Which Came First, the Music or the Words?

GilbertAndSullivanWhen writing a song, what does a composer start with – the tune, or the lyrics? Do you come up with words to fit a particular melody, or do you read the words and imagine a tune that would fit the words?

The answer is, different composers and lyricists work in different ways. For Gilbert and Sullivan, the journey from musical idea to finished song took an interesting path:

  • Gilbert would write lyrics that fit a popular tune he had in mind.
  • Then he would give the words to Sullivan, without telling him what song he’d used.
  • Sullivan would study the rhythm of the words and come up with a tune that fit them.

Interestingly, it’s nearly impossible to guess a melody simply by listening to someone else tap it out (a rhythm, yes, but not a melody). So their process worked!

But how did they arrive at this method? It started with the way that Gilbert learned his craft.


Gilbert and Victorian Burlesque Theater

In Victorian England, a “burlesque” performance was something quite different from what might be expected in a French or an American playhouse. On the British stage, wordplay and clowning replaced sexual innuendo – the idea was to be funny and silly, not suggestive. Also, as with a Ballad Opera (like the eighteenth-century work, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay), sometimes songs were added, with new words set to popular tunes, including opera arias, church hymns and folk songs.

So Gilbert’s earliest practice in song-writing came as he wrote new words for the music of the pantomimes and the operatic burlesques he wrote – such as his parody of Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” about a shady doctor peddling a love potion, which Gilbert turned into “Dulcamara! Or the The Little Duck and the Great Quack,” or the same composer’s “La Figlia del Reggimento,” which became “La Vivandière, or True to the Corps.” (Gilbert loved puns! I can just imagine your groans if you know that a vivandière is a woman who sells groceries to the troops.)


Sullivan and Tennyson

No doubt Arthur Sullivan, tasked with setting Gilbert’s clever wordplay to music, appreciated the rhythmic qualities of the librettist’s words despite the fact that he didn’t want to know what basic tunes were used.

In an article by Arthur H. Lawrence titled, “An Illustrated Interview With Sir Arthur Sullivan“, Sullivan said that in setting Gilbert’s (or anyone else’s) words, “I decide on [the rhythm] before I come to the question of melody. … I mark out the metre in dots and dashes, and not until I have quite settled on the rhythm do I proceed to actual notation.”

This method of tune-building meant that it was really important for Sullivan that the words have a regular rhythm in each verse – something that poets aren’t often that concerned with when writing a poem. The great poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a friend of Sullivan’s, and he asked the composer to set a number of his poems to music, which Sullivan did in The Window; or, The Songs of the Wrens.

This led to the following confession by Sullivan, which Arthur Lawrence describes here :

Sir Arthur has told me that he always felt that Tennyson “was the one great man whose personal appearance seemed to correspond with his work. He always appealed to me as being the rugged old prophet Isaiah of this country. I really owed much to his gentleness and patience. I actually had the audacity to lecture him about rhythm! ‘Don’t mix up your iambics and spondees’ I would tell him, and then continue my dissertation in pretty much the same strain!

Of course one reason of his good-nature in this matter was that he knew that I was not discussing his verse from the point of view of a critic of poetry, but merely in regard to certain musical difficulties. You see he would write a simple song or ballad wherein the music to each verse should be the same, but which really required a separate setting, and would make strong accents in one verse, where in the corresponding place in another verse he would place a weak one, so that the ballad became most difficult for setting to music. It is a glaring fault with most hymn-writers also.”


The time they broke their rule

"I have a song to sing, O!"

“I have a song to sing, O!”

The only time that Sullivan asked Gilbert to tell him what song he’d based his rhyme-scheme on was in writing “I Have a Song to Sing, O!” from The Yeomen of the Guard. The difficulty was that each stanza gets longer and longer, like the nursery rhyme “The House That Jack Built.”

Stumped by how to solve the musical problem of making the song the same but longer with each verse, Sullivan asked Gilbert what he’d had in mind. Gilbert, aware that he was no singer but naturally eager to help, hummed a few bars of the traditional Cornish sea-shanty that had inspired him – and Sullivan stopped him.

“That’s it! That enough, thanks, I’ve got it now,” the composer said, and away he went to finish the song.

So that is the only time that Gilbert contributed both the words and the music to one of their comic operas.

Now, if you want, tell me: How would you write a song – words first, or music first?




2 thoughts on “Which Came First, the Music or the Words?

  1. I didn’t know Sullivan and Tennyson were friends!
    It’s not surprising Sullivan would be so precise about rhythm. A master at any craft becomes a master of details.
    If I were a composer, I’d likely create the music first and then fit the words to the mood of the piece created.
    I whistle improvised Bach-like pieces to myself all the time. Not sure there’d be lyrics to that!

  2. I can’t hep think they made life more difficult than it need be. If Sullivan had written the tune first they wouldn’t have had that continual problem. As someone who writes lyrics, I want a rhythm to write around and I wouldn’t want to dictate the musical structure or rhythm as it is always a compromise. A good tune and rhythmic structure encourages clever lyrics. That said I can’t fault their results!
    It’s a shame we don’t often hear the wonderful classical works Sullivan composed, altbough I believe they have now all been recorded. He was a great composer not given enough credit.

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