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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Sullivan Without Gilbert

Sir Arthur Sullivan is best-known in musical parlance these days as the “S” in “G and S”. His collaborations with WS Gilbert in creating popular operettas such as HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and The Gondoliers are still immensely popular today, more than a century after they were created. But there’s lots more to Sullivan than these works, and I want to share a little of the “unknown” Sullivan with you in this post.

Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in Lambeth in London on 13 May 1842. Of mainly Irish descent he also had Italian blood from his maternal grandmother. His father, Thomas Sullivan, was, at the time of Arthur’s birth, sergeant bandmaster at the Royal Military College. As a boy Arthur learnt the piano and started to compose, and his fine singing voice gained him a prized place in the choir of the Chapel Royal.

Sullivan as a Chorister of the Chapel Royal (c. 1855)

In his teens Sullivan studied at the Royal Academy of Music. His teachers included William Sterndale Bennett. As the inaugural holder of the Mendelssohn Scholarship he had the opportunity, in his late teens, to study at the Leipzig Conservatory. His mentor there was Ignaz Moscheles.

Sullivan, age 16 (1858)

On 8 April 1862, a month before he turned 20, Sullivan conducted parts of his incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest as his graduation exercise in Leipzig. A year later a revised version of the music was performed in London at the Crystal Palace, an event which caused a sensation in London’s musical world. [listen]

The critic Henry F. Chorley wrote of Sullivan’s Tempest music that “it may mark an epoch in English music”. So began, right at the outset, the huge weight of expectation which forever hung on Sullivan’s shoulders. There had been no really great English-born composer of international stature since the death of Purcell in 1695. Handel was taken by the English to their hearts but he was German-born. Composers like Arne, Boyce and the Wesleys didn’t establish international reputations, and during most of the 18th century the English musical world was run by foreign-born musicians such as Nicola Haym, Giovanni Bononcini, Johann Christoph Pepusch, Johann Christian Bach and Johann Peter Salomon. The sensation at the end of the 18th century were the visits by Joseph Haydn, and in the 19th century, visits by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Felix Mendelssohn and others from the Continent. In Sullivan, the musical establishment of England saw hope for their future. I think it’s fair to say that Sullivan himself hoped he would be the man for the job too.

It’s fascinating that Sullivan’s compositional output falls into two almost watertight compartments. With very few exceptions, the period up to 1875 saw Sullivan write serious concert works or incidental music for plays. His collaboration with WS Gilbert started with Thespis (now mostly lost) in 1871 and really got underway with Trial By Jury in 1875. From that point on, until his death in 1900, Sullivan wrote much less in the way of instrumental or concert music and devoted his considerable energies to music for the lyric stage, and not only in collaboration with Gilbert.

Caricature of Sullivan conducting (1879)

The Tempest music wasn’t conducted by Sullivan for any actual performances of the play. It was in May 1864, two years after the success at the Crystal Palace, that Sullivan first worked in an English theatre. It was for Covent Garden that he composed a one-act ballet called The Enchanted Isle, which was designed as an afterpiece for performance on the same bill as Bellini’s opera La sonnambula. This is a much lighter affair than The Tempest, typical of ballet music being written across Europe at the time, and it showed Sullivan’s real knack for writing music which suited the occasion. [listen]

The musical establishment would have nodded with approval when in March 1866 Sullivan’s Symphony in E major was premiered at the Crystal Palace. A symphony was just the thing for a composer to write if he was going to be taken seriously, and it’s important to remember that Sullivan’s symphony predates the major symphonies of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák.

Known as the “Irish” symphony, the work was composed after Sullivan visited Ireland in 1863. The critic in The Times said it was “the best musical work, if judged only by the largeness of its form and the number of beautiful thoughts it contains, for a long time produced by any English composer”. It requires no apologies; it’s a seriously beautiful piece and it’s tragic we don’t hear it more often. [listen]

A commission for the 1866 Norwich Festival left Sullivan at a loss as to what he should write. In September of that year he received a fateful inspiration with the sudden death of his father. In the course of ten days at the start of October he wrote a concert overture, titled In memoriam, which was premiered in Norwich on 30 October. Sullivan described the work as “an outpouring of grief” but it conveys more positive sentiments than that might suggest. One writer has perceptively noted that the music conveys deep affection, a fact which no doubt led to its immense popularity during the late 19th century. [listen]

In 1866 Sullivan’s cello concerto, the only concerto he wrote, was premiered by the famous cellist Alfredo Piatti. This was only performed four times in Sullivan’s lifetime. In the 20th century it was performed in 1910, and then again in 1953 with Anthony Pleeth as the soloist and Sir Charles Mackerras as the conductor. Then, in 1964, the only known score and parts were destroyed in a fire at Chappells in London.

