National Orchestra of Wales
(Cerddorfa Genedlaethol Cymru)
Conducted by Warwick Braithwaite
Nobody can say who it was who first thought of presenting scenes from the Old or the New Testament in the form of vocal music. It was certainly at a very early stage in the history of music; as far back as the twelfth century there are traces of something of the kind. Even in this country, in the reign of King Henry II, English audiences were ready to welcome scriptural or other sacred lessons presented in that way, and for a long time the clergy were strongly in favour of them. But, as so often happens, abuses crept in; even then it was apparently difficult for singers to resist the temptation to 'play to the gallery,' and by the end of the fourteenth century we read of such performances being prohibited. They went on, none the less, all over Europe, characteristic styles growing up in the different countries, but the spectacular side began gradually to be dropped, and the work took on a simpler and more direct form. In the shape with which we in this country are familiar, oratorio may fairly be said to have begun alongside of opera in Italy, and most of the Italian sacred works have something of an operatic flavour about them. Even the Messiah, unique though it is in many ways, makes some of its effects very much as Handel did in his operas, and in more modern times, the same might quite truthfully be said of Mendelssohn's Elijah.
At about the same period as the Messiah, the great sacred works of Bach are cast in a very different mould, immensely simple and impressive by their deep sincerity. But they have never found anything like the same universal favour in this country as the Messiah and the long line of English sacred works which followed it. The form is evidently one to which the average English church-goer or concert-goer listens with particular affection. With but few exceptions, to be sure, the English composers who followed Handel failed to produce music of any real worth, and it was not until the age of Parry and Stanford, Mackenzie, and, later, Elgar, that this country again stepped into the very front rank with religious music which is wholly sincere.