Tuesday 27 March 2018

Iolanthe - musical supremacy

Smack in the middle of Gilbert and Sullivan's run of nine great Savoy Operas (from HMS Pinafore to The Gondoliers) comes Iolanthe - which is musically probably the best of the lot - as seen in the Overture (which established the Mendelsohnian flavour, retained throughout:

Considering the whole opera; Sullivan's gifts and skill are evident not only in the sheer quantity of lovely melodies, and the unsurpassed deftness and inventiveness of orchestration and accompaniment; but in a seamless quality of cohesion to the score - which moves from one delight to another and also has a distinctive pastoral quality throughout.

Plus, Gilbert's wit and satire are as good as anywhere; and somehow retain their freshness despite massive changes in society since the height of the Victorian era. For an English audeince, there are several 'belly laughs'.

As a young man I was a good actor but only an adequate singer; and the part of Strephon in Iolanthe was the most significant role I ever did. There isn't a massive amount of singing to do as Strephon (he does not have his own aria, for example); but for much of the opera people are singing about him; because the plot hinges on the fact that he is half a fairy (literally, his upper half... down to the waist) - his mother being the immortal Iolanthe, and his father a mortal man whose identity is unknown until the end.

The excellence of Iolanthe reaches its peak in the Finale to Act one which is 20 minutes of continuous and extremely varied music; never less than very good and at times supremely good. The marvels fly-past thick-and-fast... enough to provide highlights for three or four normal, 'successful', musicals. The deftness and elegance of the musical passages and accompaniments is, throughout, at the highest level of skill and fluency. 

Here is the version conducted by Malcolm Sargent from 1958 (which I have on vinyl). Among the many excellent performances, that of Monica Sinclair as the Queen of the Fairies stands-out as being among the very best bits of contralto singing I have ever heard anywhere from anybody!

If you want to follow the Libretto, a version can be found here:


a_probst said...

I Haven't listened to the opera yet, but that overture alone puts him in the league with Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Smetana, and Dvořák. Malcolm Sargent avoids the pitfall-for-the-tasteless of trying to make it sound 'cute' and 'funny'. The result sounds so modern as to make me conscious of Sullivan's having been once a flesh and blood human being rather than an historical fossil. (Mitch Miller achieved a similar effect for me with his 1987 recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra of several Gershwin pieces. I could now imagine Gershwin in the same universe as Copland and Thomson.)

Certainly there are more stories that could be told about G&S than were related in Topsy-Turvy (2001), not least their later feud through which they continued to collaborate.

It might be amusing if someone were to make a movie about them in which Sullivan's music is only heard in scenes of rehearsals or performances. The rest of the music soundtrack would use music that may have influenced him, i.e. Beethoven's King Stefan incidental music, Schubert's Rosamunde incidental music (George Grove and Sullivan unearthed its score on a trip to Vienna in 1867), an Offenbach operetta whose title escapes me; as well as music he may have influenced such as the first movement of Sibelius' Third Symphony.

And I can't be the only one to have noticed the similarity between "Ah, leave not to pine" (composed 1876) and the "Hymn to the Moon" in Dvořák's Rusalka (composed 1899). All that was needed to complete the resemblance was the moon's answering back in a tenor voice (at least it would have given an excuse to keep the melody going a little longer).

Bruce Charlton said...

@ap - Sullivan had great musical gifts - as is obvious to anyone, but was recognised at the time, e.g.

"Earlier on in my year at the Conservatorium, Mr. Leach had sent me a copy of Sullivan's Light of the World, which had just been produced at the 1873 Birmingham Festival. I showed it to Dr. Papperitz, one of my teachers, who took it home to look through. When he brought it back, he asked me to play over some of the numbers, and we had a long talk about it. He was disappointed with the work, and thought it unworthy of the young composer, who, a few years earlier, had shown, during his studies at Leipzig, a real genius for composition. 'But you Englishmen, who come here and show such promise, become utterly spoiled when you get back to commercial England,' Dr. Papperitz complained. 'Compare Sullivan with Brahms. Of the two I think Sullivan had the greater natural musical talent; but Brahms will not write a [p. 22:] note he doesn't think worthy of his gift, and after he had been acclaimed by Schumann successor to Beethoven, and could command big money for his work, he quietly retired into a country place, where for two years he diligently studied how to improve his style, so as to be able to perfectly express the musical thoughts that surged within him. As for Sullivan' he went on, 'he settles in London, and writes and publishes things quite unworthy of his genius. He is petted by royalty, mixes in aristocratic circles, acquires expensive tastes which oblige him to prostitute his talents for moneymaking works. As a consequence, his musical ideas become more common, his modes of expression deteriorate, and England and the world are robbed of the fruit of his Godgiven gifts." Source can be seen at http://www.gsarchive.net/newsletters/trumpet_bray/html/tb19_5.html

But, I don't think Sullivan squandered his talent - he achieved the highest level in the genre which suited his nature. His musical language was derivative; but his use of it was anything-but derivative. Thus he is one of the great minor composers - like William Boyce (who wrote using Handel's language).

One can find passages in the Savoy Operas where Sullivan deliberately references other composers' work (quoates from Wagner, pastiches of Handel etc) - but that isn't what makes him good! It is the actuality of what Sullivan did, rather than his sources.

For example, "This Helmet, I suppose" from Princess Ida is an obvious Handel pastiche, but (combined with Gilbert's superbly witty lyrics) the resulting song is first rate of its kind - rather than sounding like stale century-old copy, the song is as fresh as a new coat of paint!


a_probst said...

Funny, I was going to say in my posting above that English composers are underappreciated.

"...he achieved the highest level in the genre which suited his nature."

Ralph Vaughn Williams in Who Wants the English Composer? (1912):

"Art for art's sake has never flourished in England. We are often called inartistic because our art is unconscious. Our drama and poetry, like our laws and our constitution, have evolved by accident while we thought we were doing something else, and so it will be with music. The composer must not shut himself up and think about art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community – if we seek for art we shall not find it."

(Actually I've not read his whole article; I got the quote off the back of a vinyl recording of his Symphony No. 5.)