Fortunately, two cued copies of the solo cello part survived, those used in 1910 and 1953. Using these and his prodigious memory - and being inventive where required - Charles Mackerras reconstructed the orchestral component of the score as best he could in the 1980s with the help of Douglas Mackie. In this form the work has re-entered the repertoire to add to the corpus of concert works Sullivan produced in the amazingly prolific 1860s.

This YouTube video provides not only a recording of the complete work, but enables you to follow one of the surviving cello parts which facilitated the restoration. [listen]

The establishment greeted Sullivan with open arms. Following the success of the symphony and In memoriam, another overture, Marmion, was premiered by the Philharmonic Society in June 1867 [listen]. He had also begun work on a four-act opera, with Henry Chorley as librettist. It seems that this piece, The Sapphire Necklace, was actually completed, but only small extracts were ever performed and, apart from a few fragments and arrangements, is now completely lost.

Sullivan seems to have been intent in the 1860s on producing music in every possible genre. Incidental music, ballet, opera, symphony, concerto and overture have already been mentioned. It was also early in his career that he wrote the small amount of chamber music which has survived. The Duo concertante for cello and piano was composed in 1868. [listen]

The 1860s also saw Sullivan dip his toe into the stream which would very soon take over his life: comic operetta. In 1866, with FC Burnand as librettist, Sullivan composed the dazzling little one-acter Cox and Box, and the slightly longer The Contrabandista. Cox and Box was an unexpected success and it drew Sullivan in a direction he had not anticipated. The Contrabandista was also a success and led eventually to his next comic opera collaboration, Thespis, with WS Gilbert in 1871.

Sullivan composed the first of his two oratorios around this time, which was premiered in Worcester in 1869 when he was still just 27. Designed to fill one half of a concert program, The Prodigal Son is a remarkable work which really does deserve to be revived. It has been recorded on Hyperion, but the only reference to it on YouTube is this promotional video, which opens with two extracts. [listen]

For the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1870, Sullivan wrote one of his most enduring concert works, the strangely-titled Overtura di ballo. I say “strangely-titled” because the word “Overtura” doesn’t exist in Italian, even though this spelling has been used by a number of composers. (Today it’s commonly called Overture di ballo, which mixes English and Italian.) The “di ballo” part of the title, referring to ballet or dance, gives an indication of the lighter nature of this piece. For all its strict formal construction, the di ballo Overture is, to quote one writer, “anything but serious in content”. [listen]

Sullivan supplemented his income at this time by working as a church organist, something which accounts for the large amount of small-scale sacred music and hymns which he produced. He was also a prolific writer of songs and partsongs. Some of his many, many hymn tunes have entered the public consciousness and become the Anglican equivalent of “standards”. This one, dating from 1871, is perhaps his best-known. [listen]

Sullivan’s songs are largely unknown today. They catered for an unashamedly sentimental market at a time when sentimentality in such material was accepted and wholesome. Most famous of all was The Lost Chord, written in 1877. It sets a poem by Adelaide Procter expressing faith in the hereafter. [listen]

By the early 1870s Sullivan had become a firm part of the English musical establishment. He composed the Festival Te Deum for performance in the Crystal Palace in 1872 as part of the national celebrations marking the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) from a near-fatal attack of typhoid. The choir and orchestra which performed it numbered more than 2,000 performers. There were 26,000 in the audience. [listen]

Punch's caricature of Sullivan (1880)

Sullivan continued to write incidental music for plays, returning to the genre which really started his professional career. The music for The Tempest was joined by music for other Shakespeare plays: The Merchant of Venice in 1871, The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1874 and Henry VIII in 1877. More would come, most notably the music for Macbeth in 1888 and for Tennyson’s The Foresters in 1893, but in the mid-1870s came the first real triumph with WS Gilbert, a brilliantly satirical one-acter called Trial by Jury. First performed in March 1875, this was followed by a collaboration in June with another librettist, BC Stephenson, which resulted in The Zoo. But it wasn’t until two years later, in 1877, that the almost annual series of collaborations with Gilbert got underway with The Sorcerer. Over the next twelve years Gilbert and Sullivan produced a further nine operettas which have remained immensely popular to the present day. In order: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers. It’s of course impossible to do more than mention these brilliant creations here; my focus in this post is to highlight the lesser-known sides of Sullivan’s output. But I don’t want to give the impression that I think they’re lesser works; Sullivan’s works setting Gilbert texts are really remarkable. They’ve stood the test of time and will continue to do so.

