Dec. 13, 1907: The Annual Rite of ‘Messiah’ at Cold, Drafty Shrine Auditorium

Note: This is an encore post from 2006.

Los Angeles
Dec. 13, 1907

What do we find in music criticism of another era? Let’s take a good look.

“ ‘The Messiah’ was presented at Shrine Auditorium by the Apollo Club last night, and the production, which moved expeditiously, apparently gave pleasure to an audience numbering nearly 3,000 persons.”


Not a good beginning for our anonymous critic. First, the title is wrong (it’s “Messiah”) and he or she dodges any complaints by stating up front that the audience had a good time. We’re clearly not going to get any first-rate writing or telling insights; at best, we can expect a workmanlike cataloging of who was there and what happened. And I’ll save you the trouble of wondering whether the critic mentions that “Messiah” is by Handel. The answer is no, so we’ll drop our expectations even further.

“The most delightful feature of the evening was the singing of Mrs. Genevieve Clark-Wilson, who proved fully her claim to rank among the great oratorio sopranos of the present day.

“From the first pure, deliberate superbly sustained note, casually filling all the reaches of even this immense audience chamber, Mrs. Wilson’s complete mastery of her specialized art was in full evidence. Seldom has any singer, either man or woman [illegible] here such real [illegible] or oratoric style, which is a species of lyric poetry, a constantly [illegible] tranquility.”

“A large woman, she has a large voice, a voice conveying a most restful sense of reserve power and ample breadth and volume. She sings at all times with the most delightful ease and utterly without the vocal and physical rigidity which is deemed a necessary part of dramatic expression by too many of today’s recital stars. Her interpretations of the [illegible] airs and recitatives were [illegible] full of meaning and apparently as near classic tradition as she could bring her director’s tempo.

“Further hearing of Mrs. Wilson would be a [illegible] event indeed.”

Translation (minus all the padding): She’s a big woman with a huge voice who can fill a barn like Shrine Auditorium, which seats 3,000, without amplification. That’s a serious instrument, folks. And she mostly followed the conductor but not always.

I’ve never heard of Wilson so let’s see what Proquest says about her. Hm. Not much. Apparently she was based in Chicago and was a fairly prominent soloist in liturgical music. I’m a bit curious about “From the first pure, deliberate superbly sustained note” because the soprano’s initial number is “There Were Shepherds.” Ah well.

But this is interesting, and perhaps the most telling item in the entire review:

“The Messiah” has become hackneyed in Los Angeles. Great as the work is [now here would be a fine place to mention that it was by Handel, but alas, no], reverenced as it is by hundreds of intelligent [illegible] there is no [illegible] that statement. It has been a yearly event of late and has even been vulgarized by the most blatant [illegible]. It has not always been well sung. So many things have happened to it, in fact, that it is to be hoped that it is shelved at least for a [illegible] term and that opportunity will be given for the hearing of new works.”

This would have been a good opportunity to note that although “Messiah” is usually done around Christmas, what we frequently hear is a truncated version and that the entire work deals with much more of Christ’s life (take “Worthy Is the Lamb,” for example). This distinction is going to be lost on our local critic.

“The Apollo Club, as it stood last night, contained but a few more than 100 persons—a sufficient number, of course, had all the units been of reliable powers. The body of tone as a whole was a pleasing musical quality but the climaxes lacked in vigor and life. The production was not a satisfying one.

“The cold critical discussion of an organization whose members sing for music’s sake, and not for hire, is always a hard and dubious matter. Yet while [illegible] the spirit of the Apollo Club members, who certainly are to be [illegible] for their devotion to the art-cause, candor compels the statement that the organization appears to have lost many of its old-time supports during the past year, and is really in need of sound, new timber to complete and solidify its melodious fabric.”

Translation: This is a community chorus so I don’t want upset anyone by being too hard on it. Some of the singers are iffy.

“Mr. [Eugene] Davis [presumably the conductor, although we are not told—ah, yes, he is] demonstrated one talent last night which calls for comment: It was the unvarying precision of his orchestral beat, certainly a delight to the 30 or 40 players grouped in front of the singers. Hitherto our oratorio conductors, or the most of them at least, have indulged in fanciful gyrations, which, while perhaps patent to the well-drilled singers, threw the [illegible] ranks into dreadful confusion and eventual panic.

“His interpretations were much slower than the metronome tempo indicated on the generally accepted scores of the work—save in one exceptional instance, the ‘Rejoice Greatly,’ whose dripping measures were rushed in one place almost to the danger limit.”

This raises an interesting question: What did performers do in the era before ubiquitous reference recordings? Apparently our critic, at least, could read music and had access to some copy of “Messiah.” I don’t happen to recall tempo markings in scores of “Messiah,” but I’m far from an expert and I don’t have a copy handy to check. “Dripping measures” in “Rejoice Greatly”? Yes, that’s what he or she wrote.

“The other three soloists, Miss [Estelle Catherine] Heartt, Mr. [Charles A.] Bowes and Mr. [Abraham] Miller, are locally well known and their work is such a familiar quantity that it does not call for extended comment. Mr. Miller’s unusually finished style and smooth delivery were again in evidence. Miss Heartt was at times covered by the orchestra and at other times sharped a little but in the main sang with much taste and intelligent interpretation. Mr. Bowes is more of a baritone than a bass but in one air succeeded in impressing with bass virility and resonance of voice.”

Translation: The critic takes a pass on saying anything about the other soloists. What’s the bass air in question in the preceding paragraph? We don’t get to find out.

“The car service was poor and the building was cold and draughty. But heaters will be installed today—and Mr. Behvmer vows that Calve’s concert will be afforded at least three-minute attention by the Huntington lines.”

And there you have it, “Messiah” in the big, cold, drafty Shrine Auditorium, as it was reviewed in 1907. There’s much fodder here for the question of what purpose is served by music reviews—at least those of this kind. And it is worth noting that even 99 years ago, some people were tired of hearing Handel’s most popular oratorio. But I won’t get into any of that here. I’ll just remember what The Times’ Martin Bernheimer once told me: “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

Click here for a photo of the 1920 Shrine Auditorium fire.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1907, Music, Religion, Streetcars and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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