Tag Archive | music

Sullivan’s Dilemma

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Poor Arthur Sullivan! Though hailed as England’s answer to Mozart, honored with a knighthood at the relatively young age of 42, friend to the crowned heads of Europe and frequently ‘living large’ as a guest of royalty, happiness and health eluded him.

Beginning in 1872 when he was 30 years old, Sullivan suffered from kidney stones. Wikipedia describes the pain as “excruciating, intermittent pain that radiates from the flank to the groin or to the inner thigh,” and says it’s one of the strongest pain sensations known. Surgical removal of stones was the best-known procedure at the time, but it had a high risk of death from bleeding and infection. Apparently, Sullivan did not take that risk.

He lived in constant fear of a recurrence of the disease. As Hesketh Pearson put it in Gilbert and Sullivan, “the presence or near-presence of this disease drove him to work in a frantic effort to forget it, and its complete absence was such a relief that he would take advantage of the blessed interregnum and revel in the futilities of social life or dream away the hours in some rural retreat.”

The other problem that plagued Sullivan and diminished his happiness was of a spiritual sort – his dissatisfaction with the course his career had taken. He aspired to be taken seriously as a genius who wrote important musical compositions, but he was painfully aware that he was best known for his popular and commercially successful tunes. Pearson again: “He was secretly discontented with the serious work that he had already done, that he felt he ought to go on doing, that his friends were always begging him to do, and therefore a little ashamed of the fact that the lighter type of composition came to him with such frightening facility. It was the old story once again of the natural comedian who wanted to play Hamlet.”

It was a real dilemma: the money he earned from his commercially popular work enabled him to circulate in the aristocratic social circles he enjoyed most, but the very commercialism of working for money was anathema to those aristocrats – and made him less worthy in their eyes.

Between his terror of being unable to work when his disease flared up, and his reluctance to work when he felt ashamed of its lowbrow nature, Sullivan ended up cramming all of his composing into brief but intense periods of round-the-clock effort followed by near collapse.

I am convinced that many artists feel as Sullivan did, that working for a monetary reward is somehow doing a disservice to one’s art. Do you feel that way? Let me know in the comments.



Young Arthur Sullivan, the Choirboy

Young Arthur Sullivan in his gold braided coat (Scanned in from Carl Brahms, Gilbert and Sullivan, 1975)

Young Arthur Sullivan in his gold braided coat

Arthur Sullivan’s parents were poor but loving – his Irish father Thomas Sullivan was a music teacher and bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and his mother, Maria Clementina Coghlan, was the granddaughter of Joseph Righi, an Italian from what was then the Kingdom of Sardinia.

Having experienced financial difficulties, Thomas and Clementina hoped that both their sons would enter into stable and respectable professions that would allow them to live comfortably. Their hopes never exactly turned out the way they planned! The older son, Frederick, started out as an architect but switched to acting and eventually made a name for himself as an actor and singer.  In fact, he created the role of the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury, singing music composed by his brother. And despite his parent’s hopes that he would develop an interest in chemistry, Arthur Sullivan was devoted to music from a very young age.

Later in his life, Arthur Sullivan said that from the age of 5, music was all he cared about. At 8 years old, he composed his first anthem, “By the waters of Babylon.” By the time he was sent to a private school in Bayswater at age 9, he could play all the wind instruments in his father’s band at Sandhurst.

It took Sullivan three years to convince his parents to give him the education of his choice, as a chorister of the Chapel Royal. The famous composer Purcell had been a chorister, and Sullivan aimed to follow in those distinguished footsteps. Eventually, he convinced his father to take him to Rev. Thomas Helmore, the master of her Majesty’s Chapel Royal.

Convincing Helmore was not easy. First of all, Helmore had a rule that he would accept no student older than age 9 – and Sullivan was 12. Second, Sullivan’s family lived too far away for the boy to be able to commute during the vacations to sing at St. James’ Palace, which the choristers did even when school was out.

But Sullivan’s good looks and charming nature were already working in his favor. Helmore was impressed by the boy’s excellent voice, his knowledge of the catechism, and his musical expertise. Once Sullivan’s family agreed to let young Arthur stay at the school at Cheyne Walk during vacations, he was ready to take the first step toward his musical career.

Nevertheless, the young choirboy did not have it easy! According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, a Biography, Helmore did not spare the rod when educating his students:

Helmore believed in the wisdom of Solomon and implanted knowledge with the aid of a stick. Sullivan’s charm did not soften the master’s heart, and since he could not be caned … for not knowing the meaning of fortissimo, he earned his stripes by a want of interest in Latin and Euclid. … Worse still, he “had the gospel to write out 10 times for not knowing it,” though, in his letter home recording the fact, he did not specify the evangelist.

Also, choirboys of the Chapel Royal had other difficulties to contend with. The school at Cheyne Walk was located a couple of miles from St. James’ Palace, where the boys sang twice on Sundays and on every major feast day.  Having to make the 5-mile round trip, wearing a heavy scarlet gold-braided coat, wore Sullivan out so much that he would have to lie down and rest in between.

To make matters worse, those gaudy, gold-covered coats made the boys stand out like sore thumbs as they trudged to St. James’ Palace and back. At the time, Chelsea Embankment had not yet been built and Cheyne Walk ran along the shore of the Thames, a broad road with taverns and coffee shops.  Local street boys and hooligans often hooted and jeered at the unescorted young choirboys, sometimes throwing stones or otherwise harassing them.

Pearson adds, somewhat snarkily, “Once [the choirboys] were violently assailed by a crowd of urchins near Buckingham Palace and might have been severely handled in spite of their desperate defense if a man had not taken their part. Sullivan’s comment, “I managed to get home safely,” rather suggests that he left the honor of the choir in more capable hands and took to his heels.”

Sullivan was known as a charming and upbeat fellow, but his childhood was not entirely idyllic. Between family poverty, canings from his teacher and abuse from street hooligans, he knew adversity. Despite this background, he rose high in society, befriending Queen Victoria’s son Alfred, hanging out at the court of Napoleon and Eugenie in France, and laughing at jokes with the future Kaiser of Germany. It’s truly a rags-to-riches story.








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?