MICHAEL COSTA, the eminent conductor and composer, was born at Naples, Feb.4, 1810. Having displayed musical aptitude at a very early age, he was placed in the Royal Academy of Music. Before his twenty-first year he had composed several works, among them a mass for four voices, a ” Dixit Dominus,” three symphonies, an oratorio, “La Passion,” the ballet music to ” Kenilworth,” and the operas, “II Delitto punito,” “II Sospetto funesto,” “II carcere d’ Ildegonda,” and ” Malvina,” the last for the San Carlo at Naples. In 1829 he was sent to England by his master ZingarelIi to conduct one of the latter’s compositions at Birmingham ; and that country thereafter became his home. The next year he was engaged at the King’s Theatre, now known as Her Majesty’s, as piano-master, and two years later became the musical director. He was the first to bring the band to its proper place, though he had to make a hard fight against the ballet, which at that time threatened to absorb both singers and orchestra, and to sweep the musical drama from the stage. He succeeded, however, and did much also to improve the composition of the orchestra. While holding this position he wrote the ballets, “Une heure à Naples” and “Sir Huon” for Taglioni, and ” Alma ” for Cerito, the beautiful quartet, ” Ecco quel fiero istante,” and the operas ” Malek Adhel ” for Paris in 1837, and “Don Carlos ” for London in 1844. He remained at Her Majesty’s Theatre for fifteen years, during which time he did a great work for singers and band, and reduced the ballet to its proper rank. In 1846 he left his position and went to the new Italian opera at Covent Garden, where he remained for a quarter of a century, absolute in his musical supremacy and free to deal with all works as he pleased, among them those of Meyerbeer, at that time the most prominent composer in the operatic world ; for Wagner as yet was scarcely known. It is to Costa that Meyerbeer owes his English reputation. In the same year (1846) he took the direction of the Philharmonic orchestra, and two years later that of the Sacred Harmonic Society, which he held until his death, and as conductor of which he also directed the Handel festivals. In 1849 he was engaged for the Birmingham festivals, and also conducted them until his death. In 1854 he resigned his position with the Philharmonic, and his successor, for a brief time only, was Richard Wagner. His oratorio, ” Eli,” was composed for the Birmingham Festival of 1853, and his second oratorio, ” Naamnn,” for the same festival in 1864. In 1869 he was knighted, and shortly afterwards, when his ” Eli ” was produced at Stuttgart, it won for him the royal order of Frederick from the King of Wurtemberg. He also had decorations from the sovereigns of Germany, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands, in recognition of his musical accomplishments. In 1871 he returned again to Her Majesty’s Opera in the capacity of ” director of the music, composer, and conductor;” but a few years ago he again dissolved his connection with it, and devoted himself entirely to the private management and public direction of the Sacred Harmonic Society, with which he was identified for over thirty years. He died in April, 1884.
The oratorio of ” Eli,” the text taken from the first book of Samuel, and adapted by William Bartholomew, was first performed at the Birmingham Festival, Aug. 29, 1855, under Costa’s own direction, with Mesdames Viardot and Novello and Messrs, Sims Reeves and Carl Formes in the principal parts. The characters are Eli, Elkanah, Hannah, Samuel, the Man of God, Saph the Philistine warrior, Hophni and Phinehas the sons of Eli, and the Priests and Philistines as chorus. The story is not very consistent in its outlines, and is fragmentary withal, the narrative of the child Samuel being the central theme, around which are grouped the tribulations of Elkanah and Hannah, the service of Eli the priest, the revels of his profligate sons, and the martial deeds of the Philistines.
The overture opens with a pianissimo prelude for organ in chorale form, followed by an orchestral fugue well worked up, but very quiet in character. Indeed, the whole overture is mostly pianissimo. In striking contrast follows the opening recitative for bass (” Blow ye the Trumpet “), which is the signal for those instruments, and introduces the first chorus (” Let us go to pray before the Lord “), beginning with a soft staccato which gradually works up to a jubilant climax on the words ” Make a joyful Noise.” A tenor solo for Elkanah is interwoven with the chorus, which closes with broad, flowing harmony. The next number, a bass air with chorus (” Let the People praise Thee “), is somewhat peculiar in its construction. It begins with the air, which is slow and tender, and at the close the chorus takes it in canon form. Then Eli intones benedictions in chorale style, and the chorus responds with “Amens” in full harmony at the end of each, making a very impressive effect. It is followed by a very elaborate chorus (“Blessed be the Lord “), closing with a fugue on the word ” Amen,” which is very clear and well worked up. The next number is the sorrowful prayer of the barren and grieving Hannah (” Turn Thee unto me “), which is very expressive in its mournful supplication, and splendidly contrasted with her joyous song after the birth of Samuel, of which mention will be made in its proper connection. Eli rebukes her, and a dialogue ensues, interrupted by the tender chorus, “The Lord is good.” The dialogue form is again renewed, this time by Elkanah and Hannah, leading to a beautiful duet between them (“Wherefore is thy Soul cast down ? “).
