Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers : the sacred music of Arthur Sullivan
by Ian Bradley
SCM Press, London & Norwich
pp 246, £20 (paperback)
Ian Bradley is no newcomer to the world of Sullivan, having written extensively on the composer in a number of forms. Until now, nobody has made a detailed analysis of Sullivan’s huge contribution to church music and so this fresh account is very much welcomed. That said, it is clear that academics and critics of the past have been unfairly negative in their opinions of his church music, each building on the criticism that has gone before. Here, Bradley re-examines the facts in an unbiased way and even modifies his own feelings on Sullivan in the light of his research - a writer cannot be more truthful than that. It is a soul-searching analysis of the composer’s personality and relationship with sacred music that provides a framework to allow an assessment of a particular shift of interest in Sullivan’s compositions. The book is useful in that it gives a fresh evaluation of Sullivan’s contribution to the Victorian world of music outside the sphere of Gilbert & Sullivan.
Bradley is particularly good at ‘setting the scene’ to give a clear understanding of Victorian background to their sentimentality and the sombre environment in which composers of this period applied their craft. Sullivan’s traits of geniality and benevolence to others are considered and the revelation made of Sullivan’s association with freemasonry, briefly touched on in only one other biography (Jacobs). This and other facets are explored in interesting detail.
Sullivan grew up as a leading chorister of the Chapel Royal where he was given an extensive grounding in sacred music. The impact of these early days left their mark after his early composition of an anthem that was deemed good enough for Novello to publish. Sullivan’s main religious output is associated with two oratorios (The Prodigal Son and The Light of the World), 26 sacred songs or hymns, and 25 anthems or liturgical settings. The majority of this output was composed in the 1860s and 1870s, during a period when Sullivan was finding his way and had yet to discover the charm of theatre-land. Much to the disappointment of the Establishment - which did not include Royalty - he steered his skills to the more lucrative trappings of the theatre. His oft-quoted enthusiasm writing opera did not, when the opportunity arose, result in the zenith of his inspiration when his one grand opera was composed.
The book brings out an important influence, that of his teacher, Helmore, with whom he has a life-long friendship. Through Helmore, the young Sullivan was introduced to 16th Century plainsong that was regularly sung by the Chapel Royal choristers. Sullivan’s preference for a bright simplicity to his music and placing a number of words on the same note probably comes from this English root. The book gives us insight into the origin of the sickly sweet sentimentality of Victorian hymns of the time: the blame put on the composers is more their attempt to match the lyrics they are presented with, and those carry strong elements of sadness and grief. I found it useful to be given an analysis of lyrics and their structure in such hymns.
The author usefully contrasts the opinions of early critics - who sometimes condemned Sullivan and his contemporaries - with a more sensitive appraisal provided by modern critics. I enjoyed the insertion of amusing anecdotes such as the one when Sullivan was acting as organist for a service. Whilst waiting for the late arrival of a bishop he played the music for his song, ‘When will he come’.
Within a most interesting section on oratorios we have a detailed account of the development and structure for his sacred musical drama, The Martyr of Antioch. We learn that Sullivan had abandoned a setting of the biblical story of David & Goliath and engaged W S Gilbert to help him in adapting a legend of Christian history where a pagan priest is converted to Christianity. The resulting composition was such a success that the Carl Rosa Opera Company even took the piece touring as a stage production, coupled with Mascagni’s short Cavalleria Rusticana.
As might be expected with a book by an academic, much care has been taken to give considerable background to the development of styles of composition and situations involving contemporary influences. Appendices cover Hymn titles, dates and publishers; Alternative lyrics; Background analysis of the St Clement tune; Sacred song authors and dates; Prodigal Son musical numbers and sources; Light of the World musical numbers and sources; Anthem lists, dates and publisher; and select bibliographies of reference sources and CD recordings. This is a good reference volume to grace any bookcase.
Raymond J Walker