A Matter of Patter: Phase III, Composition & Conclusions

As an aspirant music composition major, what’s the fun in studying a composer if you can’t emulate him?  Igor Stravinsky once said, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”  However, I somehow think the College would frown on plagiarism, so this project steers a bit clear from Stravinsky’s recommendation.  My project entails the composition of four pieces a la Sullivan, so here is an outline of certain traits of the four Sullivan archetypes I’ve writing in homage, along with the text I used, with some indication of how they fit into a hypothetical Sullivan operetta.


“Brightly dawns our wedding day” The Mikado
“When the buds are blossoming” Ruddigore
“Strange adventure, maiden wedded” The Yeomen of the Guard

The madrigal is one of the ‘obsolete’ musical forms pressed into service by Gilbert and Sullivan for the Savoy operas.  There was a certain vogue in Victorian times for things with a touch of ‘Early English’ art and what-not, and many glee clubs and musical societies indulged in pseudo-madrigals that more resembled Morley’s balletts (largely homorhythmic part-songs) that their polyphonic namesakes.

Sullivan’s madrigals are largely homorhythmic, like Morley’s balletts, and tend to be rather simple and ‘four-square’ rhythmically.  Harmonically, he tends to use his typical modulations and tonic pedal point.  There are often ‘fa la la’ refrains, like the balletts the Victorian madrigal resembles.  Simplicity is generally key in Sullivan’s madrigals.  They are deftly orchestrated, mixing a capella with support from the woodwinds and occasionally the strings.

Text Used:
Sir W.S. Gilbert, from Princess Toto
This text is from one of Gilbert’s other collaborations, but is supposed by Dr. Terence Rees to have been recycled from the libretto of Thespis, Gilbert and Sullivan’s lost first operetta.

Banish sorrow till tomorrow,
Let me not rejoice alone;
Rob from pleasure all its’ treasure,
For my love is all my own.

Banish reason for a season,
Place King Folly on his throne.
Fairest flowers deck the hours –
For my love is all my own.

Men tell of vows that droop and perish,
Ere yet spring of life is past;
Within my heart my love I’ll cherish,
While it beats that love will last.

Tenor Ballad

“When first my old, old love I knew” Trial by Jury
“Oh, is there not one maiden breast” The Pirates of Penzance
“Would you know the kind of maid” Princess Ida
“Whom thou has chained” Princess Ida
“A wand’ring minstrel, I” The Mikado
“Take a pair of sparkling eyes” The Gondoliers
“A tenor all singers above” Utopia Limited
“Were I a king in very truth” The Grand Duke

The most famous and characteristic of Sullivan’s tenor ballads, or arias, are in 6/8, but surprisingly a great number are in 3/4, though Sullivan’s use of hemiola in such melodies sometimes makes the meter less than clear.  There are not many full numbers for tenor in the Savoy canon compared to other voices, but if one examines the finales and various scena, substantial passages can be found.  Sullivan’s tenor ballads tend to be sentimental or even maudlin (the raised fourth scale degree isn’t hard to find), but are quite popular.  The melody line is frequently doubled in snatches by the woodwinds, and the brass are strategically employed depending upon the type of lyric.

Text Used:
“To Phoebe”
Sir W.S. Gilbert, from the Bab Ballads
Several publications of the day wanted regular writings from Gilbert, but he often found full prose on a monthly or weekly basis too draining, so he would pen satirical or comic verses instead.  The poems are called the Bab Ballads.  This particular piece has all the sentimental fervor of the typical tenor ballad, which baits us for the barb at the end, much like “Were I thy bride,” a soprano aria in The Yeomen of the Guard.  This antithetical text holds particular place in the theoretical operetta I used to unify the numbers as I composed them.

“Gentle, modest, little flower,
Sweet epitome of May,
Love me but for half-an-hour,
Love me, love me, little fay.”
Sentences so fiercely flaming
In your tiny shell-like ear,
I should always be exclaiming
If I loved you, Phœbe, dear.

“Smiles that thrill from any distance
Shed upon me while I sing!
Please ecstaticise existence,
Love me, oh thou fairy thing!”
Words like these, outpouring sadly,
You’d perpetually hear,
If I loved you, fondly, madly;–
But I do not, Phœbe, dear.

Introduction & Recitative

Sullivan frequently left most orchestration to the last minute in his operettas, so he could gauge how much introductory or concluding material was needed.  His recitatives are a mixed bunch, ranging from simple circle-of-fifths transitions between pieces to elaborate semitone slides up to new keys.  Early recitatives are typically secco (dry) using string chords to accompany the singer, while more and more recitatives as Sullivan matures are accompagnato (accompanied), with involved flourishes from the full orchestra.

Text Used:
P.C.B.D. a la Sir W.S. Gilbert
I wrote this text to complement the succeeding patter song, patterning it on Gilbertian poetic cadences.  It also frames the patter song in the imaginary Savoy opera to which all of my settings belong.

