Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
A History and a Comment
by H. M. Walbrook
Every one knows the examination paper C. S. Calverley drew up on "Pickwick." It is not bad fun to compose one on the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. For example, how many people know that J. L. Toole and W. S. Penley were predecessors of George Grossmith in these works, or could give the alternative title of the thirteen operas which have alternative titles, or define a Statutory Duel and establish its connection with a cardiac affection? I leave the development of the idea to my readers, and content myself with throwing out the hint to Literary Societies, Family Circles, and all who enjoy this particular type of jeu d'esprit, and to all who truly love their Gilbert and Sullivan.
All over the country the operas are known more intimately than any other such works. I have had striking evidence of this, as, no doubt, have my readers also. One summer afternoon, being in Ripon, I climbed the dark spiral staircase leading to the top of the southwest tower of the cathedral, and seated up there I found a group of some twenty ladies and gentlemen on the roof enjoying the landscape. Presently one of them said: "Well, I suppose we should be getting down." To which another member of the party replied: "Let us have a sing first." Then followed a little quiet discussion, at the end of which the leader they were one of the church choirs whose lovely singing make Sunday so much more delightful a day in Yorkshire than it is in less blessed counties gave out the title of the first number, and behold, it was the madrigal from The Yeomen of the Guard, beginning "Strange adventure." Never even at the Savoy did I hear it more beautifully sung. The fresh voices, in the beautiful harmonies, fairly sank into the heart. I wondered what the people below were thinking of the lovely strains that came floating down to them from what, to them, was indeed a Choir Invisible. After that came Bridge's "Sweet and Low," and after that another Sullivan morceau, the delicate "I bear the soft note," from Patience. That was an experience to remember gratefully for the rest of one's life. Nor was there any incongruity in such music being sung on such a roof.
In a later summer I was staying at Thun, in Switzerland, and on one or two evenings in each week the English visitors to the hotel gathered in the music-room for an extemporised concert. On one of these occasions the programme was almost entirely made up of music from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and it was delightful to see how everybody seemed to know both the words and the music of piece after piece from the favourite works. More than once it was announced that all present might join in a number the "Prithee, pretty maiden," I remember, was one of those so selected, and everybody in the room seemed to know it by heart. I sat by an open window, looking from time to time towards the vast mountain walls of the Stockhorn range. In the quaint old street below a dozen of the inhabitants of that most lovable town were standing listening to the music of the English visitors and manifestly enjoying it to the full.
All of which (and I could give many more such memories) shows the firm place which these works hold in the hearts of our countrymen and countrywomen. It used to be said when the operas were first revived by the late Mrs. D'Oyly Carte at the Savoy that they drew all the bald and aged people in London, who had simply assembled to renew old memories and recapture a first fine careless rapture. That was a grotesque misstatement. I have vivid memories of the first nights of those particular revivals, and I can declare from experience that the average age of the whole of each audience was as young as that for any other theatrical production in London. Just as Irving in his last season at Drury Lane captured the devotion of the young men and women of a fresh generation, so did the revived Gilbert and Sullivan operas captivate the young folk of that day, and they are doing so still. That is the most gratifying feature of the success of the operas wherever they go. They appeal to the young. To put it simply, they gratify their love of fun and their love of a tune. Their verbal felicities delight young brains, and their beautiful melodies captivate young hearts. And, at the bottom of all this lies the great fact that the operas themselves are still as young as ever. It is a case of youth appealing to youth. Such an appeal is irresistible. The response is inevitable.
They say a new generation of playgoers succeeds every seven years. If that be so, seven successive generations have found in these operas one of their chief delights. The young men and women of today are as enthusiastic about them as their fathers and grandfathers were in the ‘seventies and 'eighties of the last century. And who knows but that, two hundred years hence, London may be rejoicing over The Gondoliers, or another of the series, as the London of 1920-21 revelled in that two-centuries-old piece of tuneful cynicism, The Beggar's Opera? So long-lived are Music and Wit!
As for those who, like the present writer, belong to the Old Brigade, theirs is a double joy. They can revel not only in the Present, with its new faces and new voices, but also in the Past and its memories. Those magic nights of long ago those nocies ambrosianæhow they come back! Decades have passed since first I saw the curtain rise and fall on a Gilbert and Sullivan opera since, a small boy in an Eton suit, I first gazed with breathless awe on the Admiralty's First Lord dancing his mad little dance round the deck of H.M.S. Pinafore, while every one around me was in convulsions of laughter; yet the sights and sounds of that and other far-off nights at the old Opéra Comique and the Savoy are as clear to me as ever today.
Still can I feel the squeeze as the surge bore me into the pit on the first night of The Yeomen of the Guard-hear the roar of laughter which grew with each successive verse of Don Alhambra's first song in The Gondoliers feel the murmur of delight which trembled through the audience as it listened for the first time to "Three little maids from school are we" see the dark eyes of Marion Hood and the tall, dainty beauty of Nancy McIntosh hear the dry, sardonic laugh of J. McN. Whistler in the stalls, and see Lord Randolph Churchill whispering excitedly to his brilliant-looking wife as the Lord Chancellor tripped to and fro in the moonlit Palace Yard.
And, as these and a hundred more such memories recur, I think of the two so greatly gifted men to whose genius England and the British race owe it all, and I bow to their honoured names and their living memory in heartfelt gratitude. To quote Schumann once more: W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan worked to "make men's hearts rejoice." They attained their object, and the loving thanks of thousands go out to them.