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The Renaissance of Sir Arthur Sullivan

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When the authoritative work on unjustly neglected composers is written, a prominent chapter will surely have to be devoted to Victorian England's Wunderkind, Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900). Despite the fact that he is one of the very few British composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whose music has proven to be of enduring value, Sullivan is lightly passed over by most musicians and dismissed with a sentence or two in most serious music histories—if he is mentioned at all. Even the BBC's own study guide on Music in England (by David Epps; London, 1969) gives him barely 70 words. (Sticklers may wish to know that Sullivan was not actually English, but part Irish and part Italian.)

The root of this problem, in the view of most of those who have written about the composer, is that while still in his thirties Sullivan was diverted from dedicating his career to concert music, as he began to reap the considerable success which composing for the theater afforded him. It seems worth noting that the composer's only symphony, his cello concerto, concert overtures, ballet, four of his best-known sets of incidental music, his piano music and most of his songs had been written by the time H.M.S. Pinafore was produced in 1878. Likewise he had already made his major contribution to musicology, the codiscovery with Sir George Grove (in Vienna in 1867) of Schubert's music to Rosamunde.

Probably the greatest roadblock to any widespread appreciation of Sullivan as a composer has been the seemingly ubiquitous linking of his name (with second billing!) to that of his most famous librettist, William S. Gilbert (1836-1911). One surely would not think of looking in the Schwann catalog under Schikaneder for recordings of The Magic Flute or under Brecht for those of The Threepenny Opera. Yet it is under Gilbert's name that The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe are to be found. Sullivan's orchestral works, and theater works with other librettists are listed under his own name. Similarly, no reference to the composer's name is to be found in the index of Grout's History of Western Music, but a listing in the G's leads the reader to a ten-word mention of The Mikado. One finds that in any number of public libraries, scores and recordings of the operettas are shelved under the author's name, a situation that even composers of Broadway musicals rarely have to endure. I have often wondered how many members of a typical "G and S" audience are really certain of who wrote what.

The majority of books and articles which have appeared dealing with Sullivan seem to be of the "G and S" variety: typically part biography, part period-setting and part soap opera (e.g., Sullivan and Mrs. Ronalds, the carpet quarrel, Gilbert dying after saving a young girl from drowning and the like). Usually such works are fairly well documented and profusely illustrated with program covers, caricatures, and so forth. However, most of them fail to shed much light on Sullivan the composer as distinguished from Sullivan the personality.

Even those writings which deal chiefly with the musician's point of view have often been far less perceptive or even fair in speaking of Sullivan's work. To take a classic example one can turn to Ernest Walker's History of Music in England (London: Clarendon Press, 1907). While many would agree with Walker's sentiment if not his choice of words in characterizing such works as The Lost Chord as "disgraceful rubbish," we simultaneously find a number of Sullivan's "serious" works labeled as vulgar, cheaply sentimental, or deadly dull, and the composer himself dubbed "merely the idle singer of an empty evening." (pp. 292-295) In a more modern instance the sole reference to Sullivan as a serious composer in Grout's Short History of Opera (2nd edition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965) states that his "Ivanhoe made a great stir at its first production in 1891 but has fortunately long since disappeared from the stage." (p. 489) In fact, Ivanhoe's opening run of 160 performances set a record for operas which has rarely if ever been equalled.

The article on Sullivan in Grove's Dictionary, 5th edition (VIII, 174-185) is in two parts, the first a biographical sketch by Henry Saxe-Wyndham, held over and revised from the previous edition, and the second an essay on the music by the dictionary's editor, the late Eric Blom. Blom, who manifested a great interest in Sullivan's music, nevertheless denied his earlier counterpart's assertion (which was deleted from the 5th edition) that Sullivan's "serious" compositions would probably one day regain some of their former popularity. The best he can say for Sullivan's only symphony (called the "Irish"; E Major, 1866) is that "[it] would be refreshing to hear, if only as a curiosity"; the incidental music, "always ephemeral, is beyond revival. . . ." (p. 179) It must be added, though, that Blom speaks mostly with praise of Sullivan the composer of operettas. The article written for the New Grove by Andrew Lamb seems to deal with the composer in a somewhat more even-handed manner, as can be seen in the opening paragraph:

Although he was considered the leading British composer during his lifetime, his serious works have failed to establish a lasting popularity. His comic operas, however, particularly those written to librettos by W.S. Gilbert, represent a peculiarly English style of operetta which has achieved an exceptional and lasting reknown and which has made Sullivan one of the most widely popular of all British composers. . . . Unless there is a revival of sympathetic interest in the Victorian musical climate in England, Sullivan's serious works are unlikely to find a completely fair assessment. However, it is clear that, whatever was believed in his lifetime, his real genius lay elsewhere. Lacking emotional depth and a grasp of large-scale structures, his eclectic style too easily led him beyond the limits of his inspiration.

