the Academy of Ancient Music.

Along with all of this Arnold found the time to compose for cathedral service, producing a four-volumed adjunct to William Boyce’s 1790 Cathedral Music, and to undertake the first collected edition of the works of Handel, of which he completed forty volumes, a copy of which Beethoven received during the last weeks of his life, reputedly declaring that “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived”. Judged by modern standards Arnold’s scholarship was wanting in places (the edition comprises only three-quarters of Handel’s output), but was for its time a notable and ground-breaking enterprise.

While searching for further pieces of information regarding Samuel Arnold to counter my lamentably skimpy knowledge of him I came across a couple of references to his activities as a musician which I thought significant, the first being the touching occasion in 1773 when Oxford University requested a performance of Arnold’s oratorio The Prodigal Son to mark the appointment of a new Chancellor for the institution, in return for which favour the composer was offered an honorary degree. Arnold at first declined, wanting to “entitle himself to it” by the usual academic course, to which end he submitted an exercise for examination – but his score was returned unopened by the music professor, assuring Arnold that it was “quite unnecessary to scrutinize an exercise by the author of The Prodigal Son.

The other reference I thought telling in that it probably shaped whole generations of opinion concerning Arnold’s music was the entry on the composer in the 1900 edition of Grove’s “A Dictionary of Music and Musicians”, written by Edward Francis Rimbault, to the effect that “Dr. Arnold wrote with great facility and correctness, but the demand upon his powers was too varied and too incessant to allow of his attaining great excellence in any department of his art”. One recalls a similar “put-down” kind of treatment meted out half-a-century later to the music of Rachmaninov by the same publication, words that ring hollow in the light of THAT composer’s subsequent status and popularity.

Dr. Robert Hoskins, former Associate Professor of Music at Massey University and the New Zealand School of Music, “rediscovered” Samuel Arnold’s final and unperformed work “The Hymn of Adam and Eve” while researching the life and work of the composer in the early 1980s. Hoskins’ subsequent judgement of Arnold’s complete oeuvre takes issue with the aforementioned comment in Grove’s Dictionary regarding the composer’s lack of “excellence in any part of his art”, and attests to the best of his music attaining “a certain individuality” resulting in “attractive and dramatically vivid music”. Hoskins also makes mention of the documented popularity of Arnold’s works, which rivalled and perhaps even surpassed that of any of his English contemporaries throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Arnold composed much of his music in an environment that was very much under the combined spell of two creative “giants” – Handel, whose oratorios had won the hearts of the English public fifty years previously, and, more recently, Haydn, whose “Salomon” or “London” Symphonies had, along with the composer’s own visits to London, stimulated enormous interest in the (by then) venerable composer and his music. Arnold had become steeped in the music of both men – and at the time he was writing “The Hymn of Adam and Eve” he conducted performances in London of  both Handel’s “Messiah” and Haydn’s “The Creation”. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Arnold’s work comes across in places as a kind of “amalgam” of the two, almost as if he was unconsciously paying homage to each of them.

It was entirely fitting, therefore, that we heard as a kind of prelude to Arnold’s work the third and final part of Haydn’s “The Creation”, the two works sharing a similar theme courtesy of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” – in Haydn’s case, the poetry translated and adapted by Baron Gottfried Van Swieten (who had also provided Haydn with his libretto for “The Seasons”), but here, translated back into English! Conductor Guy Donaldson however began the concert most appropriately with the final Chorus from Part Two, “Achieved is the Glorious Work”, giving the evening’s music-making a most auspicious and stirring beginning, the choral strands strong and firm in their fugal exchanges, the instrumental support full and energetic, with plenty of “schwung” in the rhythms, the whole capped off by wonderful timpani flourishes!

The Part three opening-proper was exquisitely-realised, the flute-playing limpid and “dewy”, and the horns “touching-in” the first rays of sunlight with real poetic feeling. Tenor Nigel Tongs kept a true line for “In rosy mantle”, his tone a tad wheezy in places, but steadily maintaining the musical shape of every phrase, giving his instrumental support plenty of beautiful “echo-material” to relish. Soprano Pasquale Orchard as Eve floated her first ascending phrase beautifully at “By thee with bliss, o bounteous Lord”, her Adam, baritone Lindsay Yeo counterweighting her line strongly and securely, and the oboe completing the “early-morning” scenario with a properly sylvan accompaniment– and how beautifully the chorus “stole” in with almost subterraneous murmurings, almost like the awakening of an “earth-noise”, underpinned in places by the timpani.

It took a little time for the orchestra to “bring together” the catchiness of the rhythmic gait leading up to the baritone’s “Of stars the brightest”, which the singer “opened up” securely – the chorus’s energy at “proclaim throughout vastness” seemed to galvanise the players somewhat, and the soprano’ s “And thou, the solace of the night” was more sturdily supported. Chirpily alert winds decorated the baritone’s next entry, and both soprano and chorus contributed to the infectious excitement and growing energy, finely controlled and gloriously released by conductor Donaldson, as all living creatures were enjoined by the singers to “praise the Lord” throughout crescendo after crescendo.

