Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Happy Birthday Arthur Sullivan!

On May 13th, 1842, one of my all-time favorite composers Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, was born. Son of a bandmaster, he learned how to play all the wind and brass instruments before picking up a violin or sitting at a piano bench, and it shows in his music. His is easily some of the nicest writing for wind instruments I've ever come across.

At nineteen, he premiered his first major work, incidental music to The Tempest, which set him up quite nicely in the public eye, and he did not disappoint. In his next decade, he composed his greatest and/or most enduring orchestral pieces, including his only symphony, and his Overture Di Ballo. He also wrote a ballet, L'ile Enchantee which is not as well known, as well as the cantata The Masque At Kenilworth and the oratorio The Prodigal Son. The Overture Di Ballo is the only piece of this group that really endured, I imagine in part because its eclectic "potpourri" style, though without an opera attached, is most similar to the style he is famous for nowadays in he operettas.

The operettas were indeed a huge hit in his career, but he was a huge success aside from them as well. In his day he was England's top composer, and throughout the operettas, he continued composing his serious works, including incidental music to more plays, including a lot of Shakespeare, a number of part songs (of which The Long Day Closes still has some popularity), and The Martyr Of Antioch, which does somewhat qualify as a G&S collaboration, given that Gilbert did adapt the poem into a usable libretto for Sullivan.

There was another cantata too. The Golden Legend, which received rave reviews, and is easily one of Sullivan's greatest works. It quickly became Britain's second most popular oratorio, overtaking all but The Messiah. It is the piece that prompted Queen Victoria to tell Sullivan that he ought to write a grand opera; that he'd do it so well.

This was toward the middle of his career in operetta with Gilbert. Before their biggest hit with The Mikado, which could possibly make a claim to being the most popular opera in the world. Unfortunately, no one ever counts it in the polls, and most major opera companies will pass it over in favor of the oh-so-much-more-operatic Die Fledermaus, among others, so statistics put La Traviata on top for the time being.

If nothing else, Sullivan composed music to the setting, and this can be heard very well in the severely differing scores of the fairy-tale Iolanthe, the faux-Japanese Mikado, and the melodramatic Ruddigore, among others. But Sullivan was less than satisfied with mock-melodrama. He wanted to write something actually serious. Sure enough, his next collaboration with Gilbert, The Yeomen Of The Guard, was a more serious affair, with a much statelier score, befitting the Tower Of London setting in the 16th century. But stately is not necessarily what Sullivan was going for, and while he appreciated Gilbert writing a more serious text, he also found the text to be somewhat too rhythmically regular, and did not make for good musical setting. The result was a compromise in their next collaboration, and, to my mind, their best, The Gondoliers. Gilbert got to write the sort of comedy he did best, and Sullivan got a colorful setting with centuries of musical history to indulge in, plus a lot of extended sequences with little to no dialogue -- all music. The result is the closest Gilbert and Sullivan came to writing a full-on opera.

But not the closest Sullivan himself came. See, part of the compromise was also that D'Oyly Carte agreed to produce Sullivan's grand opera, Ivanhoe. Gilbert refused to write a serious grand opera libretto, feeling that, one, his words would then be simply to serve Sullivan's music, and, two, the public wouldn't accept a grand opera with Gilbert's name attached. The latter fear proved to be well grounded, as one of Sullivan's later operas, The Beauty Stone, though similar in form to the light operettas, was much heavier in tone. But the audiences, seeing Sullivan's name attached to a Savoy opera, were expecting a light evening. When they did not get that, The Beauty Stone, marvelous as it is, became Sullivan's biggest failure.

Not with Ivanhoe, though. Carte even built a new opera house just to premiere it! Ivanhoe achieved terrific success, running for an unheard of 155 consecutive performances. (The show was actually double-cast so that it could be performed on consecutive nights.)

With Ivanhoe, Sullivan set out to create a truly British form of grand opera. I think he succeeded. It is not Verdian, not Wagnerian, certainly doesn't resemble anything French, but instead sounds distinctly British. He touches on all aspects of nationalism, too. The scenes in the forest with the nature of England's terrain. The major political and religious conflicts in the story (while not nationalist, I must commend Sullivan considering his lack of experience in the area, on how he covers the Jewish character of Rebecca's music quite nicely). And the whole libretto has a whole lot of Anglo-Saxon pride. (It's based on a Walter Scott book; what did you expect?) It is an altogether terrific work. David Lyle compared the opera's nine scenes to nine finales, calling attention of the generally extended Act I finales of the famous operettas, the sort of which make up several scenes of The Gondoliers. But with respect to Ivanhoe, while I see where Lyle is coming from, I respectfully disagree. The Act I finales tend to be potpourri style, like the overtures, an episodic assortment of songs. Sullivan is sometimes criticized as having been unable to write long-form works, but this is simply not true. While Ivanhoe does have distinct arias, and could to an extent be called a "numbers" opera, it is through-composed as anything by Verdi. Maybe not quite so much as Wagner, but Puccini wouldn't be a stretch.

Unfortunately, Ivanhoe is unperformed today. It could do with a revival. Any opera companies want to get on that?

Ivanhoe wasn't without issues, though. During the run of The Gondoliers, Gilbert and D'Oyly Carte got into a dispute over whether a new carpet for the theater should be counted as a production cost. Sullivan, wanting to stay on Carte's good side to get Ivanhoe produced, sided with Carte. This led to Gilbert and Sullivan's falling out. They did eventually get back together with Utopia (Limited), which is sometimes considered a sub-par work, but I quite like it. To me, it's Gilbert and Sullivan's celebration and parody of themselves. There are a number of references to some of their prior works, and it's so much more over-the-top that it can almost only be enjoyed by already established Gilbert and Sullivan fans. It doesn't hold up as well on its own, but in the context of the entire Gilbert and Sullivan canon, it is a wonderful piece of work.

Sullivan generally isn't viewed as a landmark composer, but he should be. He's the first major English composer after Purcell, and he leads directly into the era ruled by Elgar and Holst and Vaughan Williams. Of these, his direct influence is most clear in Elgar, but it is present all around. Sullivan could easily be called the father of English nationalist music. This is perhaps most clear in one of his last works, the ballet, Victoria And Merrie England (and if that's not a nationalist title, I don't know what is!) written for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. Like Ivanhoe, the first (and perhaps only) English grand opera, Victoria And Merrie England covers all the aspects of nationalist music, and does so much more thoroughly. It opens with a peaceful pastorale, and the score is littered with smatterings of folk tunes, and good imitations of what sounds like folk tunes. Before Vaughan Williams, Sullivan evoked the English countryside beautifully in this ballet. The more stately political pride is covered too, as you might imagine. This ballet contains Sullivan's moderately-not-unknown Imperial March, as well as a humorous little quote of the "He is an Englishman" tune from H.M.S. Pinafore. Also a hornpipe.

Sullivan was not without criticism, though. He was sometimes accused of being lazy, using pedal tones, parallel fifths, not forcing his music into the regularly established strict forms. In that way, I guess you might say Sullivan was a progressive. Something I find both interesting and infuriating about his music is his tendency to seamlessly shift keys. It's nigh impossible to hear him do it from just listening, and it's not just tonic-to-dominant either. He even goes seamlessly between fairly remote keys! It's like he didn't know he was doing it either! No self-respecting serious musician (as Sullivan wanted to be) would do something so unorthodox, right? Well, when confronted about those parallel fifths, his response was simple:

"It doesn't matter, so long as there is no offense to the ear."

Listening to Sullivan's music, is anyone's ear offended?