Tag Archive | Victorian 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.



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.

Arthur Sullivan and the Puzzle of the Lost Music

For nearly fifty years, the musical score lay hidden.

Composed by Franz Schubert – known for his symphonies, romantic settings of traditional Lieder, and for a well-known version of Ave Maria (listen to Luciano Pavarotti sing it here)  – after more than four decades, the incidental music for the play Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus seemed to be irrevocably lost.

Arthur Sullivan meets George Grove

boy-sullivanIn 1862, Sullivan, just 20 years old, was at the beginning of his professional career as a composer. To make progress, he needed the help of influential friends. Luckily, Sullivan was a charming man who made friends easily and sincerely.  His first influential friend was Henry Chorley, long-time music critic for the magazine The Athenaeum. At Chorley’s house, Sullivan met George Grove, the secretary of the Crystal Palace.

Even though Grove was 20 years older than Sullivan, an immediate rapport was struck between the two men and an enduring friendship developed. At the time, only the works of the greatest composers were then being performed at the Crystal Palace, but Grove made an exception in the case of Sullivan. Sullivan’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest was performed at the Crystal Palace in April 1862. The music was widely praised, and Sullivan later said he awoke the next morning to find himself famous.

Introducing Franz Schubert to English audiences

Both Sullivan and Grove were great admirers of the music of Franz Schubert, a prolific Austrian composer who had died at age 31 in 1828. Hoping to establish Schubert’s reputation as one of the greatest composers of the Classical and Romantic eras, in 1867 Grove and Sullivan decided to go to Vienna to look for Schubert’s lost music. In particular, they were looking for the incidental music for the play Rosamunde by Helmina von Chezy (apparently the play was really bad; the original script has been lost and it’s never been performed again).


George Grove in the 1890s

The directors of the Crystal Palace gave their financial support to the effort, but Sullivan added to this by selling three songs so he would have some extra funds for himself. The two men left for Vienna in late September of 1867.

After a stop in Paris, the two men arrived in Vienna where they visited the music publisher Spina. They found some of the Rosamunde music in his shop, but it was incomplete. So Herr Spina gave them a letter of introduction to Dr. Edward Schneider, a lawyer and son of Schubert’s sister Theresa. At Dr. Schneider’s, they found manuscripts of the Symphony in C major, the Symphony in C minor, and an overture in D, in a cupboard. Thrilled, the two men pounced on the compositions. Sullivan went through the manuscripts, copying themes and making notes.

But they couldn’t find the rest of Rosamunde.

Grove was disappointed. Their last day in Vienna arrived, and on Thursday October 10, 1867, they visited Dr. Schneider again to say goodbye.

Grove decided to look one last time in the cupboard where he had located the earlier manuscripts. There, at the very back of the cupboard, at the bottom of the pile of music two feet high, he found what he had come for: the parts-books of the whole of the music of Rosamunde, which had lain in the cupboard for almost 50 years. In Grove’s words, the sheet music was “black with the undisturbed dust of nearly half-a-century.”

In haste and excitement, they began to copy the music – Rosamunde, now described as containing some of the most charming music Schubert ever composed, was complete again. Even with the help of music librarian Frederick Poull, it took them until two in the morning on Friday to finish.

Two musicians celebrate

At 2 am, Sullivan and Grove went out to celebrate their achievement in the deserted streets of Vienna. Giddy with delight, they did they only thing they could at that late hour: They played a game of leap-frog!

Caricature of George Grove in "Punch"

Caricature of George Grove in “Punch”