AMONG the flood of books which rush into the world every day, jostling each other for the public favour, there is great chance that a modest new writer, with nothing factitious to push him into notice, no sensations in his story, no exaggeration in his effects, nothing vicious either in his subject or in his treatment of it, may get pushed aside by the throng, and never secure that full and quiet hearing which is necessary for the appreciation of real art. If the supposed guidance of the public taste which critics flatter themselves on possessing is of any real use at all, there can be no exercise of it at once so salutary and so agreeable as that of smoothing the way for such an unassuming delnaant. We will not inquire in which sex it is necessary to class the author of Alcestis. The work is too pleasantly occupied with its hero and its story, and too little personal, to force any discussion of this question upon us. Shall we confess that we took it up with a certain pre- judice, after perceiving by that preliminary glance of the practised eye which betrays a book's secret between the leaves, that the subject of the story was music, the hero a young composer, the heroine a singer, and the whole work written as it were upon musical lines, with much of the quaint jargon of that curiously spiritual and unintellectual art ? The musician will pardon the incapacity which prompts us to use the phrase unintellectual. The science of music, we confess frankly, is to ourselves one of the greatest puzzles existing on the face of this bewildering earth ; and how it happens that an art so full, yet so destitute, of meaning—a medium of expression which conveys to no two persons the same idea, and to the majority of listeners conveys no idea at all, but only a vague delight—should have come to take so high a place in the estimation of cultivated intelligences, has always been a mystery to us. It is consequently with a bias quite unfavourable to it that we take up a musical novel. Its ecstacies are as Hebrew and Sauskrit to us, its emotions fall dull upon our ears—and no other art appropriates to itself so profusely all emotions and ecstacies. The poet and the painter are both capable of separation by times from their gentle craft ; we can now and then identify them as men, that moat ancient trade to which we all belonged before even poetry was invented ; but your musician is never free of his fiddle—never capable of separation from his tremendous arithmetic of harmony. For all these reasons, we repeat, we receive the musical novel, the history of an opera, with a private shrug of impatience. How have we blessed the holy and gentle Silence after the blare of a baud—after the twiddlings of an orchestra ; and here, Heaven * Alcestis. 2 cols. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.
help us ! (we murmur to ourselves) will be nothing but twiddlings. But the book which we have just laid down has confounded all our objections. Alcestis is all about music, yet it is not only a very readable novel, but a charmingly graceful, fresh, and modest little book.
We say " little " rather perhaps in the French sense than in the English,—for there is something in the work which tempts a caressing rather than a dignified approbation ; but indeed the chief fault we have to find with it is, that it is too short, and that it wants another volume to give full expression to the sacrifice which is the climax of the story, and which, though prepared with some care and considerable dramatic power, is huddled over in the narrative, and affects us rather with irritating pain as of effort disproportionate to the result, than with the elevating pang of a great and worthy self-renunciation. The story is simple in the extreme. It is that of a young French lad, Joaquin Dorioz by name, the son of a nobleman and of a female violinist, whose devotion to music sweeps him out of all family ties and subor- dination, and whose fiddle is more to him than father or name. The pretty childish story of how the boy played in secret, and how his fiddle was taken from him by his aunts, may recall to many readers the infinitely more powerful and indeed tragic tale of the broken fiddle which is to be found in Mr. George Mac- donald's Robert Falconer; but Josquin's childish misfortunes have their pathos too, though of a slighter kind. When the boy runs away, and makes acquaintance at the door of the theatre in Dresden with the half-formed lanky girl who is the future great prima donna, Elisabetha Vaara, the two young figures in that curious, homely, German atmosphere of poverty and music have a charming freshness and originality. The following scene, in which this young pair are first presented to the reader, we give, not because it is better than the rest, but as a very fair example of the style of the book. It is in the midst of "a practice" in the Hof-Kirche at Dresden, under the imperious and irritable, but kind Capellmeister Hasse :-
-" A young lad of about nineteen was made to go through his bit of violin solo again ; he had displeased the master, it would seem, by a tendency to hurry the largo, and break through the spirit of the theme ; standing out there from among the group of lanky-haired, some- ' what heavy-jawed German youths around, his slim young figure and dark thin face were bright and expressive ; there was a sweet, fresh eagerness in his face, and mingled with a boyish foolishness, I know not what of outward radiance that spoke of the intelligence that was perhaps yet to be developed within. His boy-chin went up in the air when he was interrupted, and his curious frizzing hair went back over his shoulders. He played with tone and spirit, but the severe Hasse would not be satisfied ; he accompanied the player with such epithets as 'frivolous Frenchman' and 'Spring in's Feld,' and at last told him that he was an unprofitable pupil, and bade him sit down. Perhaps it was only a snuffiess Capellmeister's passing caprice, perhaps there was a certain carelessness in the lad's manner that irritated him; but he turned from him at last in a rage, and giving a deep sigh, gazed around until his eyes fell on a quite young girl sitting opposite among the trebles, and with an exclamation of relief, he motioned to her to rise and sing the 'Exultavit.' The young choir exchanged meaning glances, and seemed to intimate to one another that it was her grave and solemn air that won the Capellmeister's favour; and while they looked kindly at their more erratic companion, they cast critical glances at the odd figure who now suddenly rose from her seat to a surprising height, her large, fair head towering above all others. The poor child (you could not have given her more than sixteen years) resembled a boy in her growth ; her large shoulders, and long arms, and flat, undeveloped figure seemed to have a struggle with the stretched and clinging dress she wore; and her golden hair standing out, short and unconfined, round her head, completed this first impression. There