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The Cambridge Companion to Gilbert and Sullivan


Edited by David Eden and Meinhard Saremba


Cambridge University Press, 2009

 282 pages, ISBN 978-0-521-88849-3 (hardback)

ISBN 978-0-521-71659-8 (paperback)


Reviewed by Gilles Couderc

Université de Caen


Quiz your friends or family about English composers. They will surely mention Handel and may come up with Purcell, Elgar or even Britten. Those who went to Britain as foreign students are likely to mention “Gilbert and Sullivan”, whose widely successful Savoy operas have been the staple of amateur musical societies in the English-speaking world virtually since their inception in the 1870s. Sullivan’s music has even found its way in the soundtrack of the iconoclastic Simpsons cartoons, a proof of its enduring appeal and its deep roots in popular culture. With their fanciful, humorous libretti and their most memorable melodies, the G&S operas belong to the tradition of popular English opera, always more prosperous than “grand opera” in Britain, and the association of Gilbert the librettist and Sullivan the composer, always quoted in the same breath, makes them the members of the very exclusive club of successful musical partners. Their achievements and their place in English music justify their inclusion in the Cambridge Companion series, along such opera luminaries as Britten, Mozart or Verdi, which the book sets out to show, using the latest research to offer a fresh examination of the myths surrounding their collaboration and to provide a deeper understanding of the place of the Savoy operas in the wider historic, artistic and cultural English and European contexts.

In the first part, Background, David Eden and William Parry delineate the genealogy of the two-headed creature, tracing the theatrical ancestry of Gilbert’s libretti in the eighteenth-century burletta, burlesque or extravaganza tradition, which embraced ballad operas like The Beggar’s Opera, and was reformed in the 1830s to cater to the tastes of the rapidly expanding middle class, W.S. Gilbert then developing his own highly respectable, witty and ironical form of burlesque. Transforming Gilbertian wit into opera, with original music by the gifted Sullivan, was entirely the work of Richard D’Oyle Carte, whose dream was to emulate German and French opéra-comique and Offenbach. He brought them together in 1875 with Trial by Jury, and established an opera company dedicated to English comic opera, housed in his own Savoy Theatre, which opened in October 1881 with Patience, after the huge success of HMS Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879). By then Sullivan had become weary of Gilbert’s mechanical “lozenge plots”—the lozenge being, as in The Sorcerer, some magic charm that utterly transforms characters until such time when the spell has to be broken—, and the mismatch between Gilbert’s loopy characters and the emotions he wished to invest them with, one of the defining features of G&S operas. He required stories with “more human interest and probability”, thus leading to a series of quarrels with Gilbert as Carte dreamt of opening a new theatre, like the Paris Opéra Comique, and Sullivan, in his quest for the ever-elusive English opera, ambitioned to compose a serious fully-sung work, his 1891 Ivanhoe, first produced at Carte’s short-lived Royal English Opera House. Gilbert and Sullivan temporarily parted ways until their 1894 Utopia Limited, their last collaboration as Sullivan strove to compose more “serious” operas.   

As Benedict Taylor next makes it clear, the story of G&S operas is but one episode in the sad long quest for “English” musicians after Handel and for English opera, still in search of its identity in a country where, well into the nineteenth century, music inspired distrust and, with no established tradition and no institutional frameworks, native talent met scant support, hence the massive imports of foreign musicians and the subsequent Germanic slur, “das Land ohne Musik”. With his thorough training in the wider European tradition at the Leipzig Conservatory and at Covent Garden, resulting in some excellent orchestral works—his 1861 incidental music for Shakespeare’s Tempest and his 1866 Irish Symphony—, Sullivan had become the white hope of English music. If his first operas include influences of German or French comic opera or humorous pastiches of contemporary musicians, like Rossini or Verdi, to match Gilbert’s comic gifts, characteristic “English” elements, like glees, hornpipes, madrigals and ballads, infiltrate his more mature style: hence the legitimate claim of Englishness but also the charges of eclecticism, which he viewed as a positive attribute, and the accusations of musical conservatism. As Taylor makes it clear, Sullivan’s eclectic style runs counter every notion of artistic personality and personal authenticity we inherited from Romantic aesthetics against which music is still judged today. Yet his music, like Mozart’s in his most eclectic Magic Flute, owns an unmistakably individual quality which makes Sullivan inimitably sound like Sullivan. To be sure, he was no Berlioz or Wagner, though he knew their work. But his so-called conservatism must be seen against the twentieth-century ideology of modernity that decides to measure music’s artistic value on an external scale of progressiveness and forgets that, in opera, directness of emotional communication is essential, hence Sullivan’s accessibility and popularity and the intellectual snobbery against his lighter music. With the widespread acceptance of music as being imbued with a moral imperative and the increasing “Teutonicising” of European and English culture, which accentuated the divide between serious and popular culture, Sullivan was urged to compose “serious” music, oratorios, symphonies or “grand opera”, which he did with The Light of the World (1873), The Golden Legend (1886) and Ivanhoe, written at Queen Victoria’s suggestion, which disappeared from the stage, the victim of  G.B. Shaw’s broadsides and of the bankruptcy of Carte’s Royal English Opera House, one in the many attempts to set up an English Opera House. As Taylor points out, despite this, the cosmopolitan Sullivan was excluded from the canon of “English” music when it came to be defined in the late nineteenth century by a small band of musicians and critics emanating from Oxbridge and the newly-founded Royal College of Music, as amateurish, bourgeois and bearing the taint of a thespian muse, thus missing his chance of being the new mythical founder of English opera.