The character of the music now changes as we enter upon a long drinking-chorus, with solos by the two revellers, Hophni and Phinehas (” For everything there is a Season “). The change from the seriousness of the preceding numbers is very “abrupt, and the music of the chorus is decidedly of the conventional Italian drinking-song character. Eli appears and rebukes them, and after a cantabile aria (“Thou shouldst mark Iniquities “), a short chorus of Levites, for tenors and basses, ensues, introducing a simple, but well-sustained chorale for full chorus (” How mighty is Thy Name”). At this point the “Man of God ” appears, rebuking the Levites for their polluted offerings. His denunciations are declaimed in strong, spirited phrases, accompanied by the chorus of the people (” They have profaned it”), beginning in unison. The scene now changes to the camp of the Philistines, where Saph, their man of war, shouts out his -angry and boisterous defiance in his solo (” Philistines, hark, the Trumpet sounding “). It is followed by a choral response from the Philistines (” Speed us on to fight “), which is in the same robust and stirring style, though the general effect is theatrical and somewhat commonplace. Combined with it is a choral response by the priests of Dagon, of an Oriental character. After this clash of sound follows an air of a sombre style by Eli (” Hear my’ Prayer, O Lord “), the introduction and accompaniment of which are very striking. The ” Man of God ” once more appears, announcing the approaching death of Eli’s sons to a weird, sepulchral accompaniment of the reeds and trombones, and leading up to a very effective duet between them (` Lord, cause Thy Face to shine upon Thy Servant “). An-other chorale ensues (” O make a joyful Noise “), and after a brief recitative Hannah has a most exult-ant song, overflowing with love and gratitude at the birth of Samuel (” I will extol Thee, O Lord “). The first part closes with a brief recitative between Hannah and Eli, preluding a fugued chorus (” Hosanna in the highest “), built up on two motives and one of the most elaborate numbers in the oratorio.
The second part opens with a chaste and lovely melody, the morning prayer of the child Samuel (” Lord, from my Bed again I rise “), followed with some pretty recitative between the child and his parents, and an unaccompanied quartet, set to the same choral theme that was heard in the organ prelude to the overture. The next number is the long and showy instrumental march of the Israelites, followed by two very striking choruses, the first (” Hold not Thy Peace and be not still, O God “) of which appeals for divine help against the enemy, and the second, an allegro (” O God, make them like a Wheel”), leads into a fugue (” So persecute them ” ), which is very energetic in character, and closes with the martial hymn, “God and King of Jacob’s Nation,” sung to the melody of the preceding march.
The oratorio abounds in contrasts, and here oc-curs another, the evening prayer of Samuel (” This Night I lift my Heart to Thee “), a pure, quiet melody, gradually dying away as he drops asleep, and followed by an angel chorus for female voices with harp accompaniment (“No Evil shall befall thee “), the effect of which is very beautiful, especially in the decrescendo at the close, A messenger suddenly arrives, announcing the defeat of Israel by the Philistines, upon which the chorus bursts out with one of the most telling numbers, both in the voice parts and the descriptiveness of the accompaniment (” Woe unto us, we are spoiled ! “). Some very dramatic recitative between Samuel and Eli follows, after which the Levites join in the chorus, “Bless ye the Lord,” opening with the tenors and closing in four parts, with the call of Eli intervening (” Watchmen, what of the Night? “). A long recitative by Samuel (” The Lord said “), fore- – shadowing the disasters to the house of, Eli ; an air by Eli (” Although my House be not with God “) a funeral chorus by the Israelites (“Lament with a doleful Lamentation “) ; further phrases of recitative announcing more defeats of Israel, the capture of the ark, the death of Eli and his sons, and an appeal by Samuel to blow the trumpet, calling a solemn assembly to implore the pity of the Lord, – prepare the way for the final chorus (” Blessed be the Lord “), closing with a fugue on the word “Hallelujah.”
The oratorio was first given in this country by the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, Feb. i5, 1857 under the direction of Carl Zerrahn, with Mr. Thomas Ball as Eli and also as Saph, Mr. Wilde as the Man of God, Mr. C. R. Adams as Elkanah, Mrs. Long as Hannah, and Miss Hawley in the contralto part of Samuel. Writing of that performance, Mr. Dwight, the careful and discriminating critic, summed up the work as follows : ” As a whole, ‘ Eli’ is a noble and impressive oratorio. The composition is learned and musician-like, and generally appropriate, tasteful, dignified, often beautiful, and occasionally grand. It is by no means a work of genius, but it is a work of high musical culture, and indicates a mind imbued with the best traditions and familiar with the best masters of the art, and a masterly command of all the modem musical resources, except the ` faculty divine,’ ” which, we may be permitted to say, is not included in modern musical resources.” The characterization of the oratorio, however, is thoroughly pertinent and complete. It is somewhat remarkable that a work so excellent and having so many elements of popularity should not be given more frequently in this country.