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Arthur Sullivan - A Musical Reappraisal
By Benedict Taylor
Published 2017, 232 pages
ISBN 978-1-4094-6910-0
Also available as e-book from publisher

There is generally a flurry of interest when a new book on Sullivan is published and particularly when, as found here, slanted to academia. Sullivan has been widely written about yet only a handful of writers like Jacob, Hughes and Young are musicians have made a detailed assessment of the some of the composer’s writing techniques.

Commentators have argued over Sullivan’s qualities whether referenced to his song, choral, symphonic or operatic music. Despite the obvious warmth that Sullivan’s music brings to many, seeds of doubt regarding its quality were sown in Victorian and Edwardian days by certain figureheads of some of the national music festivals who despised him for his successful output of popular music and jealous of his society connections. They set out to weaken the wholesale adoration by the public of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas. Two leaders of this criticism came from composers, Charles V. Stanford and most strongly by a forgotten composer, Ernest Walker. Both were dismissive of Sullivan’s music and the Establishment swallowed their lead.

It is of considerable interest for us today to read in-depth opinion from an academic and well-read commentator as Benedict Taylor of University of Edinburgh’s School of Music. His research and analysis is extensive and on making a new appraisal can call on recent professional recordings that can be studied and analysed.

The eight chapters cover separate genres of Sullivan’s output — from Incidental, Orchestral, Song, Chamber, Cantata, Choral music to Comic Opera and Grand Opera. Taylor does not shy away from giving strong and justifiable criticism which is fairly backed-up by reason and musical examples. The versatility of Sullivan’s writing skills are recognised and acknowledged.

Taylor makes the bold assertion that Sullivan’s writing was truly outstanding and beyond its time when he had completed his studies at Leipzig with The Tempest music tucked under his arm. The opus received early performance by the Hallé orchestra in Manchester and Crystal Palace in Sydenham and this brought overnight fame. He explains that the work ‘reveals a highly developed process of themic metamorphosis at work across its separate numbers’ and believes that the composer probably did not really advance much with his compositional technique after that time. He justifies the outstanding quality of this early composition and how variation in style neatly fits the Shakespearian play. Could this have been noticed by theatre manager Calvert who gave Sullivan commissions for incidental music to other Shakespeare works? There is much to support the assertion that The Tempest music is particularly fine although it is my belief that his symphony (also early) should carry equal merit.

The writing is always to the point and is carefully sourced, footnoted and referenced to other books. A chapter on Song puts focus on The Window song cycle. Here a detailed commentary on the musical context for each number is provided, and mention made on some German roots. Clearly Tennyson, its lyricist, has been carefully researched and considered by Taylor in relation to the Victorian literary fashion of the period. It makes interesting reading to understand the reasons for Tennyson trying to back out of the project, even offering £500 for Sullivan to discard his composition.

What might be of some surprise to readers is to find the Savoy Operas are condensed into one chapter when they cover such a large portion of Sullivan’s output. (Savoy pieces not written with Gilbert are not covered in the book though, to be fair, association with parallels in Haddon Hall are made.) Taylor singles out The Pirates as being the most operatic of the operas and identifies a formula where ‘song-and-music’ punctuates spoken dialogue and carry an extended Act I finale. He compares the keys of the main numbers for the first two operas and comments on them in relation to a ‘home key’. In this respect Jacobs’ book only does this when he mentions that the revision to The Sorcerer Act I finale in 1884 leaves it ending in the wrong key. What Taylor says is fresh and he does not repeat any hackneyed material often duplicated in other books. Here we look at the musical styles bound in certain comic opera. The coverage includes Utopia and Grand Duke where the analysis is most interesting. Perhaps I should have liked to have read his opinion on why the composer might have provided Entr’actes for only the first two operas,The Sorcerer and Pinafore, and no others; comment would also have been welcomed on Sullivan’s skill in his attempt to match the style of contemporary West End theatre music of musicals in the 1890s, an outstanding example being his clever pastiche of Offenbach’s French style in The Chieftain’s number, Ah, Oui, J’étais une pensionnaire”, which has never been written about.

A chapter devoted to Ivanhoe recognizes that the nine scenes are standalone musical tableaux of events in Scott’s novel, which Sturgis chose for their scenic, picturesque and dramatic qualities. Consequently, observers used to grand opera being through composed should not blame Sullivan for a musical ‘bolt-on’ approach since D’Oyly Carte was keen to have the work be seen as a spectacle to draw in the patrons. Interesting comparisons are made with other British opera, Purcell, Arne, Barnett, Cowen, Stanford and Goring Thomas, to put Ivanhoe in perspective.

Ashgate are to be commended for establishing their series Music in 19th Century Britain for which this book is the latest addition. One doesn’t quite appreciate why a 232pp monochrome book is so highly priced when it is likely to have appeal to a wider circle than the specialist colleges and universities worldwide.
Raymond J Walker



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