Reclaiming Sullivan for English music as a composer worthy of inclusion in the European opera canon continues with Meinhard Saremba, who corrects popular misconceptions about G&S operas. Sullivan did not just provide music to Gilbert’s plays. His demands influenced Gilbert’s writing, and his music, with a voice of its own, emphasises how individuals in his operas are lost in an environment bigger than themselves for comfort. They are “comic operas” instead of “satirical operettas”, a semantic difference of primary importance with regards to casting—what type of voice, hence what character, is needed—and to global dramatic approach. Saremba points out that Gilbert’s plays were never satires but burlesques with elements of black humour, and claims that Sullivan’s music mirrors the anxieties of a commercialised, disorientated society reeling from the after-effects of the Industrial (and if we may add, Darwinian) Revolution. With their light operas, both Carte and Sullivan intended to establish a national comic tradition. Sullivan gained inspiration from his knowledge of the German comic and romantic opera of Weber and Lortzing, which he encountered in Leipzig, and of Rossini, whom he repeatedly met in Paris in the 1860s, thus mastering a wide spectrum of musical expression, far greater than what he is usually credited with, to write the most refined music in all comic operas of the late nineteenth century in Europe.

Saremba further suggests that, for a better appreciation of each of them, the Siamese twins should be separated, which Part Two, Focus, set outs to do, dwelling more on Sullivan than on Gilbert. Horst Dölvers analyses the “fables”, like that of “The Magnet and the Churn” in Patience, which Gilbert always skilfully integrates to the main text of his libretti. Written in the tradition of Aesopian fables and apologues, in a sceptical, pessimistic vein, they paint the picture of a selfish and cunning world led by blind fate, in keeping with Gilbert’s vision of topsy-turvydom, but are also invested with playful erotic innuendos, and their verbal wit and wealth of allusions make Gilbert a master of mock-serious allegorical fabulation, as demonstrated with his 1869 Bab Ballads, comparable to Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense (1845) and the popular Fables in Song (1874) of Edward  Robert Lytton.

Laura Kasson Fiss then explores one of the hallmarks of the G&S operas, the “patter song”, where humour springs from the relationship between the greatest number of words to fit the smallest number of notes. Pushing language and music to the very edge of intelligibility, they also contribute to the operas’ topsy-turvydom and revive a tradition inherited from eighteenth-century opera buffa honoured by Pergolesi, Mozart and Rossini, but also borrow from a popular entertainment practice, of which George Grossmith, who performed most of the G&S patter songs, was a famous exponent.

Michael Beckerman next examines the concept of time both in The Mikado and in Haddon Hall (1892), a Sullivan-without-Gilbert Savoy offering, where the librettist Sydney Grundy supplied the composer with the human emotions he craved for. For Beckerman both works operate in two radically different dramatic modes, the iconic mode for Haddon Hall, which presents a series of tableaux vivants and  an image of perfected time and results in stasis, while the dialectic mode in The Mikado puts forward the eternal conflicts of the human condition. Beckerman compares Sullivan’s response to Grundy’s text and to Gilbert’s, and his analysis underlines the fact that Haddon Hall offers a picture of the endless perfection of England while The Mikado, imbued with the constantly implied social critique of Gilbert’s topsy-turvydom, offers more psychological nuance and drama, thus reflecting more the personality of Gilbert, the serial litigant, than that of Sullivan, while Haddon Hall clearly reflects that of Sullivan, the friend of royalty, socially and artistically in agreement with the status quo.

Richard Silverman deplores that knowledge of Sullivan’s music is mainly based on his Savoy operas, even if some of his more “serious” music, his symphony, his orchestral overtures, his incidental music, The Golden Legend and Ivanhoe have lately been recorded. He examines the influence of his serious music on his lighter one and vice-versa, pointing out the felicities of Sullivan’s orchestration and vocal writing within the limits of the Savoy pit and cast, his extended harmonic palette to highlight emotional moments or underline stage business, his skilful and telling use of counterpoint, whether imitative, fugues and canons, or synthetic, when combining two different themes, like the “We sail the ocean blue” double chorus which pits male voices against female ones in the first act of HMS Pinafore. He also points out that, despite a few death scenes here and there, in The Sorcerer and The Yeomen of the Guard, there is little real human drama in the G&S operas, which Sullivan reserved for Ivanhoe and his non-Gilbert Savoy works. He concludes that his global oeuvre and achievements clearly makes him the prophet of the English Musical Renaissance of the early twentieth century.