The singers’ rapport was evident in their exchanges throughout the recitative and duet that followed, both pointing their words and “relating” their trajectories and impulses to achieve a sense of true dialogue. The tenor returned, Nigel Tongs again reliably focused of line and elegant of phrase in his admonition to the couple to be content with what they have, before giving way to the splendour of the concerted forces’ concluding hymn of praise to the Almighty. The choir did itself and its conductor proud in its focusing and dovetailing of the fugal lines with the orchestral punctuations, the brass, winds and timpani suitably splendid of utterance, backed by the strings’ energy and colour – everybody at the piece’s conclusion giving their all, most satisfyingly.

After an intermission came the “real business” of the evening, the “public birth” of Samuel Arnold’s similarly-themed work for soloists, choir and orchestra, the “Hymn of Adam and Eve”, whose emergence from obscurity into the limelight had been lovingly enabled by Robert Hoskins as a result of his researchings. The performance was to also mark the retirement from the music directorship of the Renaissance Singers of conductor Guy Donaldson, after thirty years’ service in the role – so, altogether, the occasion promised a uniquely distinctive combination of a beginning and an ending, with each circumstance adding extra gravitas to the other.

Samuel Arnold fully intended his work to be performed shortly after its completion in January of 1802 – in fact he had planned the work for the Lenten concerts at the Haymarket Theatre Royal that year. His principal soloists were hand-picked for their roles by the composer – the soprano was to be German-born Gertrude Elizabeth Mara, one whose voice had been described as “remarkable for its extent and beauty”, as well as “its agility and flexibility” – it was for her particular abilities that Arnold had written the fiendishly difficult vocal bravura parts we were to hear in tonight’s performance. The baritone was the well-known singer Thomas Welsh, renowned for his voice’s  richness of tone. All was set to begin rehearsals, when the composer was stricken with ill health and was forced to cancel the proceedings.

Arnold died that same year in October, his oratorio unperformed and neglected, and eventually forgotten – fortunately the manuscript was given to the Royal College of Music in London, there to be rediscovered and reconstituted for the present performance, a premiere delayed for 216 years!

Arnold had set the “Morning Hymn” from Book 5 of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, a passage describing the sequel to a dream of temptation experienced by Eve, and to Adam’s reassurance that she can overcome any such thoughts in her waking life. After an orchestral introduction, the soprano’s (Eve) is the opening voice, praising God and enjoining all creation to do the same – As Part One proceeds the pair join with the Seraphs to address the heavenly entities, beginning with the angels, the “Sons of Light” and including Venus, the brightest star. Adam then attends to the sun, and Eve the moon and the planets, each urging these entities to acknowledge their Creator. In the Second Part, the singers (predominantly the soprano) then turn their attentions to the earth and its attendant elements and various forms of life, concluding with a salutation from Adam to the “universal Lord” and a plea that whatever evil is concealed will be dispersed “as now light dispels the dark”.

I thought, in general terms, the performance was terrific, and largely because of the musicians’ willingness to make the commitment required to address the challenges of some of the writing. In particular, the soprano part (written for the illustrious Mara) was of an order of difficulty that almost beggared belief, and which was tackled by Pasquale Orchard with near-tigerish intensity in places – the only possible response that could have made it really “work”. There was no holding back – we all felt “engaged” by her utter vocal fearlessness, even in the one or two places where the outcomes seemed angular, almost awkward in effect. It all seemed to go with the territory, the visceral stimulus veritably coursing this listener’s blood through the veins at what seemed at times like breakneck speed! – most exhilarating!

In parallel, I did think that Arnold’s writing seemed particularly attuned to the pieces featuring the soprano – which, of course applied to a staggering thirteen numbers out of nineteen! By my count baritone Lindsay Yeo had, in comparison, only three solo opportunities throughout, which did seem a little curmudgeonly of the composer. And, despite some challenging and skilfully-realised writing for the horn, I felt Arnold’s invention wasn’t quite on the same ecstatic level for the baritone in the aria “Sound His praise”, though Yeo did his best to make it “sing”. Better was the final “Hail, universal Lord”, the singer bringing vigour and accuracy to the opening and making a good fist of the difficult coloratura passages.

The work began with an orchestral Symphony, sturdy and Handelian, followed by an appropriately lustrous opening declamation from the soprano, “These are thy glorious works”, Orchard projecting the sound of her voice with radiant character both here, and in the aria “Speak ye, who best can tell”, accompanied by lovely work from the horns and winds, the bassoon-playing particularly eloquent in its support of the singer. The Seraphs’ Duet which followed featured mellifluous teamwork between Shayna Tweed and Jennifer Little, supported faithfully by oboe continuo, and sturdily framed by an orchestral response which worked triumphantly through one or two shaky dovetailings. The somewhat tricky triplet passages were boldly tackled by the singers, with lovely teamwork at the repetitions of “And with songs”. If a strenuous quality occasionally “grabbed” a phrase or two of the figurations, it added to the excitement and colour of the singers’ work.

