56. The Promised Land Oratorio
Written by Camille Saint-Saëns
Performed in England, 1913. Details unknown
Sheet music available from www.sheetmusicplus.com/a/item.html?id=69435&item=5450834
Promised Land Choral [Alfred Publishing, 1989]
Available via www.free-scores.com/boutique/boutique-artiste-int uk.php?artiste=1382&instru=&start2=560

‘Never make a noise of any sort in church, except for the greatest necessity’.
- Saint Philip Neri – The Maxims & Sayings of Saint Philip Neri


One. On the Oratorio

By the time Camille Saint-Saëns wrote The Promised Land Oratorio, the oratorio was over three hundred years old and had become an established means by which religious music was performed. The form of the oratorio, the setting of Biblical texts to music to be sung by congregations in halls and churches, was the brainchild of a Catholic priest, St. Philip Neri (1515 – 1595).

Neri founded a society which he called the Congregation of The Oratory in 1556. The idea was to use a meeting place or a hall for assembly, prayer, sermons, hymns, and lectures, with the musical selections consisting of Biblical scenes set to music, which were called oratorios. The Congregation consisted of Catholic secular priests and lay brothers that lived in a community bound by a few formal vows and a bond of charity. From its origins in Rome, the model of the oratorium spread throughout the Catholic world, governed by Neri’s reputation as a minister so adept at attending to and converting the poor, he was granted the nickname ‘the apostle of Rome.’

From 1574 the oratory was based in the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, where the Congregation of the Oratory was formally ratified by a papal decree in 1575; the model spread across Europe, and was successfully taken up by secular priests in Italy, France, and England. By 1760 there were over 50 Churches of the Congregation – the main church in England being the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was consecrated on April 16, 1884 and is the second largest Roman Catholic church in London.

Neri encouraged the singing of spirituals in his oratory services – an essential part of the idea behind the oratorium was that it should get people into the church, and singing, probably due in some part to his Augustinian training, seemed to Neri a good way of doing just that. By the mid 1600s two distinct styles had evolved, and here we quote the Grove Dictionary of Music:

‘The oratorio volgare, in Italian, is represented by Carissimi’s Daniele, Marazzoli’s St. Tomaso and similar works attributed to Foggia and Luigi Rossi. Lasting some 30-60 minutes, they were performed in two sections, separated by a sermon; their music resembles that of contemporary operas and chamber cantatas. The Oratorio Latino, in Latin, was first developed at the Oratorio del Crocifisso, related to the Church of San Marcello in Rome; the most significant composer is Carissimi, whose Jephter may be considered the first masterpiece of the genre. Like most other Latin oratorios of the period, it is in one section only.’

By 1913, when The Promised Land Oratorio was performed in Guilford Cathedral, the oratorio had become an established secular form (albeit one performed in Churches) in England, in Italy, where it had grown into a substitute for opera during Lent, and in Saint-Saëns’ native France. The form had also migrated to Germany, and it was Handel, who created – and mastered – the English, choral variant on the form that had become familiar by the early twentieth century.

Two. The life of Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns sounds like a bit of a polymath. Here’s how he is described at classical music biography website www.classicat.net: ‘From an early age, he studied geology, archaeology, botany, and lepidoptery. He was an expert at mathematics. Later, in addition to composing, performing, and writing musical criticism, he held discussions with Europe’s finest scientists and wrote scholarly articles on acoustics, occult sciences, Roman theatre decoration, and ancient instruments. He wrote a philosophical work, ‘Problèmes et Mystères’, which spoke of science and art replacing religion; Saint-Saëns’ pessimistic and atheistic ideas foreshadowed Existentialism. Other literary achievements included ‘Rimes familières, a volume of poetry, and ‘La Crampe des écrivains’, a successful farcical play. He was also a member of the Astronomical Society of France; he gave lectures on mirages, had a telescope made to his own specifications, and even planned concerts to correspond to astronomical events such as solar eclipses.’

He was also a travel writer, a monarchist and a soldier, and in 1870 served in the French National Guard against the invading German army at the end of the Franco Prussian war. France’s defeat, the subsequent implosion of the French empire and the rule of Louis Bonaparte which had been established only as recently as 1851, and the establishment of the Paris Commune, prompted St. Saens to migrate to England in 1871, where he would be hailed as the greatest French composer alive. 1902 he received a commission for the coronation of Edward VII.

In his later years Saint-Saëns acquired a reputation for conservatism. He didn’t care much for Massenet, stormed out of Rites of Spring, and had a public feud with Debussy, which conveys the impression of a man who, at least in his late years, had become something of a musical conservative. Maybe this sonic conservatism had its antecedent in his political conservatism, although it’s hard to say for sure: we didn’t come across any comments on the Paris Commune, but he was clearly as repelled enough by Commune and the events that preceded its brief existence to have turned away from the whole scene. We can speculate that if he didn’t want to see – or be – where it was going, he may have been among those who took a grim pleasure in they way it ended. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe by the time of the performance of The Promised Land Oratorio the whole episode, now fifty years in the past, seemed like an old man’s half forgotten nightmare which, for him, ended with suppression of the Communards, and the restoration of the French empire.

Three. The death of the Paris Commune

For the Communards the dream of self government by a working class ended in a graveyard among the coffins of the Père-Lachaise Cemetery on the night of May 27. Here’s an eyewitness account of the aftermath of the massacre of the Communards by war correspondent Archibald Forbes, writing for the English newspaper The Daily News, in May 1871:

[…] the following morning I visited Père-Lachaise, where the very last shots had been fired. Bivouac fires had been fed with the souvenirs of pious sorrow, and the trappings of woe had been torn down to be used as bedclothes. But there had been no great amount of fighting in the cemetery itself. An infallible token of close and heavy firing are the dents of many bullets, and of those there were comparatively few in Père-Lachaise. Shells, however, had fallen freely, and the results were occasionally very ghastly. But the ghastliest sight in Père-Lachaise was in the south-eastern corner, where, close to the boundary wall, there had been a natural hollow. The hollow was now filled up by the dead. One could measure the dead by the rod. There they lay, tier above tier, each successive tier powdered over with a coating of chloride of lime – two hundred of them patent to the eye, besides those underneath hidden by the earth covering layer after layer. Among the dead were many women. There, thrown up in the sunlight, was a well-rounded arm with a ring on one of the fingers; there, again, was a bust shapely in death. And yonder faces which to look upon made one shudder – faces distorted out of humanity with ferocity and agony combined. The ghastly effect of the dusty white powder on the dulled eyes, the gnashed teeth, and the jagged beards cannot be described. How died these men and women? Were they carted hither and laid out in this dead-hole of Père-Lachaise? Not so: the hole had been replenished from close by. Just yonder was where they were posted up against that section of pock-pitted wall where they were shot to death as they stood or crouched.

It was the culmination of a week of violence in which an estimated 35,000 people were killed; far more people were reportedly killed than during the siege of Paris or during the French revolution. And of those that survived, a hundred were sentenced to death, 13,000 were sent to prison, and the hardest cases of all were exiled to the penal colony of New Caledonia, in the South Pacific. The lucky ones managed to escape to Belgium, England, Italy, Spain and the United States, and lived in exile until an amnesty was granted in 1880.

In 1915 The Promised Land Oratorio was performed in the United States, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. It featured a choir of four hundred voices and an eighty-piece orchestra and was directed by Wallace Sabin, in honour of Saint-Saëns, who was a guest of the Exposition.



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