Buxton G&S Festival: The Historical Background to The Grand Duke

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Talk by Stephen Turnbull & Martin Yates of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire. 17.8.2012 .(RJW)

Photo credit: Martin Yates

A morning illustrated talk on The Grand Duke (1896) was a light hearted presentation by the leading duo of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, Stephen Turnbull & Martin Yates. Between them there is little they don’t know about the history and music of the Savoy Operas. They explained why this, the last 14th comic opera of the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership, has been generally put to one side in people’s minds.

Stephen Turnbull mentioned that after the opening production The Grand Duke only toured the London suburbs and so was never seen in provincial theatres. Contemporary critics had found it too wordy and a re-run of old ideas by Gilbert, the writer. Gilbert rewrote some of it to benefit one of the lead singers after Sullivan had agreed to set the original libretto but the latter did not approve of the changes. Amazingly, no 78rpm recordings were ever made of The Grand Duke yet we were able to listen to a musical box, made before 1900, playing one of the musical numbers.

Martin Yates at the piano gave us a fascinating analysis of the music and explained that there was much difficult chorus work to contend with as some of the quick sections are set in four parts. Sullivan shows his skill in composition where he moves the music through a number of keys within a song to give freshness to the ear. It was suggested that maybe this could have been done to relieve himself from the monotony of some of Gilbert’s tired lyrics. Sullivan’s music has good colour in his choice of keys and rhythm, with much of it set in 6/8 time –  even a march that is usually set in 4/4 time, incidentally. Certainly, Sullivan comes across as a gifted cosmopolitan composer. When played on the piano we could recognise parallels of melody from the other operas, but it takes someone as gifted as Martin to find them in the first place.

A renewed interest in resurrecting the opera came after the original D’Oyly Carte company included a concert performance in their 1975 centenary celebrations. At that time Decca took the opportunity to record the opera for the first time and this led to a handful of amateur productions both here and in America once the copyright had ceased.


Raymond J Walker