James Brook Kuykendall then examines Sullivan’s wide-ranging palette of musical references adopted in his light operas to provide local colour, characterisation or humorous incongruity, like Handelian mock heroics and the tenderly sincere setting of absurd texts, for example. He points out how Sullivan learnt from continental examples and, with such educators as Weber, Rossini, Verdi, Mendelssohn and Mozart, perfected the skills to musically structure some of his scenes or to characterise a situation. For him, Sullivan’s compositions demonstrated that English texts could be set to music outside the church, played a great part in the construction of a national sensibility to music and, like the concerts he organised outside the theatre, provided his Savoy audiences with an education in the continental music of their time. 

Martin T. Yates delves more into Sullivan’s concern for the feelings and dignity of the protagonists Gilbert provided him with, sometimes proving to be at variance with Gilbert’s sadomasochistic humour. He points out Sullivan’s care to establish overall characterisation for each of his opera, giving each some special colour, like the melodic metamorphosis of a sailor’s hornpipe in HMS Pinafore giving it its sea feeling. Yates underlines how Sullivan’s careful and expert word-setting often transcends Gilbert’s cynical words to make a character suddenly alive, how the musical construction of a scene contributes to character development or how his music ambiguously lures the audience into believing in the sincerity of otherwise shallow and fickle emotions. Yates shows how this careful musical characterisation is extended to the chorus and to moments when an extra dimension is added to emotion, resulting in instances of what Yates, borrowing from Nietzsche, calls moments of “wanton perfection”, providing more evidence than even if Sullivan did not regard his light operas as his main theme, he devoted to them the same skill and care as in his more serious compositions.

Mike Leigh’s contribution opens Part III, Reception. The film director sets out what made him a G&S fan, why he meant to examine the Victorian age in whose shadow we still live through his 1998 fascinating Topsy-Turvy, an accurate if subjective picture of Gilbert and Sullivan and of the Savoy Theatre, through the events that led to the success of The Mikado in the year 1884-85. If his loving and melancholy tribute to G&S takes the spectator behind the scenes of the theatre and of the lives of his protagonists, Leigh’s contribution takes him behind the camera and provides the most interesting footnotes to the scenario.

Ian Bradley then writes the history of the amateur G&S operatic tradition which grew out of the revival of choral singing that took place in Britain between 1840 and 1880 as G&S operas provided choral societies associated with chapel culture with a clean, respectable repertoire. Some of the oldest G&S performing groups have remained exclusively dedicated to the Savoy operas. Some, like the Savoy Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1901 or the Plymouth Gilbert and Sullivan Fellowship in Britain, founded in 1923, grew out from the will to preserve the “Savoy traditions”, to  which they felt even the D’Oyle Carte’s Company often gave off-hand treatment. Yet the company, after the expiry of the copyright in G&S’s work and until its demise in 1982, exerted total control over all G&S amateur performances. Bradley points out that those included school productions, mostly in provincial, northern, non-conformist, lower middle-class areas or in the upper middle-class Home Counties. Despite competition from the Beatles, pop music groups or American musicals, there has been no decline in G&S amateur productions. Bradley underlines the differences in the amateur tradition in the UK and in the US. There, amateur groups achieve a more equal balance between the sexes, attract a younger crowd, are drawn from the university-educated professional classes as G&S operas are regarded as “high art”, overwhelmingly come from the Eastern and Western seaboard where higher-education institutions and high-tech industry predominate, and encompass a broader ethnic mix than in Britain, where their social profile has been mainly white and lower middle-class, with a predominance of older women in the US which contrasts with the strong male bias among British G&S fans. There are amateur groups performing G&S everywhere there is a sizeable British expatriate community. G&S operas is the regular fare of summer camps in the US where amateurs tend to stick more to the D’Oyle Carte tradition while the professional scene has taken daring liberties, like a gay version of HMS Pinafore. The most vibrant G&S amateur productions today come from universities in the US like in the UK, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe or the Buxton G&S Festival, begun in 1994 in the heart of the English Peak district, attest that the tradition is alive and kicking and likely to continue in the twenty-first century.          

