A Matter of Patter: Phase I

I figure I’m quite long overdue for a post, but as Professor Griffioen told me, most “decent research is behind its ideal timetable.” For those of you who are just ‘tuning in,’ I am examining the compositional style of Sir Arthur Sullivan in his operatic collaborations with the Victorian playwright Sir William Schwenck Gilbert. In the intervening 135 years since the duo’s first work, Sullivan has been largely dismissed by the musicological community as “the idle singer of an empty evening” (Ernest Walker), the “English Offenbach” (Sir George Macfarren), or worse. As a result, the minds most qualified to analyze his artistry have generally steered clear of it.  The object of this project is not to fashion a musicological defense or condemnation of Sullivan; but rather to emulate his ‘Savoy style’ in composition.  So, without further ado…

The literature on Gilbert and Sullivan is at the same time vast and – to the scholarly eye – mostly worthless.”
-Robert Fink, “Rhythm and Text Setting in The Mikado”

This assertion very accurately summarizes the experience facing any scholastic inquiry into either Gilbert or Sullivan.  Their resounding popularity has flooded the printed page with such a volume of publications that finding those works which actually hold significance is a gargantuan task.  Indeed, as I have conducted my research, I have found that even the few scholarly works treating Sullivan’s music specifically are at times sorely lacking in real content: some are so concerned with esoteric biographical minutia as to be nearly useless, while others are so old they lack the same analytical perspective of the modern musicologist.

But that aside, Phases I and II of my project are complete.

Phase I consisted of the detailed and exhaustive exhumation, acquisition, examination and evaluation of the admittedly small field of Sullivan scholarship.  My one failure is this department is in the absence of two doctoral dissertations written in Britain by Drs. Hubbard and Hulme respectively, which I only held for two brief but wonderful weeks via Interlibrary Loan before the end of Finals.  I was unable to secure them again either by ILL or via the ETHOS service of the British Library in time to use them in full detail.

Just from the reading, I realized at once that were I to pursue this entire matter afresh, I would do so after some intensive study of the Continental Romantic opera of Sullivan’s time that is so closely tied to his earlier works, as well as a crash course on the more unusual extended chromatic techniques of the Romantics.  There are never enough hours in the day, as it were.

What follows is a partial summarization of the sort of thing involved in processing scholarly writings pertaining to Sullivan.

Sullivan’s Comic Operas: A Critical Appreciation. Thomas F. Dunhill.

This book is the earliest ‘musicological’ defense of Sullivan, written at a time when his critics were quite literally writing the history books, declaring themselves the victors even while his theatrical works still outshone their own serious endeavors.  Sullivan’s greatest crime, in their eyes, was to write music that was both good and popular with the masses, and thus most assuredly a prostitution of the high art of music.  I term this book a ‘musicological’ defense with quotations for a reason, as Dunhill, despite being an excellent writer and an accomplished composer himself, generally refuses to examine Sullivan’s work on the theoretical level, and frequently looses objectivity and dignity while trying to defend Sullivan by sheepishly excusing his faults with a half-smile.  He cannot help but be a product of his time, but he is content to write off Sullivan’s The Grand Duke completely, and states that, “We shall not determine the true importance of Sullivan until we make up our minds to disregard his serious work altogether.”  While admittedly Sullivan’s serious oeuvre is outside of the scope of this project, Dunhill only adds fuel to the fire of Sullivan’s critics in passages such as this.  Be that as it may, Dunhill is particularly concerned with corollaries between the Savoy operas and their Continental brethren, and in attempting to cover Sullivan’s behind, he does air a considerable volume of linen, even using what the modern music theorist might regard as antiquated wording.

The Music of Arthur Sullivan. Gervase Hughes.

Without a doubt, this book is one of the most valuable resources I found in this project.  At the same time, it reflects the pitiful state of Sullivan scholarship, and it is the only text of its kind, regretfully short, and is now over fifty years old.  Hughes, after getting the biographical nonsense out the way, addresses Sullivan’s technique in text setting, harmony, counterpoint, voicing, orchestration, and melodic structure.  He is the first to go into such detail, and is also the among the first to get past the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s constrictive guard over the musical scores and such left by Sullivan.  Like, Dunhill, he also attentive to the Savoy operas’ relation to Europe at large; but unlike Dunhill is concerned with the nuts and bolts of Sullivan’s craft, and putting out he fires Dunhill unwitting fed.  Again, the great disappointment in this book lies in the sad fact that as soon as Hughes approaches a detailed exposition, he flits away to another matter.

“Rhythm and Text Setting in The Mikado.” Robert Fink.

This article is largely representative of most modern works on Sullivan.  Gone are the long tracts of opinion and social jockeying; gone too are broad assessments of technique and mannerisms.  It is the age of minutiae.  Now that books like Percy Young’s Sir Arthur Sullivan and Arthur Jacobs’ Arthur Sullivan have cleared most of the cobwebs and dispelled much of the mythos from the biographical examination of Sullivan that has proven so popular in lighter works, most musicologists tend to latch upon smaller nuances of Sullivan’s artistry and expound upon them in great detail.  Those scholars that do look on Sullivan’s work on the larger scale tend to be more concerned with his legacy in performance than with the actual music he wrote.  This study of Sullivan’s text setting, is of the former variety, and includes detailed analyses of Sullivan’s treatment of “Were I thy bride” from The Yeomen of the Guard and “Three little maids” from The Mikado.  In this, Fink more fully describes what Kresky began to address in his article, “A Note on Gilbert by Sullivan.”

This is just a wee taste of what I’ve been doing in my research.  A post on Phase II, the actual score analysis, will soon follow.