SULLIVAN: Gilbert and Sullivan Overtures

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Sir Arthur Sullivan(1842-1900)


The twelve overtures included in the present recording could not betterillustrate why the music of Arthur Sullivan, though very much of its own time,has survived so gloriously the changes of musical taste of the last hundredyears. There is little doubt that Gilbert's witty, satirical libretti proved amore effective stimulus to Sullivan's creativity than any lofty Victorian textor Biblical subject would ever do. Sullivan poured some of his very best musicinto the Savoy Operas and with the financial acumen for which he was well knownextracted these overtures to provide independent concert works and furthersupport for his expensive life-style.

His partnership with W.S. Gilbert was so successful that the name Sullivanis now rarely mentioned by itself. Even his instrumental music, as in theseovertures, is often casually referred to as G. and S. This was certainlynot the case during much of Sullivan's lifetime, when he occupied an elevatedposition in the British musical establishment and was among the leading figuresof Victorian England.

At the time England was described by some abroad as 'the land withoutmusic'. In retrospect this seems a harsh judgement. The Victorians, whetherconscious of this pejorative description or not, seemed unconcerned that theirmusical life was dominated by Austro-German music and Italian opera. Mozart,Haydn, Beethoven, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Rossini and Meyerbeer formed the staplediet of the concert-going middle classes. Amongst living composers Mendelssohnin particular occupied a special place in the affections of the British, fromthe Queen herself down to the members of the most provincial of choralsocieties.

In his earliest works, incidental music to The Tempest and the Symphonyin E (The Irish), Sullivan was undoubtedly heavily influenced byMendelssohn, a trait that was variously deemed by the critics to be both afault and a virtue. Far from hampering his career, this enabled him relativelyearly in his career to achieve a uniquely popular position in English musicallife. Someone who could sound so like their beloved Mendelssohn yet had aBritish name was an irresistible combination. By the time he was thirtySullivan, son of a military bandmaster and professor at Kneller Hall, wasconducting his own music in the country's most fashionable concert-halls andachieving a successful hearing abroad. It may have been the ease with which heachieved this celebrity and the time that he needed to put aside for his sociallife, or perhaps the weighty responsibility of being seen as England's answerto the German and Viennese masters, but Sullivan soon withdrew from large-scalesymphonic composition to channel his talents into the light operatic works thathave lasted so well. Not that he deserted other musical forms entirely. Hisgood business head ensured that throughout the rest of his life there was asteady stream of shorter pieces that would be assured of wide circulation asprinted music; solo songs and part-songs, anthems and services, hymns and a fewmassed choral works for ceremonial occasions or large musical festivals. A realrenaissance of English music was to occur toward the end of Sullivan's life buthe was to have little part in it.

The composition of eleven of the overtures included here spans a periodof twenty years, from 1877 to 1896. The much earlier piece Cox and Box, composedin 1866, is noteworthy in several ways; the libretto is not by Gilbert and thecircumstances of its creation illustrate so well how Sullivan seemed constantlyto benefit from good fortune. First devised as a drawing-room entertainment inthe home of a well-to-do friend, Cox and Box was written at thesuggestion of one of the circle, F.C.?áBurnand, the editor of Punch, who contributed the libretto.

Sullivan composed the music so quickly that for the first few performances, atwhich he played the piano there was not even a written out accompaniment. Itmust surely have been to the surprise of both librettist and composer thatwithin the next few years the piece had been taken into the professionaltheatre, to be given several hundred performances. It is quite remarkable thata work born with so few labour pains in mid-Victorian England can still commanda devoted audience at the end of the twentieth century.

Sullivan, however, did not, from this point on, enjoy immediate andundiluted acclaim for his operas. In the nine years before Trial By Jury, hisfirst acknowledged success with Gilbert, there were to be two false starts, TheContrabandista with Burnand again as librettist and the very firstcollaboration with Gilbert, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, bothflopped. With the production of Trial By Jury, however, a short workwritten as part of a double-bill with Offenbach's La Perichole, the triumvirateof Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D'Oyly Carte was established. The Savay

Operas, named after the Savoy Theatre which D'Oyly Carte built to house them,followed in quick succession, from The Sorcerer of 1877 through to TheGrand Duke of 1896, the first night of each one bringing an unmissablehighlight of the London social calendar.

The present overtures illustrate clearlyall those aspects of Sullivan's music that have helped maintain his popularity; the eleganceand wit, the fecundity of melodic invention, the dance-like character of manyof the songs and his deft, effective orchestration. Perhaps reflecting how muchtime he had available as he approached each first night, the overtures are notall of similar construction. Some, indeed, are simple potpourris of themain tunes of the opera, while in others he has taken the trouble to developfewer themes to a greater extent, combining them with snatches of others, toreveal his fluent and untroubled technique. A business dispute in 1890 betweenGilbert on the one side and Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte on the other effectivelyended the partnership, although there were two subsequent unenthusiasticcollaborations, Utopia Limited in 1893 and The Grand Duke of1896, both of which were more coolly received by both public and critics.

Christopher Mowat

Item number 8554165
Barcode 636943416525
Release date 12/01/1999
Category Romantic
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Sullivan, Arthur
Sullivan, Arthur
Conductors Penny, Andrew
Penny, Andrew
Orchestras Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Producers Lane, Philip
Lane, Philip
Disc: 1
The Grand Duke
1 Cox and Box
2 The Sorcerer
3 HMS Pinafore
4 The Pirates of Penzance
5 Patience
6 Iolanthe
7 Princess Ida
8 The Mikado
9 Ruddigore
10 The Yeomen of the Guard
11 The Gondoliers
12 The Grand Duke
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