Stephanie Pitts follows up on Ian Bradley as she surveyed performers and listeners at the 2001 G&S Buxton Festival, a haven for G&S devotees who relish the three-week fest that includes performances by professionals and amateurs competing among themselves, fringe productions, master classes, “scratch” performances and cabaret. Pitts point out the uniqueness of the Savoy operas’ dual performing status with a clear professional identity as well as a strong amateur base, both devoted to the same repertoire and a strong sense of tradition. Performing groups indicated that they saw the festival as the opportunity to perform in a well-equipped theatre, to gauge their performing standards against other competitors, to share with others a human experience, in particular the pleasure of performing stage works as opposed to taking part in concerts, aware of the difficulty of ageing and of involving the younger generations. Buxton audiences are mostly experienced and knowledgeable listeners who enjoy the Savoy-like size of the theatre, feel some responsibility in supporting one important element of English culture and are concerned by the absence of the younger crowd, despite the launching of ‘youth initiatives”. Both performers and audiences belong to the sub-culture of G&S enthusiasts among classical music buffs. 

Raymond Knapp traces the artistic legacy of G&S operas in the American musical, the influence of the former on the latter being beyond dispute, with incontrovertible instances of direct homage, pastiche or parody. Knapp distinguishes structural features in their work that have become Broadway conventions. According to him, Sullivan’s inventive and skilful setting of Gilbert’s words established the standard that the music in a song “must make the words count”. The Broadway “combination songs” which, like Sullivan’s “double chorus” sequences, clearly derive from G&S operas, whose parodies of English people provided Americans with durable images of Englishness. As G&S operas both mock and celebrate English institutions and status among nations and draw attention to England’s history of imperialism, the English as a whole were associated with imperialism by Americans. With the send-off of Oscar Wilde in Patience, the musical stage Englishman would eventually become associated with camp, linking Englishness in a male character with homosexuality. For him, G&S did influence the American musical yet one should look further than the obvious kinship.

Contrary to G&S opera’s success in the US, their reception on the Continent, as Jana Polianovskaia then chronicles it, was less unanimously so. France and Italy, one with their own vibrant opéra-comique tradition, the other with their own Rossini, took little kindly to them. Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands were quickly exposed to them thanks to the guest tours of the D’Oyle Carte Company, who brought The Mikado to Berlin in 1886. Continental theatre agents, alerted to the Savoy operas successes, made the best of the absence of international copyright laws protecting them to put on unauthorised performances. The Mikado’s success led to the translation of Savoy operas both new and old, especially in German-speaking countries, which often ranged from the apt to the inane, despite the efforts of Dr C. Carlotta, Sullivan’s agent, to produce bilingual libretti for HMS Pinafore, Trial by Jury, Patience and The Mikado, which proved even more successful in the German translation of two German librettists, Zell and Genée, thus establishing Sullivan’s reputation in German-speaking countries, where unauthorised production, with interpolated or cut numbers, faulty translations or orchestrations were rife despite his protests. G&S operas’ popularity waned after WWI and recent revivals have delivered a very mixed bag of artistic conceptions and performance standards. Their original success in Berlin and Vienna led them to be produced in Russia with such success that, during the Soviet era, The Mikado became part of the training of the “new” actor in the post-Revolution theatre.

David Russel Hulme, who completed a PhD on the study of Sullivan’s autograph scores, brings the volume to a close, with Part IV, Into the twenty-first century.  He explains his difficulties in suggesting his thesis topic, the theatre music of Arthur Sullivan, and in obtaining original sources as textual research had bypassed Sullivan and autograph scores were inaccessible. His contribution reads like a detective story as he chronicles his quest for his personal Holy Grail which benefited from the efforts of Terence Rees in reviving long-forgotten scores and from the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, which stimulated interest in the composer. Russel Hulme expanded his research to printed scores, librettos, orchestral parts and early audio recordings related to the G&S operas. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the D’Oyle Carte material presented cuts and alterations which made the provision of authentic texts problematical. A complete critical edition of the operas has failed to materialise yet recent productions in the UK have tried to be closer to “authentic texts”.  New editions suffer from the competition of the older ones, still on many an amateur’s bookshelves. The former are sometimes lavish, yet do not profit from recent Sullivan scholarship but at least allow performers to make educated choices. New productions and new editions are moves in the right direction but the G&S operas still have to find recognition as the great comic operas they are.                  

To the uninitiated and the non-musical, the book will read easily as it provides insights into Victorian British society, its theatre, and into the long quest for British-born musicians, especially opera composers, to be accepted by their countrymen. It may prompt them to discover one aspect of English music which unfortunately remains terra incognita to the general public, for the very same reasons which led Sullivan to be disqualified as an “English” composer. The cognoscenti will enjoy the discovery of many meaningful details, such as Lewis Carroll’s begging Sullivan’s help in dramatising his Alice books. The book makes an excellent companion to Michael Ainger’s 2002 dual biography of Gilbert and Sullivan. To all it is strongly recommended.     





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