One interesting but often overlooked indication of the durability of the joint works of Sullivan and Gilbert is the large number of adaptations and parodies which have been made of them over the last century. These range from the American college song "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here!"1 to various "Purimspiels" presented in synagogues to tell the story of the book of Esther ("A pious Jew am I—/ And I his niece, young Esther,/ A vehement protester against false slanders, I"), to jazzed-up versions like "The Red Mikado" in the 1937 ILGWU revue Pins and Needles ("Up a tree by a river a Prime Minister sang, 'Munich, oh Munich, oh Munich'"), to more contemporary parodies by humorists like Anna Russell, Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer. And certainly not to be overlooked is the parody of the Major-General's patter song from The Pirates of Penzance by Robert Hurwitz, which appeared in SYMPOSIUM (Spring 1979, pp. 231-232).

Adaptations of the G and S operettas have been sufficiently numerous to inspire at least one doctoral dissertation ("A View of Topical Adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas" by Karen Lavergne Noble, University of Washington, 1979). The most notable among recent efforts is the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of The Pirates of Penzance, which opened at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park during the summer of 1980. Unfortunately, the good taste shown in this production in such matters as the staging and lighting seems to have been abandoned in the musical arrangements, which relied heavily on gimmicks and sound effects, as well as on a battery of instruments which Sullivan never used (and in some cases never heard of), such as saxophone, electric bass, synthesizer, ratchet, and various mallet instruments.2 Ironically, the leading players and feature attractions of the production, rock stars Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith, did far more credit to the composer than did the musical director/arranger, who had best remain unnamed.3

In the slightly more serious realm, there is the ballet Pineapple Poll, arranged from Sullivan's music for Sadler's Wells by Charles Mackerras, and at least two operettas using some of Sullivan's lesser-known tunes with newly-written texts, Engaged (published by Chappell) and The Savoyards (published by Boosey and Hawkes). The first of these is based on a play by Glibert; the story of the second is based on the careers of Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D'Oyly Carte, their producer.

None of this is to suggest, however, that Sullivan is beyond serious criticism as a composer. While he has been acknowledged more than once as a "minor master" or something of the sort for his skill in inventive lyric-setting, refreshing modulation, and maximum employment of the resources of a small theater orchestra, it must be admitted that, even leaving aside the compositions which are obviously inferior, certain weaknesses in Sullivan's writing do tend to appear with some frequency. One might mention, for example, his overuse of tonic and dominant pedal tones, and his underuse of the horns as more than workaday characters in his orchestration. Indeed, it is hard to dispute A.H. Godwin's humorously worded observation that "Sullivan was a Peter Pan composer. . . . Musically he never grew up. . . . Study his earlier and his later music and you have to concede that, while his technical standard at the beginning was a high one, it never got really perceptibly higher." (Gilbert and Sullivan, London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1926, p. 121).

Another point is that, leaving aside obvious parodies in the operettas, Sullivan's music often strongly reminds the listener of that of some other composer, with a greater or lesser touch of Sullivan's own hand. A number of examples are noted in Gervase Hughes' The Music of Arthur Sullivan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1960) and elsewhere, but one may understand the point by comparing, for instance, the fairy music from Iolanthe with that from Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream or the choruses "Es lacht der Mai!" and "Vertheilt euch hier!" from Die erste Walpurgisnacht; or in more general terms the last movement of Sullivan's symphony with that of Schumann's "Spring" Symphony.

Sullivan was, in fact, accused during his lifetime of stealing from the music of lesser composers, a well-known case having been occasioned by the initial similarity of a theme from The Gondoliers (Ex. 1)

 

Ex. 1.

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to that of the famous ballad by the Victorian songwriter James L. Molloy (Ex. 2).

 

Ex. 2.

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Most such accusations may be assumed to have been motivated more by jealousy than by substance. However, it is striking to notice how often Sullivan seems to be imitating himself. Compare this refrain from Nanki-Poo's ballad in The Mikado (Ex. 3a)

 

Ex. 3a.

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with two earlier Sullivan themes (Exs. 3b and 3c).

 

Ex. 3b.

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Ex. 3c.

