Archive | December 2016

Arthur Sullivan and The Golden Legend

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.

Christmas with the Gilberts

Kate Terry Gielgud, mother of acclaimed actor Sir John Gielgud

Though William and Kitty Gilbert never had any children of their own, they both enjoyed the company of young people and loved to give lavish parties for the children of friends and family.

One young lady who enjoyed their parties was Kate Terry Gielgud – the daughter of actress Kate Terry and Arthur James Lewis (a silk merchant of the firm of Lewis & Allenby), and the mother of famed actor Sir John Gielgud.  In Kate Terry Gielgud: An Autobiography (1953), she explained, “Both author and composer were friends of my parents, and Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert invited us every year to Christmas parties in their house…”

Born in 1868, young Kate would have been between 10 and 14 years old when she attended the Christmas parties she described. The party held in  December 1881 included a special treat:

“…the Gilberts built a new house in Harrington Gardens with a model of the H.M.S. Pinafore as a weather-vane, and this house … had electric light installed in it, and here the Christmas tree, instead of being hung with candles and parcels, was a dazzling mass of tiny festooned globes, blue, red, green and yellow, a light within each. Parcels were heaped on the floor so as not to spoil the effect, but were disregarded in the clamour to be allowed to move the switch in the wall that could plunge the room into darkness and, reversed, restore the light in a dozen fittings at once. We gaped in wonder…”

It’s amusing now, to think that there was a time when the presents under the tree would be ignored in favor of turning the tree lights off and on, and off and on…

Children brought out Gilbert’s sense of fun. Many of his letters to children are especially playful and amusing. A few years before the awesome electric Christmas tree lights, on 20 December 1876, W.S. Gilbert sent a hand-written Christmas card to Miss Terry that read:

Christmas wish from WSG

“Wishing you both a decent, sober, temperate and respectable Christmas, undisfigured by extravagance and untainted by excess,

I am,

very truly yours,

WS Gilbert.”


Here’s hoping that your own Christmas celebrations are the opposite of all that, and very merry indeed!







Victorian Drawing Rooms – Private Refuges from Public Life


The well-decorated library at Grimsdyke, the home of Lucy and William S. Gilbert.

With more people today working from home, it’s interesting to note that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian era marks the separation of the workplace from the domestic sphere.

In Dickens’ Great Expectations, the law clerk Wemmick  says, “The office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle [his home] behind me, and when I come into the Castle,  I leave the office behind me.”

Ah, the Industrial Revolution! Who would have guessed that those “dark satanic mills” of Byron’s poem would have revolutionized every aspect of the way people lived, down to the very style of their houses?

Before the Industrial Revolution, many middle- and lower-class people had previously earned money by working on piece-work at home. But with the rise of industry, workers began to perform their work in the factory or the shop – separate from their living spaces.

Furthermore, the mass production of goods allowed the middle classes to finally have access to cheaper versions of the items that had previously only been accessible to the wealthy. All sorts of decorative items were available – rugs, furniture, wallpaper and artwork – which could be easily acquired and used to display the interests and personality of the residents. Therefore, a plain, unadorned home was considered a sign of bad taste. Victorian homes boasted as much décor as possible.

Life in the public world began to move faster, with telegraphs and trains and machinery of all kinds speeding up the pace of business. Workers, meaning men, had to move faster too, as competition demanded more speed, more efficiency, and more aggression.  Not only were homes now places of adornment and personal display, but they were also pools of domestic tranquility, as people sought to create in their homes a kind of stasis, a permanent refuge in which to slow down and rest.

But even in a private refuge, there must be a place for “the World” to enter, and that place was the drawing room, which was the central formal room in which the mistress of the house entertained visitors. Since homes reflected their owner’s status in life, it was extremely important that the drawing room was neither too modest (which would show a carelessness or lack of self-respect in the homeowners) nor too over-decorated. Sharp-eyed critics of the time were quick to deplore a scenario in which a lowly clerk would be expected to make himself at home in a room fit for the richest of bankers.

As Judith Flanders says in Inside the Victorian Home, “Extravagance was immoral, thrift was moral; the greatest good was knowing one’s place and living up to it precisely.”

This requirement to be exactly who you seemed to be might also have been a reaction to the increasing levels of social mobility – in ages past, everyone knew everyone else’s families, what role they played in the life of the community, and what their status was. But now that a train ride to the city might allow a person to shed their old identity and assume a new one, it became urgently important to have ways of knowing who one was dealing with.

The danger of accepting a person at face value is one of the central issues in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.  In that novel, the fabulously wealthy financier Augustus Melmotte arrives suddenly in London from the Continent, and many of the penniless English aristocrats of the day are dazzled by his display. They take him at his word, and welcome him into their homes even though they know very little about him.

Sadly, however, it turns out that he’s not the man they think he is—and the trusting aristocrats and bankers of London fall victim to his wiles. Of course, they are just as much to blame, since it is their greed that leads them to accept him without checking out his history.


The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

Therefore, even though new technologies, new systems and new ideas were cropping up every day, most Victorian people instinctively reacted negatively to new things, especially with respect to the home and private life. John Ruskin, one of the foremost art critics and taste-makers of the day, reviewed Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscience, which showed a kept woman in her lavishly decorated room, by saying that everything in the picture showed a “terrible lustre” of “fatal newness.” The woman is suddenly realizing the error of her ways and that error is visible, to Victorian eyes, in all the new things that she has surrounded herself with.

Contrariwise, things that were old, handed down, or slightly shabby represented the homeowner’s connection with the past, and therefore were virtuous. In the drawing room, the excess of memorabilia, souvenirs and decorations were meant to be a visual representation of the family’s connection with the past and stability.

From another angle, Victorians were beginning to appreciate the art and design of different cultures, notably the Japanese. One of the main influences came from artist James MacNeill Whistler introducing Japanese art and design ideas to pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who adopted the ideas whole-heartedly. But of course, the craze for all things Japanese caught on in other ways, too, and by the 1880s, no Victorian parlor could be found without at least one Japanese fan mounted upon the wall.

And so the Victorian drawing room contained elements of both old and new, both domestic and foreign, and both cozy and formal. It was the public room of the house, where visitors could be entertained, but it was also the first step into the private domain of domestic tranquility—Victorian style.





By William Holman Hunt – eAEe8oI1HIMufA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum Tate Images Public Domain,