Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe


Cover of Ivanhoe CD

Which has more artistic merit: Drama or Comedy?

I bet most people would say that Drama, being more serious, sheds more light on the human condition. They might add that Comedy is more entertaining but less illuminating.

This was the question Sir Arthur Sullivan faced around 1888 to 1891: Should England’s most highly lauded composer continue to write comic operas with W.S. Gilbert (the musical equivalent, one might say, of being a graphic novel illustrator who provides images that suit someone else’s story), or should he devote his time to Serious Music in the form of a grand opera (perhaps comparable to creating an original oil painting worthy of being hung in a museum)?

Despite the success of the more romantic and dramatic Yeomen of the Guard, by 1888 Sir Arthur Sullivan was ready to move on from comic opera. He was helped along the road to Serious Music by The Times’ review of his incidental music to Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth.

The Times wrote, a bit sniffily, “Self-restraint, subordination, and assimilation to a higher purpose become, in such circumstances, almost as important as creative genius; and these virtues Sir Arthur Sullivan has had every opportunity of practicing during his long association with Mr. Gilbert.”

This apparently was an extremely sore spot with Sullivan – the idea that, in his collaboration with Gilbert, the beauty of the music had to take a back seat to Gilbert’s topsy-turvy stories. Sure, audiences loved the words, but maybe any tune would do.

That really hurt.

So Sullivan decided that he was going to write a grand opera. Gilbert declined to provide a libretto, saying that if he were to try it, his work “would be, deservedly or otherwise, generally poo-poohed.” He suggested that Julian Sturgis was the best serious librettist of the day, and when Sturgis accepted the job, work on Ivanhoe began.

The climactic battle between Ivanhoe and Brian de Bois-Guilbert

What could be more English than Sir Walter Scott’s tale of the disinherited Saxon knight, Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, brave Crusader and loyal follower of Richard the Lionhearted? Scott’s story also is the basis for our popular idea of Robin Hood, who appears in the story along with his band of “merry men.” Victorian audiences would have known this story by heart – but it may be less well-known today, which is a pity since it’s a tremendous tale with chivalrous knights, beautiful damsels, villainous noblemen, jousting, archery, a witch trial and a daring rescue from a burning castle.

Between bouts of illness, Sullivan worked on Ivanhoe, which was finished in December 1890 and premiered on January 31, 1891.

Premiere program

The opening night was well attended by royalty including the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, and the cream of London society. Queen Victoria was at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, but her daughter Princess Louise wrote to Sullivan to congratulate him, saying that the Queen was particularly pleased since she believed that “it [was] owing to her own instigation that you undertook this great work.” The Queen had indeed suggested to Sir Arthur that he write a grand opera after she heard The Golden Legend.

Sullivan wrote back saying that it had indeed been the Queen’s encouragement to him that had inspired him to write the opera, and asked to be allowed to dedicate the opera to Queen Victoria. “If Her Majesty would graciously accept this tribute of my devotion and respect, I should look upon it as the crowning point of my career.”

Even W.S. Gilbert, who was in the middle of an extended quarrel with Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte at the time, went to see Ivanhoe and reported that he was not bored by it (“the highest compliment I ever paid a grand opera”).

Sullivan’s Ivanhoe ran for a total of 161 performances – a huge success for a grand opera, but nowhere near the popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore, which had 571 performances, The Gondoliers, performed 554 times, or The Mikado, which ran for an astonishing 672 performances.

At least in terms of enduring popularity, it seems that Comedy has won out over Drama in this case – but maybe it’s time to revisit Sullivan’s grand opera and decide for ourselves.

What do you think? Do you prefer Comedy or Drama? Let me know in the comments.

Sketches of scenes from the opera


References: Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography by Michael Ainger; Gilbert and Sullivan by Hesketh Pearson






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