When I first heard the name Arthur Sullivan he’d been dead barely half a century and the famous operettas he wrote with WS GIlbert were all still firmly in copyright. I was five years old when I was taken to see a production of The Mikado (“by kind permission of Bridget D’Oyly Carte”) at the school where my father taught. Thus began a lifelong love affair.
I was brought up to believe that Sullivan would have been a nonentity without Gilbert and that nothing else – apart from the tune (called St Gertrude) for the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers – he wrote was any good. This is definitely not true and Radio 3 has played a lot of Sullivan’s music lately to prove it. I now understand, though, how my father had come to believe that. Thanks to Ian Bradley’s new book I realise for the first time just how much Sir Arthur was trounced by the snobbier end of the musical establishment who found his music far too “vulgar” and not in tune (literally) with the earnest seriousness of the so called late nineteenth century “English Musical Renaissance.” And the mud stuck.
In fact Sullivan was steeped in church music from boyhood – and wrote dozens of hymns as well as anthems and oratorios most of which were well received at the time. He conducted the Leeds Festival for a number of years and became founder principal of Royal College of Music. Almost composer laureate, he composed much music for state occasions. His “grand” opera Ivanhoe opened at what is now The Palace Theatre in 1891 and ran for 150 performances – hardly a failure by any standards. The Gondoliers was running at The Savoy at the same time and on 28 February his oratorio The Golden Legend was performed in Covent Garden. Never before had three works by one composer been performed in central London on the same night – although, of course, other composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber have achieved that since.
Bradley’s purpose is to demonstrate that Sullivan was driven all his life by simple, unshowy religious belief, the book’s subtitle is “a life of divine emollient” an unlikely reference to a line in the The Pirates of Penzance. Sullivan, who became very wealthy was also an enthusiastic hedonist who loved wine, women, song (obviously) and gambling. Moreover, he was genial, good company and very generous. And I’m fascinated by his lasting close friendship with George Grove who lived in Sydenham and ran the Crystal Palace as well as writing Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1878) which is still extant. Sullivan often stayed in Sydenham and appeared at Crystal Palace – very much my neck of the woods. I often pass the blue plaque marking the site of Grove’s house on my walks.
It’s a fascinating and plausible thesis from a man who probably knows more about Sullivan (and Gilbert) than anyone else on the planet. Rev Ian Bradley (with whom I’ve corresponded and met a couple of times over the years) is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews. He has also written fine books about hymns There are at least three copies of his The Complete Annonated Gilbert & Sullivan (1996, OUP) in my G&S-loving family. If any us has a question such as “Who were those politicians obliquely hinted at in the Lord Chancellor’s song?” or “Which year did Utopia Limited premiere?” someone will simply say: “It will be in Bradley” and reach for the nearest well thumbed copy.
Meanwhile read this new biography for a pretty balanced attempt to place Arthur Sullivan in context – although I think Ian Bradley’s argument that the comic opera patter songs have their origins in plainsong may be pushing it a bit.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Blue Lenses and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier