A Matter of Patter: Phase II

Phase II consisted of the analysis of extracts from the thirteen extant operettas Sullivan wrote with W.S. Gilbert, with particular emphasis on the types of pieces I would be emulating in Phase III, composition.

For all the musicians out there in the audience, here is a brief summary of some of the things you may run across when analyzing Sullivan.

Pedal Point
If you examine a Sullivan piece, you are almost certain to find pedal point somewhere.  It could be in the bass, on the tonic, dominant, or any tonicized key area.  Or it could be inverted, in the soprano, or internal, a monotone buried in a mass of other parts.  It is one of Sullivan’s favorite non-harmonic devices, and a boon to his critics throughout history.

Repetitive Bass Patterns
Chances are if you examine the bass line in the accompaniment of a Sullivan piece, you will see recurring patterns, sometimes adhered to so slavishly as to bar further development, but typically providing textural unity (or in the case of patter songs and the like, vamp).

Augmented Fourths
One of Sullivan’s favorite harmonic devices at cadences was the used of the raised fourth scale degree to add a touch of pathos or sentimentality.  Typically you will see it used as an altered predominant #iv° over a dominant pedal going to a V7 – I.  The sharp four almost invariably gives way to the seventh (natural four) of the following dominant chord.

Altered Dominants
In late period Sullivan, you will often find altered dominants, usually augmented.  Along the same line of thinking, Sullivan will also write altered secondary dominants, such as the V+/IV, which you would recognize as an augmented tonic chord.

Melodic Seventh Leaps
Melodically, Sullivan was quite fond of seventh leaps for dramatic word setting, especially for his soloists.

Diminished Seventh Chord
Like all the Romantics, Sullivan makes extensive use of the sonority of the diminished seventh chord in all its varieties, most frequently the fully diminished.  It is a stock effect for heralding ill news, generally orchestrated with a string tremolo.

Chromatic Passing Tones
Sullivan excels at placing chromatic passing tones at key points in the text, and tends to use the raised second and fourth scale degrees almost as a matter of course in otherwise diatonic melodies.

Mediant Modulations
Sullivan’s melodies lend themselves to modulation to the mediant, and though he frequently uses the mediant minor, the mediant major is also quite common.  He is particularly adept an moving out of the mediant to the dominant in order to return to the tonic.

Heavy on Major
Not many full pieces of Sullivan are in the minor, and almost all cadence in the major.  Sullivan lives almost exclusively in the major, and the minor is merely a purgatorial transition before the next major key area.  A few early piece of Sullivan’s are in the minor mode, but he seems to have fear self-repetition and abandoned it.

Pastiche & Parody
Be prepared for stylistic throwbacks like madrigals, glees, hornpipes, bourees, minuets, Handelian arias & choruses, and others.  Sullivan writes in the old forms very well, though they utilize extended chromatic technique and tend to adhere to Victorian, rather than to historical norms.  Also, in his early works we see numerous takes on the Continental operas of his predecessors and contemporaries, often used for satiric effect.

While Sullivan’s fugues are not common, there are a few; and all are short-lived.  While well-crafted for the ear, Sullivan never seems comfortable letting a long fugal section stand, and never gets beyond the first series of thematic entrances.

Sullivan excels the most in Mozartean orchestration, using his forces tactfully and strategically.  It is all the more pitiable that his work is largely unavailable in reliable full score editions.  Sullivan is highly conscious of the voices combined with his orchestra, and frequently doubles them in reduced form or in snippets.  The oboe is held in a very special place in Sullivan’s musical heart, and receives transcendently beautiful parts, especially in the overtures.  The clarinet is the maid-of-all-work in Sullivan’s limited theatre pit orchestra, while the valved French horn is largely treated the same as its crooked predecessor, with the exception of the utilization of its newly accessible chromatic tones.

Above all else, Sullivan is not afraid to state the obvious, but almost always does it in the most elegant manner.  It was largely this elegant simplicity that earned Sullivan the enmity of many of his peers in the British musical establishment.

Next post: Phase III, Composition & Conclusions.  I’ll give an overview of the four types of pieces I’ve been emulating, and wrap things up.