The Quartet and Chorus “Ye in heaven , on earth join all ye creatures” was introduced somewhat tentatively on the strings, who then seemed to warm to the task in support of the fugal passages, the choral work enlivened by timpani and brass in the middle section, and made very dramatic and theatrical at the end with portentous pauses! A complete contrast came with the delicate play between the flutes wreathing delicacies around and about the recitative “Fairest of stars”, and the soprano making the most of her words – again, with the aria “Praise Him in thy sphere” the winds set the scene most charmingly alternating with the voice, the long-breathed phrases contrasting with the brief, shooting-star-like cadenza at the end.

Adam’s recitative “Thou sun” brought vigorous phrases from the strings and sturdy singing from Lindsay Yeo, which carried over into the subsequent aria – the singer held his line, and gave of his best with the cadenza, even if I sensed a severity about the writing that didn’t quite take flight. What a difference with the following recitative “Moon, that now meet’st the orient sun“, singer and instrumentalists working with their conductor to evoke the grandeur of the “wandering fires that move in mystic dance”, before energising the sounds in praise of the Lord and Giver of Light – the soprano casting caution to the starry firmament with her vocal pyrotechnics and the chorus dramatically plunging into the ferment of excitement, each relishing the exchanges and banishing the darkness with their energies, the singer’s coloratura gripping and breath-taking in its effect.

With Part Two, things “came down to earth”, the opening recitative almost scientifically delineating the biosphere as the starting-point, life deriving from and nourished by “air” – the aria, “Let your ceaseless change”, that followed (both sung by Orchard as Eve, who dominated the proceedings from here on) sounded to me particularly Handelian, the flowing lines steadily and purposefully flowering into realms of great beauty, wrought and relished by the singer and her conductor, with the help of some lovely liquid clarinet phrasings. Even more visceral in effect were the instrumental evocations of the following Recitative “Ye mists and exhalations”, the overtly descriptive texts finding the composer’s imaginative powers equal to the task of rendering the words’ descriptions, culminating in bursts of magnificence from brass and timpani hailing the sun and gentle pizzicato strings suggesting delicate rain.

Again, Handel’s spirit rose majestically skyward in Arnold’s “Rising or falling”, firstly with Orchard’s utterly uninhibited vocal pyrotechnics, culminating in a “knockout” of a cadenza that bordered on the outlandish – what commitment to the cause!! – and then followed by a chorus using the same text to   put across majesty and might with great relish. Arnold’s gift for word-painting came to the fore once again in “His praise, ye winds”, the strings deployed most exquisitely and ambiently, both here and in the subsequent aria, “Fountains and ye that warble”, along with some fetching wind contributions, the singer’s voice floating her line across the gentle dotted rhythms. Next, it was the choir’s turn, a confidently joyous rendition of “Join voices all ye living souls”, the wind writing decorating the voices’ counterpointed lines, the latter sometimes in strongly-shaped thirds and in places very Handelian, the former an absolute delight, and to that end, most mellifluously played.

From things airborne we were then taken to things “that in waters glide” and “that walk the earth” – here was an intensely beauteous declamation, Orchard never letting up the intensities of her expression, just momentarily pushing her tones a shade sharp, but always with a vibrancy that infused the words and notes with a quality of engagement that characterised her work throughout the whole evening – a magnificent performance. She was supported by string playing whose quiet energies brought out something of the music’s own life-force, which I felt was partly derived from the concert’s overall spirit, one which enabled something challenging but within reach, and in the process generating considerable delight and satisfaction.

The work’s final act came with “Hail, universal Lord”, Lindsay Yeo’s Adam managing to get a word or two in at last, singing his lines with vigour and making a splendid thing out of the difficult figurations. Then came a truly overwhelming “all-in” flood of energy and colour from all the musicians throughout the work’s final pages which set the spaces of the venerable Regent Theatre aglow “as now light dispels the dark”. It was all, in a word, magnificent! – and both maestro Guy Donaldson and editor-extraordinaire Robert Hoskins would have been well-pleased with the musicians’ efforts and the audience’s response – as would the shade of Samuel Arnold, after more than two hundred years, able to finally proclaim his “last compositional will and testament” as fulfilled.

2 thoughts on “World Premiere in Palmerston North of 216 year-old work by English composer Samuel Arnold

  1. Robert Hoskins says:

    Thank you Peter, for an enthusiastic and thoughtful review. I’m glad you enjoyed the special nature of the occasion. The Arnold, like so much eighteenth-century English music, comes up fresh in performance. Robert

    • Peter Mechen says:

      A great pleasure, Robert! I’m aware that my words can’t possibly convey the full extent of appreciation and acknowledgement that both your magnificent restoration and the musicians’ fully committed performance of Arnold’s work truly deserves – but I have done what I can. And my sincerest apologies to all for leaving so peremptorily afterwards – I needed to get back to Wellington in a hurry that evening. All is well, here – so, once again, many thanks for (in the words of Gerard Hoffnung) a “stupendous revelation” via the glorious music of Samuel Arnold! – Peter

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