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Whatever his shortcomings, it may be said without hesitation that Arthur Sullivan was England's leading musical figure in the eyes of Britain and the world during the later Victorian period. Percy Young expresses the fact in this interesting manner: "He was the first composer to count as a 'national figure' since Handel. Prior to the . . . Beatles he was, perhaps, the only British composer ever to be granted undisputed primacy by popular acclaim" (Sir Arthur Sullivan, New York: W.W. Norton, 1971, p. 159). Sullivan's fortunes, especially in "serious" musical circles, have fluctuated considerably since his death, at times reaching a rather dismal nadir. While the operettas written with Gilbert have maintained their popularity, most of the other works (aside from the few hymns and "inspirational" songs) fell for many decades into a state of almost complete neglect in performances, recording, and written discussion. To date, for example, only one book has appeared, the primary purpose of which is to analyze Sullivan's works from a technical musical standpoint; this is the book by Gervase Hughes referred to above.

It is important to remember in considering this apparent lack of interest that it has long been difficult to gain access to much of the music itself. Few of Sullivan's works outside of the operettas are still in print, and the process of finding those that are not in print sometimes involves long and fruitless searches through library shelves and rental catalogues. A "long-standing grievance," as Hughes puts it, with an even greater number of musicians is the fact that while the piano-vocal scores of most of the operettas are available, sometimes in different editions, orchestral scores of the same have been, until very recently, unheard of, leaving students and conductors with a difficult and tedious job, once they were able to secure authentic instrumental parts in the first place. Actually, full scores of Pinafore, The Mikado, and Yeomen of the Guard were printed in limited foreign editions during Sullivan's lifetime, but these have long since become scarce collectors' items.

Fortunately, this frustrating situation is changing albeit gradually. In 1968 Gregg Publishers issued a facsimile of Sullivan's autograph score of The Mikado. This is a fascinating document for study, though for a number of reasons not practical for conducting use. Several years later Kalmus issued a full score, based on "an early edition of the work . . . supposed to be original and unedited" (according to a letter from the publisher to me, presumably referring to the German score of 1893, which was taken directly from the autograph). Subsequently the same publisher launched a series of full scores to be prepared from original sources under the editorship of John Bauser, a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami. As of this writing the scores of H.M.S. Pinafore and Yeomen of the Guard have been released, with two others in preparation, and original orchestral parts are available for the majority of the operettas. The Kalmus scores which I have seen have been reproduced from manuscript rather than engraved, and are not always easy to read. Nonetheless, remembering that they are designed as performing and not scholarly editions, they are accurate and serve their purpose well.

In the meantime a critical edition of the full scores of the 13 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas was begun in 1972 by Broude Brothers under the editorship of Steven Ledbetter and Percy Young. The first score, Trial By Jury, is not available as of this moment and cannot be evaluated. (It is planned to release the volumes in chronological order of composition.) If the series measures up to its promise it should be valuable indeed.

As an indication of renewed interest in Sullivan's music generally, other materials have appeared in the past several years. Kalmus has reprinted scores of the "Irish" Symphony and a suite from the Merchant of Venice music. J.B. Cramer (represented in the U.S. by Alexander Broude) has issued a newly edited piano-vocal score of The Zoo, one of Sullivan's early theater works (libretto by B.C. Stephenson, known as Bolton Rowe), which received its first performance not long after Trial By Jury in 1875. Chappell (represented in the U.S. by Theodore Presser) has published a volume of ten of Sullivan's early piano works, and Cramer has published a vocal collection, edited by Terence Rees and Roderick Spencer, called Sing with Sullivan, consisting mainly of solo selections (with piano accompaniment) from such little-known stage works as The Contrabandista, The Beauty Stone, and The Rose of Persia, plus two songs and two deleted numbers from the operettas.

Other material deleted from the early productions of Sullivan's operettas is to be found in The Theatre Student: Gilbert and Sullivan Production, by Peter Kline (New York: Richards Rosen Press, Inc., 1972). Finally in this list, Broude Brothers has issued two choral selections by Sullivan edited by Percy Young, the madrigal "When Love and Beauty" and the church work "We Have Heard With Our Ears, O God."

Complete recordings have been issued for the first time of Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke, as well as of other works such as the symphony, several overtures and selections of instrumental music, Cox and Box, The Zoo, short instrumental works, songs, deleted numbers from The Yeoman of the Guard and selections from Ivanhoe, Sullivan's only "grand" opera. Many of these items are listed in the Schwann catalog; others are imported from England on the Pearl and Odeon labels.

