Cover art for a present day recording of The Golden Legend, available on Amazon.
Even successful artists like Sir Arthur Sullivan struggle with procrastination, goal-setting, and getting things done!
In 1886, 44-year-old Arthur Sullivan was at the top of his career. He’d been knighted in 1883 for his services to music, his collaborations with WSGilbert had brought him a lot of success and financial reward, but success brought increasing pressure into his life.
First, there was the pressure to write “serious music,” not comic operas or other popular stuff. High-minded critics thought that an ordinary tunesmith could write a comic opera, but a Knight of the Realm had to compose masterpieces, music for the ages. Second, success at any level comes with its own increasing momentum, and the artist or composer has to start running just to keep up.
At the beginning of the year 1886, Sullivan promised to write a cantata for the Leeds Festival, to be premiered in October. The cantata would be a large-scale choral work, The Golden Legend, based on a poem by Longfellow. This is how it all worked out:
By the end of January, Sullivan had dinner with his friend Joseph Bennett, and confided that he could write the music, but he just couldn’t figure out how to put together a libretto.
In February, a story in the press announced that Sullivan was hard at work on The Golden Legend! Since Sullivan hadn’t yet reported back to the Leeds Festival committee on his progress, they were pretty annoyed that the papers knew more than they did. Sullivan was annoyed, too – he hadn’t made any progress yet, no matter what the papers said, and he didn’t need questions from the committee at this stage of the work. But he assured them he was hard at work on the cantata.
Then other commitments got in his way.
In March, he had to conduct one of his earlier works, The Martyr of Antioch, with the Bath Philharmonic. He also had to work on a new comic opera for the Savoy Theater. Rupert D’Oyly Carte wanted Sullivan to write the comic opera first, before working on the The Golden Legend. Between the cantata and the comic opera and the conducting gigs, Sullivan’s life was picking up speed.
In April, the Prince of Wales asked Sullivan to write a piece of music for the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, on the 4th of May. Of course, he couldn’t turn down the Prince. Now this new work had to be squeezed in before Sullivan could even think about the comic opera and The Golden Legend.
“How am I to get through this year’s work?” Sullivan complained to his diary.
The rest of April was full of social engagements – receptions for Liszt, newly arrived from Paris; the opening of the spring season at Epsom; receptions at Grosvenor Gallery; and more concerts. Very little time was left for writing music.
May was equally busy: Conducting the music he’d written for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, which was opened by Queen Victoria herself; conducting his symphony on his birthday at St. James’ Hall; then sparkling social engagements like Derby Day at Epsom, followed by Ascot Week.
Cover of the score of The Golden Legend
When, oh, when, was he going to find time to write The Golden Legend?
Finally, toward the end of July, Sullivan was able to escape the city and work on The Golden Legend at Stagenhoe Park. It was finally finished on August 25, 1886.
By then, of course, it was too late to do anything about the comic opera for the Savoy – In a meeting in September, Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte decided to postpone the new opera until November. This still didn’t leave Sullivan a lot of time, because now the rehearsals for The Golden Legend would have to begin right away, so the soloists and choir members would be ready for the October premiere.
Would everything come together in time for The Golden Legend to go off without a hitch?
The Golden Legend premiered on October 15, 1886. As Michael Ainger writes in Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, “Most of the press were ecstatic in their praise: “cheer after cheer rang through the hall,” said the Liverpool Mercury, “the audience were excited and the choristers simply crazy. The girls pelted the composer with flowers. Such a frenzy of congratulations has surely never before rung in the ears of any living man as that amid which Sir Arthur left the platform.”
The Times was more restrained: “The Leeds Festival may boast of having given life to a work which, if not of genius in the strict sense of the word, is at least likely to survive till our long expected English Beethoven appears on the stage”.
According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, the premiere “was received with delirious enthusiasm. The audience yelled themselves hoarse and pelted him with flowers. He turned to bow his acknowledgments to the choir, who also pelted him with flowers. The newspapers agreed with the audience and choir. The World called him ‘the Mozart of England,’ and said that though it was difficult to claim a place in the foremost ranks of composers for the author of The Pirates of Penzance, the case of the author of The Golden Legend rested on a very different basis. It still does.”
Drawings of the premiere at Leeds in 1886
Finally, Sullivan had received the recognition he’d so long coveted—to be ranked alongside the greatest composers of serious music, and not regarded simply as a popular tunesmith.
Even royalty approved. When Queen Victoria heard The Golden Legend, she told Sullivan that he ought to write a grand opera. “You would do it so well,” she said.
Sullivan did write a grand opera, based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It’s not often performed these days. And, although The Golden Legend was one of the most-performed cantatas of the 1880s and 1890s after Handel’s Messiah, the work is not very often performed these days. Ironically, it is those light-hearted comic operas which have endured.
But it gives me hope to know that Sir Arthur struggled to meet his commitments, and that he managed to achieve success despite all the obstacles he faced, such as a busy life, other work to do, new projects that pop up unexpectedly and all the rest. I’ll take the thought of Sir Arthur’s own challenges with me as I face the projects I hope to accomplish in 2017.
How about you? Do you worry about finishing every job you’ve got on your plate? Let me know in the comments.