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Paine’s "St. Peter"
by [?]

For music-lovers in America the great event of the season has been the performance of Mr. Paine’s oratorio, “St. Peter,” at Portland, June 3. This event is important, not only as the first appearance of an American oratorio, but also as the first direct proof we have had of the existence of creative musical genius in this country. For Mr. Paine’s Mass in D–a work which was brought out with great success several years ago in Berlin–has, for some reason or other, never been performed here. And, with the exception of Mr. Paine, we know of no American hitherto who has shown either the genius or the culture requisite for writing music in the grand style, although there is some of the Kapellmeister music, written by our leading organists and choristers, which deserves honourable mention. Concerning the rank likely to be assigned by posterity to “St. Peter,” it would be foolish now to speculate; and it would be equally unwise to bring it into direct comparison with masterpieces like the “Messiah,” “Elijah,” and “St. Paul,” the greatness of which has been so long acknowledged. Longer familiarity with the work is needed before such comparisons, always of somewhat doubtful value, can be profitably undertaken. But it must at least be said, as the net result of our impressions derived both from previous study of the score and from hearing, the performance at Portland, that Mr. Paine’s oratorio has fairly earned for itself the right to be judged by the same high standard which we apply to these noble works of Mendelssohn and Handel.

In our limited space we can give only the briefest description of the general structure of the work. The founding of Christianity, as illustrated in four principal scenes of the life of St. Peter, supplies the material for the dramatic development of the subject. The overture, beginning with an adagio movement in B-flat minor, gives expression to the vague yearnings of that time of doubt and hesitancy when the “oracles were dumb,” and the dawning of a new era of stronger and diviner faith was matter of presentiment rather than of definite hope or expectation. Though the tonality is at first firmly established, yet as the movement becomes more agitated, the final tendency of the modulations also becomes uncertain, and for a few bars it would seem as if the key of F-sharp minor might be the point of destination. But after a short melody by the wind instruments, accompanied by a rapid upward movement of strings, the dominant chord of C major asserts itself, being repeated, with sundry inversions, through a dozen bars, and leading directly into the triumphant and majestic chorus, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The second subject, introduced by the word “repent” descending through the interval of a diminished seventh and contrasted with the florid counterpoint of the phrase, “and believe the glad tidings of God,” is a masterpiece of contrapuntal writing, and, if performed by a choir of three or four hundred voices, would produce an overpowering effect. The divine call of Simon Peter and his brethren is next described in a tenor recitative; and the acceptance of the glad tidings is expressed in an aria, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” which, by an original but appropriate conception, is given to the soprano voice. In the next number, the disciples are dramatically represented by twelve basses and tenors, singing in four-part harmony, and alternating or combining with the full chorus in description of the aims of the new religion. The poem ends with the choral, “How lovely shines the Morning Star!” Then follows the sublime scene from Matthew xvi. 14-18, where Peter declares his master to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,”–one of the most impressive scenes, we have always thought, in the gospel history, and here not inadequately treated. The feeling of mysterious and awful grandeur awakened by Peter’s bold exclamation, “Thou art the Christ,” is powerfully rendered by the entrance of the trombones upon the inverted subdominant triad of C-sharp minor, and their pause upon the dominant of the same key. Throughout this scene the characteristic contrast between the ardent vigour of Peter and the sweet serenity of Jesus is well delineated in the music. After Peter’s stirring aria, “My heart is glad,” the dramatic climax is reached in the C-major chorus, “The Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”