New scholarly writings have also appeared, older ones have been reprinted, and doubtless more will follow. Two are worthy of special note: The study by Percy Young mentioned previously is a well-researched, detailed and very readable biography. It contains some interesting illustrations and over 40 musical quotations, though more would be helpful. There is also a valuable bibliography of information about Sullivan. Unfortunately, this book is out of print but many libraries have a copy. The Life and Work of Sir Arthur Sullivan by Reginald Allen (New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1975) is actually a reprint of the catalog of an exhibition of Sullivania held in New York in the spring of 1975. It contains reproductions of many fascinating items which were placed on display, including letters, manuscript scores, original programs and posters, and photographs and drawings contemporary with Sullivan, as well as annotated descriptions of hundreds of other items.

A promising work in progress is a new book being written by Arthur Jacobs for Oxford University Press, which the author described in a letter to me as "a full-length study of Sullivan, mainly biographical . . . but also musical. Hoped-for completion, end of 1980." Jacobs has written an article on "The Secret Diaries of Sir Arthur Sullivan" (High Fidelity, May 1977, pp. 46-50), which notes, among other things, the composer's records of sexual relations with his mistresses.4 (Sullivan was a life-long bachelor.)

Those readers who raised their eyebrows when the thirteen Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were mentioned above may be relieved to know that the fourteenth, the "missing" operetta Thespis, which was Sullivan's first joint effort with Gilbert (1871), has not been neglected in the current revival of attention to the composer's work. What is missing is the entire musical score, which was never published and has disappeared except for two numbers—a ballad, "Little Maid of Arcadee," which was published separately as sheet music, and the entrance chorus of Thespians, "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain," which later appeared in Act I of The Pirates of Penzance with very similar lyrics. What is known about the rest of the music, as well as the many discrepancies in the printed libretto and other extant information, is thoroughly discussed in Thespis: A Gilbert and Sullivan Enigma, by Terence Rees (London: Dillon's University Bookshop, 1964).

Efforts have been made, and continue to be made by those who have studied and who value Sullivan's works, to place him in a more fitting niche in musical history than that which he has usually been given, and to make a greater portion of his oeuvre available to musicians and to the musical public. How shall we evaluate the contribution of Arthur Sullivan to music, recognizing him as more than simply half of a team which produced two weeks' worth of evening entertainments?

Certainly it would be worthwhile to consider the words of a composer of our own time who found himself, like Sullivan, living a double life as both a popular theater composer and a "serious" composer:

Don't think it is so easy to be a theatre composer! In some ways it's harder—there is a discipline of the stage. You're not your own boss; it is the whole work that counts. A composer of symphonies has all the notes in the rainbow before him; he can choose as he wishes. Not the theatre composer. He really has to work! A great theatre composer is a rare thing. . . . He must know his craft and everyone else's as well. Don't disparage him.5

Percy Young, in his work on Sullivan referred to above, makes this assessment (p. 81):

Sullivan set out to become a "great composer," and spent most of his life listening to the complaints of those who considered that by not pursuing a more "noble" end he had been guilty of some kind of moral impropriety. In fact Sullivan eventually made the best use of his talents, which were of a particular order: they were those of a miniaturist. He had a great sense of epigram, and an appreciation of the passing moment. . . .

To this might be added the observation that when Sullivan is judged for what he was, rather than what he was not, and when he is measured alongside a considerable number of other secondary composers who have achieved far greater prominence and acclaim, his true stature as an outstanding musical representative of a country, a period of history, and a genre of composition can be far better appreciated than it has been in the past. Such changes in the musical world's point of view about a composer rarely take place quickly or easily, but the case of Arthur Sullivan is one in which the effort is both greatly justified and long overdue.


1The theme comes from the Pirates' chorus in Act II of The Pirates of Penzance. Sigmund Spaeth in his The Common Sense of Music (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing Co., 1924, p. 45) states that it is a parody of the Anvil Chorus from Verdi's Il Trovatore, and indeed there is a remarkable resemblance.

2Of which the most interesting are the "bim-bams," tuned organ pipes which, the player reminded me, were the sound of the singing percolator in the famous Maxwell House coffee commercial.

3For other comments on the updating of Gilbert and Sullivan, and a different point of view on this production, see Harold Schonberg's review in The New York Times, August 10, 1980, section D, p. 15.

4It is an interesting commentary on the state of publishing in the U.S. that the article referred to is listed on the cover of the magazine as "The Secret Sex Life of (Gasp!) Sir Arthur Sullivan," and in the table of contents as "The X-Rated Sir Arthur Sullivan"!

5Leonard Bernstein, "Symphony or Musical Comedy?", The Atlantic (November, 1954), pp. 25-29.

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