In a later post I'll explore Sullivan's collaborations with Gilbert, but for a taste of these gems now, and a wonderful performance by the divine Denis Olsen, watch this! [listen]

The success in operetta was also immensely lucrative to Sullivan and helped finance his place in the “fashionable set”. He never married but had many affairs. He maintained a long and devoted - but completely secret - relationship with Mary Frances (Fanny) Ronalds, a prominent American hostess and singer in London who was separated but not divorced from her husband. Sullivan called her "the best amateur singer in London" and she became closely associated with The Lost Chord, due to her regular inclusion of it in her recital programs. When he died he left her the autograph score of the song.

Mary Frances Ronalds

The period from 1875 to 1890 was the golden age of the Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration. Gilbert’s witty, satirical, at times brilliantly scathing texts, coupled with Sullivan’s deft and subtle music made for a type of comic opera which has been much-imitated but never surpassed. It was perfectly of its age and immensely popular.

During this period Sullivan wrote very little in the way of other major serious works, but there were a few. The comic focus of his career didn’t lower his esteem in the eyes of his peers. In 1880 he was appointed conductor of the Leeds Triennial Musical Festival. Regional festivals had already provided him with the opportunity to write large-scale choral works: The Prodigal Son was written for the Worcester Festival in 1869 and The Light of the World for the Birmingham Festival in 1873. Now for Leeds he wrote two more, the “sacred music drama” The Martyr of Antioch in 1880 and the cantata The Golden Legend in 1886. The Golden Legend sets an abridged version of Longfellow’s narrative poem of the same name and it was greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm at its premiere. It rapidly became the second most frequently performed choral work in Britain for the remainder of the 19th century; only Messiah surpassed it, and The Golden Legend even temporarily put Mendelssohn’s Elijah into the shade. In terms of the British choral tradition it’s probably the major work created between Elijah (which was premiered in Birmingham in 1846) and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (premiered, also in Birmingham, in 1900).

The Golden Legend contains many fine moments. The complete work is on YouTube in a 1986 performance conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras in Leeds to mark the work’s centenary. Part One is here and Part Two is here.

The Golden Legend, Leeds (1886)

Sullivan also continued to write incidental music for plays. One of his finest overtures comes from this period, originally conceived for performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1888, but no doubt revised with the intent of it being heard as a concert overture when it was published six years later. The Macbeth overture is one of Sullivan’s many orchestral works which orchestras could easily and effectively program today. [listen]

Millais' portrait of Sullivan (1888)

The 1890s saw Sullivan break and then reconcile with Gilbert. They had never been close friends, preferring to maintain a rather arm’s-length professional relationship. Sullivan (unlike Gilbert) longed to contribute to the world of grand opera, and Ivanhoe, with a libretto by Julian Sturgis after Sir Walter Scott, was the result. Premiered in 1891, the work was a failure despite a remarkable initial run of 160 performances. He also wrote comic works (such as Haddon Hall in 1893) with other librettists and produced two final works with Gilbert which are nowadays not regarded as very successful, despite the enthusiasm held for them by G+S buffs. Utopia Limited premiered in 1893 and The Grand Duke in 1896.

Sullivan’s last completed work was a grand setting of the Te Deum, written in anticipation of the end of the Boer War. The commission came from Sir George Clement Martin, organist of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in May of 1900, six months before Sullivan’s death. Perhaps sensing his impending demise - he had been suffering ill-health for some time - Sullivan worked quickly. The Te Deum was completed but alas the war was not. Sullivan died in November 1900 and was laid to rest in the crypt of St Paul’s; George Martin was one of the pallbearers. Even Queen Victoria died before the costly and bitter Boer War came to an end. The Te Deum was kept in Martin’s possession until the end of the war and duly performed in St Paul’s a week after the signing of the peace treaty in June 1902.

Sullivan’s earlier Fesitval Te Deum of 1872 quoted a well-known hymn at its conclusion. In the final Boer War Te Deum of 1900, his last work, he quotes another, a hymn equally appropriate to the celebration of the end of a bitter and divisive war, and to the memory of England’s most famous composer of the 19th century. The Hyperion recording of the Boer War Te Deum is wonderful and moving, and brings a tear to the eye of this sentimental old ex-Anglican at the end. [listen]

The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are wonderful works, but there’s much more to Sullivan, as I hope this post has demonstrated. His music is well worth exploring.

The Sullivan memorial, Victoria Embankment, London

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2007.

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