Symposium Offers Insights into Sullivan and his Work


Sullivan Spectacular: Harrogate G&S Festival, The Crown Hotel, Harrogate, 5.8.2014 (RJW)

Speakers:Dr. Ian Bradley, James Hendry, Jana Polianovskaia, Stephen Turnbull, Professor Robin Wilson, Martin Yates.

Photos:  Sullivan, the chorister

The success of this form of symposium last year at Buxton brought a decision to provide another similar event this year where six speakers could give their slant on the world of Sullivan and impart new material.

Ian Bradley gave us insight to the personality of Sullivan from evidence found in his personal letters. We find that he was very close to his mother after his father’s death, and communicated in detail about his activities and feelings about people. A number of the letters read during the talk were written whilst in Scotland at Balcarres House where he was situated whilst composing. The letters give evidence that Sullivan used to accompany his mother to Mass at her local RC church although he was brought up protestant under the Revd. Helmore, and a chorister at the Chapel Royal. Some of the letters carry a certain depth to the way Sullivan was thinking about matters and issues of the day. Coupled with his diary entries they help give the historian a clear picture to the character of the man.

James Hendry, a 22 year old post graduate from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, has in-depth experience of G&S as singer and conductor of college productions. It was refreshing to discover his positive views on Sullivan and how he felt that a previous university and college aloofness was probably on the wane. It seems odd to him that the students are educated in Italian and German yet are short of training about classical British composers. Illustrating with examples Hendry was able to pinpoint places in the Savoy operas that offer a student experience of cavatina, cabaletta, aria with coloratura, leitmotif and double choruses of some complexity. Opening by singing ‘Free from his Fetters grim’, with Martin Yates at the piano, his good tenor voice delighted everyone. He coined a new word, ‘Propera’ and gave information of how a college student is tutored, admitting that there can be a stigma attached to any deep interest in Gilbert & Sullivan by the students themselves due to an unknowledgeable background.

Jana Polianovskaia is an excellent Russian pianist who has discovered certain musical connections between Sullivan’s early piano pieces and Chopin, Schumann or Liszt. After a detailed introduction, Jana played snatches from the pieces of other composers and then played the connected Sullivan pieces complete. The similarities are real and certainly not imaginary. Thoughts (1862) contains snatches from Schumann’s Album for the Young and Scenes from Childhood. Daydreams (1868) contains similarities with both Schumann’s Papillions and Schubert’s Hungarian Melody.

Stephen Turnbull read a talk on beha1lf of William Parry who had examined the interests Sullivan had in horse ownership, first as a syndicate member and later as an outright owner. Details of the performance of these horses and the money spent showed that Sullivan had backed a ‘dead duck’. In two instances, both in buying and selling, £100 was lost and this was a loss on top of stabling and management costs.

Robin Wilson gave a résumé, with CD examples, of Sullivan’s choral output composed alongside the Savoy operas written during the 1880s. Musical examples were nicely included to fill out the well-selected slides. It was interesting to discover that Sullivan would use sometimes use period instruments for a performance. When The Golden Legend was premièred at the Leeds Festival, comments were passed that the work was so good that Sullivan’s name is likely to survive as long as Beethoven’s. At the time the work was second in popularity to The Messiah, apparently. The time frame that Wilson gave us was interesting for we find that the majestic Imperial Institute Ode (1887) was written alongside the more catchy music of Ruddygore.

Alessandro Scarlatti 1660 – 1725

As Chairman of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, Martin Yates has studied many of Sullivan’s compositional skills over the years and here has discovered the fascinating roots of Princess Ida’s score. In this music we know so well, up to now we have failed to notice its construction. Some pieces of Alessandro Scarlatti were first played and then followed up with the places in Princess Ida where they occur. The likeness was amazing, especially ‘This helmet I suppose’ that carried much more than a passing likeness. There is always more to Sullivan’s music than initially meets the ear. The Scarlattian and Handelian features are moving bass lines and ascending/falling sequences (groups of notes) that are repeated from a different starting note. Clear examples are found in ‘They intend to send a wire to the moon’, ‘Towards the Empyrean heights’ and ‘Haughty, humble, coy and free’. The music of Ida is also neatly wedded to the meaning of the lyrics. In one place where the girls sing of hope and then admit they don’t quite reach their aims, the music rises but then falls to a minor chord to follow the mood.


Princess Ida programme 1884

These informative talks with illustrative accompaniment on the piano or screen are fascinating since they not only educate, but confirm one’s belief of how clever this very British composer is. Only in a Festival atmosphere are we likely to find them.

Raymond J Walker




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