Comic Baritone: Aye, ladies and gentlemen, I am a thief, it is true,
But in the legal profession, what would you have me do?
Is enterprise a crime? Mayhaps it be,
The jury’s taking time, we’ve yet to see.
And though our acts may turn your faces ashen,
as you will see,
‘tis not just we,
it is in fact a fashion.

Chorus: Though he may say,
‘tis not just they,
we doubt it is a fashion.

Patter Song

“My name is John Wellington Wells” The Sorcerer
“I am the very model of a modern major general” The Pirates of Penzance
“When you’re lying awake” Iolanthe
“As someday it may happen” The Mikado
“Oh, a private buffoon” The Yeomen of the Guard

Sullivan’s patter songs use simple rhythms to set numerous syllables in rapid or semi-rapid succession, often straining coherency (for a detailed discussion patter songs and the balance between their lyrics and the music that transmits them, see Laura Kasson Fiss’ article, “‘This particularly rapid unintelligible patter’: patter songs and the word-music relationship”).  A statistical overview of Sullivan’s patter songs shows that they are roughly half in 6/8 and half in a duple meter, generally 2/4 or 4/4; and this decision seems to be largely driven by the natural inclination of the text.  Harmonically, he uses many of his usual tricks, but they tend to be less involved; though pedal tone is far more pervasive and used far more extensively in the patter repertoire than in other places. Sullivan was very conscious that the performer for these songs would not necessarily be the best sing; and so the melody is almost always doubled in the first violin, either note for note or in a simplified reduction.  Orchestration tends to be light on verses, mostly strings, but heavier on refrains if a chorus is added.

Text Used:
“The Thief’s Apology”
Sir W.S. Gilbert, adapted P.C.B.D., from the Bab Ballads
Since I have framed the texts for this project in an imaginary Savoy opera, this text was lightly adapted for use by an enterprising attorney with less than scrupulous practices.  In setting the text, the last three lines of each stanza are taken by the chorus, to whom this musical ‘lecture’ is addressed.

In these good days man’s only end is a life of pipes and tabors,
So instead of paddling his own canoe he tries to scuttle his neighbour’s.
As he pushes along he don’t much care whose back he lays the lash on,
No more do we — no more do we — we wouldn’t be out of the fashion!
We don’t much care
How others fare,
But we mustn’t be out of the fashion!

Your patriot for his country’s weal would sell his own grandmother,
But on two wheels all countries run, and Fortune’s wheel is the other.
Upon the latter he keeps his eye in his patriotic passion,
And so do we — and so do we — we wouldn’t be out of the fashion!
With Fortune’s wheel
Alone we deal —
We wouldn’t be out of the fashion!

Your soldier draws his sword to kill whenever the word is spoken,
And when unusual quantities of enemies’ heads are broken
I’m not aware he stops to shed the tear-drop of compassion,
No more do we — no more do we — we wouldn’t be out of the fashion!
We shed no tears
On dead men’s biers —
We wouldn’t be out of the fashion!

Your author steals his plots and plays, so with him you may class us;
On somebody else’s Pegasus he climbs a cheap Parnassus.
He don’t much care whose brains he steals to fatten his native trash on,
No more do we — no more do we — we wouldn’t be out of the fashion!
Indeed we feel
That we must steal
If we wouldn’t be out of the fashion!

Your counsel sings your praises; then, at hostile instigation,
I’ll do my best to hang you for a small remuneration.
I don’t much care as long as I makes enough to cut a dash on,
No more should you — no more should you — you wouldn’t be out of the fashion!
We’ll put you away
For half his pay,
For we wouldn’t be out of the fashion!

Where lawyer, patriot, soldier, author finds his game he strikes it,
For, oh, we live in a wicked world where dog eats dog, and likes it.
May all these worthy gentlemen have appetite for their ration,
And so may we — and so may we — we wouldn’t be out of the fashion!
For dog’s the meat
That dog must eat
If he wouldn’t be out of the fashion!


Frankly, I can see now I was a little under-prepared for this.  Sullivan was a highly conservative Romantic composer, but was always abreast of new developments, and analyses of his later works show this.  However, with my compositions done save for some fine-tuning, I can honestly say I captured much of his approach if not necessarily his entire technique.  Sullivan had a particular way of setting text.  It is well documented that Sullivan would first write out a half dozen rhythmic settings of the text, without any melodic or harmonic material.  After settling upon the most original but organic rhythm for the words, he would then write out the melody, followed soon after by some sort of figured bass shorthand for the rehearsal pianist while the performers prepared the opera.  Once they were onstage and Gilbert had decided what sort of blocking, acting and design he wanted, Sullivan would orchestrate the songs to suit the action onstage, giving the music a unique synthesis with the words that is nearly unparalleled in theatre before or since.

In the end, there is still a lifetime of work left in this field, be it analysis, as I have done, or textual scholarship, as is in progress.  Even now, musicologists are reexamining primary sources to create critical editions of Sullivan’s work that will enable analyst and performer alike to fully realize Sullivan’s intention.