Sullivan's Serious Side


Symphony in E-minor ("The Irish") Overture "Di Ballo" EMI-Odeon, ASD, 2435, stereo conductor: Charles Groves ensemble: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Incidental Music to "The Tempest" and "The Merchant of Venice" Overture "In Memoriam" EMI-Odeon, CSD 3713, stereo conductor: Sir Vivian Dunn ensemble: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

THERE IS AN Arthur Sullivan virtually unknown to the crowds of theatergoers who are familiar only with the composer's collaborations with William Gilbert. The fourteen "G&S" operettas were, in fact, only a small part of Arthur Sullivan's output. Despite the fact he made enormous amounts of money from them, he always regarded the operattas as mere trifles, not fit for comparison with his serious compositions.

Time--at least the 70 years since Sullivan's death--judged differently. The taste for Victorian serious music, meaning music composed in classically-established forms, went into decline as the self-satisfaction of late nineteenth-century society was eclipsed by a far less sentimental age of world wars and totalitarianism. This decline in appreciation has ended; a watershed has been reached.

The current generation is the first one far enough removed from the time of creation to appreciate the Victorian age as an historical epoch. For our parents, Victorianism was a recent experience; though not devoid of meaning, they were too close to judge it objectively. The passing of time has made it easier to discern the stronger and weaker elements of the style.

THE MOST self-consciously profound contribution on the two recent releases of Sullivan's music is the Symphony in E-minor, named (by the composer) "The Irish". It would be easy to dismiss the style as distilled Mendelssohn. This would be wrong for there is an individuality of expression quite apart from some (admittedly) marked similarities. The eclecticism of Sullivan was a legitimate transition from the German roots of Mendelssohn to the more progressive and experimental styles of Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Howells.


The first movement of the Symphony, an allegro, is skillful and delightful. Not surprisingly, it was written in a burst of inspiration; the other movements were constructed afterwards. The serene opening fills out into a vigorous and full-voiced movement. Mixing folk elements with the counterpoint studiously learned at the Leipzig Conservatory, Sullivan blends them with the brilliant orchestration technique that was praised in his earliest works and became such a trademark of the great Savoy operettas. The movement is all the more remarkable in view of the composer's age, twenty-four years at the time of its composition.

Unfortunately, the entire Symphony is not up to the level of its beginning. The third movement, though, has what is usually labeled "rustic charm". It is where, in a phrase from the jacket notes too good to ignore, "the tone of the oboe is somewhat hazardously exploited." The ending, suitably grand, is not particularly remarkable. The performance by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has the proper romantic sheen to the string sections and the crisp, booming quality of English winds--a legacy of the military bands that still play in parks on Saturdays, Sundays. and Bank Holidays.

THE Symphony points out much of what is good and bad in serious Victorian music. It is not and cannot be background music. There is so much sincere emotive material that it could never be left playing in the background like a string of Handel concerti grossi or even Bach trio sonatas. It demands closer attention. But the fruits of attention are often sparse (in contrast to the Bach trios!). Beautiful themes are exposed, but then lapse into less-than-profound filler. Huge crescendi too often come from and lead to nowhere. Basically, Victorian music could not cope with the olympian symphonic medium. Although the time of the E-minor's composition, 1866, antedates Brahms and Dvorak, the Sullivan is valuable to us more as a well-crafted curiosity with touches of genius (particularly in the first movement).

There is no shame in an opinion so ambivalent, for lack of greatness ought not to mean a forgotten fate. Over and over music lovers are subjected to the same round of classical symphonies. The Sullivan deserves hearing both for the perspective it would restore on the greatest works and for its own considerable intrinsic worth.

The companion piece on the Symphony recording is the overture Di Ballo. Despite brilliant engineering and adequate musicianship, it remains a mediocre work. Curiously enough, it is the only large non-operetta of Sullivan's that has survived straight through in the repetoire from its composition. It may still be heard occasionally played by the Boston Pops. But it remains an inferior piece, especially when contrasted to the better examples of a form in which Sullivan excelled. The record of Di Ballo and the E-minor Symphony is avoidable for all but the most avid students either of symphonic history or Sullivan's music.

THE situation is quite different with the Tempest and Merchant of Venice incidental music and the In Memoriam overture. In Memoriam is a masterpiece and a monument to the best aspects of Victorian music. Written the same year as the Symphony and dedicated to his recently-deceased father, it builds from a quiet start through a restless central section for strings. The climax at the end is spectacular: the large orchestra (augmented by two extra horns and ophicleide) is joined by the organ. To see the Royal Albert Hall in London and the organ there is to know where In Memoriam belongs.

With or without the requisite architecture, the compressed size of the overture form is a reasonable vehicle for Victorian emotion.

In a like way, the incidental music excerpts from The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice provide a form commensurate with Sullivan's gifts. All the devices that came to be standard in the Savoy orchestrations are here: the long solo horn calls as bridges the violins doubling waltz themes in octaves and the woodwind chordal sections, to name a very few. From the first bassoon solo in The Merchant, the sound is lively and attractive. Sometimes the geography can be confusing (a Viennese waltz set in Venice is hard to fathom), but the spirit is blithe. Sullivan was clearly best in a light vein; and it is easy to see why his operettas--all "light" in character and often composed in three or four weeks' time--surpassed his more labored creations.

EMI Records did a grave disservice by releasing only instrumental sections of The Tempest. Cutting the vocal sections was an obvious budgeting move that was grossly inartistic. The songs were essential to the work. They are embarrassingly similar to operetta and their beauty is just as impressive.

THE record of incidental music is well worth buying. The playing is first-rate and record production details are outstanding. Complementing notes by Percy Young (author of the best biography of Sullivan to appear) is a cover portrait, the handsome Millais from London's National Portrait Gallery.

The days are past when great Victorian music is ignored solely because of a subjective reaction. There is mediocre music to be found in any period; the weaker should not cloud our appreciation of the better parts. A few pieces survived the turn of the century such as Stainer's great Passion-setting, The Crucifixion. Yet so much was lost and continues to be ignored. EMI has created a legitimate milestone in its two releases of the serious Sullivan. Though the Symphony is more for an historian's taste, the incidental music might well grace any good record collection. Far more attention should be accorded the serious music of the most versatile Victorian composer.