was a half-dreamy, half-bewildered look in her pale face and oyes, the hues of which were all grey together. As she stood up, while the organ sounded the theme of her solo, one would have feared for her any outburst of the severe master's withering displeasure. But 'Et exultant spiritas meus.' Ghost of John Sebastian! what a voice it was that began to tell out thy divine melody there among the children in the echoing church ! It was a strong mezzo-soprano, thrilling, audacious, almost magnetic in its tone ; coming from that unformed, perplexed thing, it yet rolled out in perfect firmness and fearlessness, while the singer seemed only penetrated with the expression of her song. It was a voice so full of beauty and pathos, that it thrilled the heart of the listener with some vague pity that so young a soul should know such depths of feeling and passion. Even the flippant choir were quite subdued while the song went on ; the Capellmeister swayed his head, rapt and unconscious as he played the accompaniment ; and then, restored to good humour, rapped on his desk to start the whole choir again and marshal the voices in with the fugue. Omnes, omnes, go-ne-ra-ti-o-nes,' sang the high trebles. 'Omnes, omnes,' came in the altos; they were in full swing; the Capellmeister roared in with his old, once famous tenor, omnes, ge-ne-ra—," when suddenly the accompaniment stopped, the voices broke off, strewn on the air at unequal spaces, like runners tilted up by an invisible rope ; the organ, which had been plunging on at full power, stopped with a high, sesquialtra scream ; one of the Capellmeister's candles, and here and there a taper, went out with a sort of flop, and then a spluttering noise, and then the astonished choir beheld their master rise from his seat and wildly stretch his arms in the air, fighting as it were with some half-visible power. 'What is it ?' they all half whispered, half screamed." The cause of this commotion is a boyish trick of Joaquin's, who has launched a train of cockchafers at the candles ; but the scene is worth quoting, if only for the very vivid and striking description of the break in the music, the "voices strewn on the- air at unequal spaces," which is quite brilliant as a metaphor. We cannot follow step by step the wayward strain of Joaquin's for-
tunes, which lead him through very pretty and quaint scenes, not. the least quaint of which is the drawing-room of Faustina Hasse, once the famous singer Bordoni, but now the old wife of the irri- table Capellmeister—one of the recesses of which is occupied by a bed, in which lies lurking the old musician himself, seen only by his special friends, the habitue's of the house—an amusing picture, which is too quaint not to be matter of fact. All the social scenes are curiously real, yet curiously unlike ordinary existence. They read like bits out of some detailed and minute German biography, full of sentiment and effusion. Indeed, the delicate Germanism, of the story, its atmosphere, which is full of local colour, and the quaint consciousness we have of a certain mingling of Dresden- china sentiment and attitude in the pretty social groups, consti- tute its chief power. Cecile, the splendid young lady whom poor Joaquin falls in love with, is the most charming, dainty, eighteenth-century figure in pure Dresden, the very shepherdess of porcelain, for whom so many swains in pink-silk coats and lovely ruffles have languished for a century past ; and under her influence the young composer for a time becomes Dresden china too. We scarcely know bow to find fault with the dainty episodes- of that life of artificial-naturalness, where the figures are so- softly living and real, yet so tenderly fictitious—even where they are less successfully rendered. The effect of this mix- ture of china with flesh and blood is quaint and pretty in the' extreme, and throws the group far away from us into a fanciful world of vague dates and indistinct chronology, even while pre- serving with delightful correctness the costume and customs of the age to which that porcelain-existence most specially belongs.
There is higher art, however, and fine imagination in the picture- of the singer Lisa, to whom and to Art, Joaquin returns, after the- incredible cruelty of Cecile—a cruelty which is of the impossible kind. The author shows us with very considerable sympathetic' skill how the large shapeless girl, with her grand voice, develops into a large, majestic woman, simple as a child, kind, guileless, and true—thinking nothing of herself, and wearing her success lightly and humbly, as something external to herself, while cherishing her art in her heart of hearts and finding her happiness in its exercise. We could have wished to see this fine conception- more fully worked out. As it is, Lisa, in her large and simple grandeur, forms, so to speak, the background of the piece ; the- emotional and sensitive lad full of music and passion, stands out against her superior altitude and breadth like a child against its mother. She is not superior intellectually—indeed, she is not in- tellectual at all—her bigness is that of character, of a large, strong, soft, and patient nature ; and her love for the companion of her childhood, and the pang with which she discovers his love for another, have a patient strength in them infinitely more noble- than the rhapsodies of the somewhat womanish Joaquin. We leave the reader to find out for himself the prodigious sacrifice by which poor noble Lisa purchases for her young genius the crown- ing delight of his life, the performance of his opera, and will only pause to note how ably he has caught the peculiar ring of the monkish sermon which catches the poor girl's ear at the- climax of her struggle, and decides her to make her sacrifice._ "Beloved, when we want to speak we must be silent, when we- want to be alone we must seek mortification in the contrary tempers of others," says the Benedictine preacher ; and if his- sermon is not taken from a real sermon, the resemblance is so excellent, and so true to the peculiar character of meritorious self- renunciation inculcated by the Church of Rome, that we will not. bewilder the author by inquiring whether mass was really sung and monks preached in the High Church of Dresden a hundred years ago—though the suggestion is somewhat astounding.
We take leave of this pretty, graceful and original book with a regret such as we rarely feel in laying down a novel,—that there had not been another volume to it. The end is muddled up toot hastily, and with too little regard for the natural prejudices of the reader. We should have been glad to know something more than the meagre notice afforded to us of how Lisa managed to exist through her strangely changed life. This is the least satisfactory part of the story, which is full in all its details of a modest fresh- ness and refinement, and which the reader will find very refreshing and delightful, amid the many hot and hasty productions of this novel-writing age.