To continue my long-running series about the benefits from looking more closely at Gilbert and Sullivan arias; here is another special favourite from Ruddigore: the soprano character's signature song: "If somebody there chanced to be".
There is such a lot to enjoy about this one. On the one hand, Gilbert's lyrics are literate, clever and witty. The (typically absurd) idea is that this is a beautiful, 'poor but virtuous', working class girl whose manners are derived from a popular manual of etiquette; that she constantly consults and which she follows slavishly, whatever the consequences.
If somebody there chanced to be
Who loved me in a manner true,
My heart would point him out to me,
And I would point him out to you.
But here it says of those who point,
Their manners must be out of joint -
You may not point – You must not point –
It's manners out of joint, To point!
Had I the love of such as he,
Some quiet spot he'd take me to,
Then he could whisper it to me,
And I could whisper it to you.
But whispering, I've somewhere met,
Is contrary to etiquette:
Where can it be
Now let me see
Yes, yes! It's contrary to etiquette!
If any well-bred youth I knew,
Polite and gentle, neat and trim,
Then I would hint as much to you,
And you could hint as much to him.
But here it says, in plainest print,
"It's most unladylike to hint" –
You may not hint, You must not hint –
It says you mustn't hint, In print!
And if I loved him through and through –
(True love and not a passing whim),
Then I could speak of it to you,
And you could speak of it to him.
But here I find it doesn't do
To speak until you're spoken to.
Where can it be?
Now let me see –
Yes, yes! "Don't speak until you're spoken to!"
On the other hand; Sullivan sets each verse to a wistful minor key melody, with a spare orchestration, that brings out an innocence and yearning not obvious in the lyrics; then he transitions to major key for the chorus in waltz time, with the Big Tune. But he holds back the full accompaniment (doubling the voice on violins) for the repeat of the tune in each chorus.
Furthermore, Sullivan achieves that extremely-rare thing of fitting the music to the specific emphasis of the language, on a word-by word basis. This subtle art is prized in, for instance, Purcell - while being largely absent in, for example, Handel.
Thus, Sullivan gets the emotional impact of the waltz; while avoiding the problem of excessive schmalz to which waltzes are prone.
The combination is one that I find strangely moving, with a genuine sweet freshness that captures what is so special about Gilbert and Sullivan. I can only compare it with what Mozart achieved in some of his operas like Figaro or The Magic Flute - where farcical words and situations are given sudden and unexpected depth and power - in the lightest and deftest manner.
This combination is really rare in music, and in art generally; and I greatly value it.
I'm not sure Mozart did write "operas like Figaro or The Magic Flute": they are, to my taste, outstandingly his best.
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