On the evening when Manchester United was fighting for the FA Cup down in London, back in Manchester a different season was also drawing to a dramatic close. I’m talking about The Hallé Orchestra’s conclusion to its Dvořák festival with a rare performance of his powerful oratorio Saint Ludmila.
The festival, a hit with critics and audiences alike, has seen the Hallé lead us on a journey during which they have evoked the pastoral Slavonic spirt, invoked the spectacle of the American frontier and provoked its audiences into deepening both their enjoyment and understanding of that most Bohemian of composers Antonín Leopold Dvořák.
In retrospect is seems unsurprising that Saint Ludmila is rarely performed as to even attempt the piece requires a small army of musicians and choristers. Luckily this is just the sort of feat of arts logistics that the Hallé excels at, and the sight of a full orchestra and the massed ranks of the Hallé Choir left the audience in no doubt that this was to be a maximum effort.
As for the plot, well it’s the old story: girl meets hermit, hermit converts girl to a radical new religion, girl and hermit meet and convert boy, girl and boy (prince and princess) get baptised and married and in so doing overthrow their country’s entire social structure thereby killing off paganism and paving the way for mass conversion to Christianity. In later life the girl also goes on to be martyred by strangulation but that, as they say, is another story.
The oratorio, written in 1885, began gently enough with the basics being carefully established but it soon became apparent that the audience had been thoroughly drawn in by the performance. Dvořák’s work sometimes seems rather simple, a deception he artfully carries on right up to the point where he completely wrong-foots the audience without them ever really knowing how and when he’s managed it. Stylistically speaking, this means that he can be difficult to pin down.
Perhaps this isn’t so surprising given Dvořák’s background and the world in which he lived. The year before Saint Ludmila was written had seen the Czechs step up their campaign for freedom from the Austro-Hungarian empire and culture was often the battleground in which this struggle for liberation was fought. This resulted in an official ban on the singing of songs in the Czech language and a crackdown on nationalist sentiment across the arts.
Dvořák came under pressure from his German publisher to curtail the nationalist leanings in his work, pressure he resisted, telling them in a letter that ‘an artist also has a country for which he must have firm faith and a fervent heart”. It’s a sentiment that is certainly present, albeit at a considerable temporal remove, in this tale of 9th century Czech casting off of an old order in favour of a new one.
Maybe this practical need to obfuscate occasionally unconsciously crossed over into styles, or perhaps Dvořák just liked to mix things up a bit before the likes of Stravinsky and Debussy made that so very fashionable. In this case the result is a work which at that time could only have come from central or Eastern Europe, infused as it is with nationalist longings and sincere religious sentiment.
It’s fascinating to contrast this with the comparative lack of such sentiment in the arts in Britain at the time. Perhaps the long shadow of the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe, who so comprehensively colonised the dramatic historical narrative in the name of literature, left little room for the rest of the arts on our island, leaving Wordsworth, Constable and Coleridge to dwell in the pastoral and the metaphysical.
Or, less prosaically, Victorian Britain’s status as the most powerful empire in the history of the world left its artists with little need to examine the nature of our national identity.
In any event, the result, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder and the choral direction of Matthew Hamilton, was a joy to behold. The music rose and fell in perfect sympathy with the four splendid soloists and the massed ranks of the Hallé Choir. The audience were fused to their seats by the orchestral combination of high art and high drama only to be lifted and born aloft by the glorious, righteous power of the choir.
Polished performances abounded and none gleamed more than that of soprano Emma Bell as the eponymous Saint Ludmila. Her performance was filled with beauty, power and precision of a soul in salvation, a state in which she was willingly joined by a most appreciative house.
To read Alfred Searls’ interview with Sir Mark Elder, click here