Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

The 1990 Sullivan Festival

By Michael Miano

I was filled with horror when Sarah Cole had suggested that I might write a piece about the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society Festival in Brighton. I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth. The truth is that,perhaps as a result of reading too many of those GASBAG Panglossian best-of-all-possible-worlds reviews as a child, I had become a curmudgeon of the sort to make Andy Rooney look like the soul of sweetness and light. Nothing whatever seems to please me. And my reviews became so vitriolic that I lost all credibility with those who read them.

Remembering that our precious Nonsense is a "family" newsletter, I became determined that I would take a mildness pill and write a Brighton review that would please everybody. . .*

Most of the Sullivan Society events of the weekend took place in the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton, Brighton itself is a delight! In 1783, the then Prince of Wales started this first of the great seaside resorts of Europe. It remains so today. The city has a youthful feel of lightness to it in spite of the weight of its history and character constantly evident in its architecture and monuments. What a perfect choice as the site for Sullivan's music!

The hotel brochure described Old Ship as "a unique experience", "a place of immense character and history", showing "highly individual character". They have a gift for understatement. Everything about the place is of extraordinary quality (except for the piano, which I will speak of later). The rooms are works of art--much more than merely tastefully decorated and comfortable. The furniture is of beautiful solid wood, the carpets amazingly thick; the bathrooms even have heated towel racks! Everything seems to be (excepting, again, the piano) brand new and expensive. Yet, you instantly feel that old-world ambience. The dining room is indeed exceptional. You feel it the moment you walk in: the lighting, the colors, the marvelous view of the English Channel, the lovely and unusual live flowers on every table, the surprisingly heavy silver salt and pepper shakers! All of this is almost enough to draw your attention away from the virtuosity of the chef--those meals that are nearly as artistic a sight as they are a stimulant to the palate. As I counted the five different young men and women who served me the various courses of my evening meal my first night, though I smelled like a farmer*, I wished never to have to leave that room.

[*In the interests of space, a section about an attempt to cross Salisbury Plain on a bicycle, and getting stuck in a field was cut out. In any event, that's the reason for the "farmer" remark. Ed.]

The Sullivan Festival, from 29 June to 1 July was the fourth Sullivan Festival--The first to be held in the South of England and the most ambitious undertaking of the society in its history. At the two most recent previous Festivals in 1986 and 1988, the Society was able to take advantage of a major Sullivan concert given by a third party and plan a weekend around it. But, this year the Society itself promoted every one of the many events we were about to experience.

Several of the recitals and talks of the weekend were held in the fabulous ballroom of the Old Ship. A sign on the wall of that room tells us that Paganini played in that room on 9 December, 1831. The first recital was by Ruth Rolt, Kitty Loveridge, and Chloe Allman-Ward playing the piano, violin, and cello. I was somewhat surprised at the several mistakes that they made while playing. Then I noticed the piano, which was held together with kite string and chewing gum. One leg was shorter than the others and the stump was propped-up with books and blocks of wood. The keys remained down once touched. So, it is amazing that the trio produced any music from these little-known Sullivan works at all. Only themes from the "Princess Ida Fantasia" were familiar to me. Also played were: "Six Day Dreams", "Two Thoughts", "Twilight", "Allegro Risoluto", "Danish March", "Idyll", "Duo Concertante", and the "Ivanhoe Fantasia".

(The British word for "intermission" is "interval".)

At the "interval", there was a "light-hearted" quiz presented by member {of SASS} Robin Wilson. This quiz was one of the few events of the festival that was in any way related to GILBERT & Sullivan. I could understand that. It is, after all, a SULLIVAN Society. Nearly all of the 100 or so people in attendance participated in the quiz. Eighty questions were asked. The questions I thought I was hearing were like: "Make an anagram of the Christian names of the most minor character in each of the 13 G&S operas and then use those 13 anagrams in one sentence"; "Name all the women who played in D'Oyly Carte's 'C' company who had more than three children"; "Identify all occurrences in all Gilbert & Sullivan operas of each set of four consecutively-occurring notes played by the questioner." The actual questions were a bit easier: "Name the subtitles for each of the 13 G&S operas"; "Name the first words of the 'double-choruses' in the operas of G&S"; "What is the last sentence of each of the 13 G&S operas?"; "What are the Christian Names of the ten Murgatroyds?"; etc. Other questions involved knowing who the set and costume designers were for various D'Oyly Carte productions and being able to identify long-dead members of the D'Oyly Carte Company from slides projected upside down. At first I thought all of this was a joke. Nobody could possibly know this stuff! Yet, everyone else was scribbling madly on their papers. I could not believe the quiz results! Many of the members of the audience had answered 50 to 60 of the 80 questions correctly! In response to what appeared to be fanaticism of the wildest kind, I found myself paraphrasing Shakespeare: "I love Sullivan according to my bond; nor more nor less. Oh Sullivan, why have these people husbands and wives if they love you all?"

What I came to realize was that many of the people in the Sullivan Society are musical archaeologists, scientists, restorationists, historians, and sleuths who care so much about the works of Sullivan that they search every clue as to the possible whereabouts of scraps of his music, carefully dig until they uncover some shards, painstakingly clean them up, and piece them together so that they can be enjoyed by the world. This is quite an undertaking! What matters is not that the works be given perfect performance, but that the works are able to be heard at all after a hundred years of neglect. Once I understood this, I could better appreciate the mixed quality of what I subsequently heard that weekend.

A talk was presented by Selwyn Tillett dealing with the back- ground to "L'Ile Enchantee", Sullivan's first work for the theatre, and the genesis of "Victoria and Merrie England". Fascinating stuff! The ballet "L'Ile Enchantee" was presented twice during the weekend: once with full orchestra in St. Peter's Church and once with the somewhat silly choreography of Mavis Ward danced by students at the Sussex University. The story concerns a ship- wrecked mariner who finds himself on an island peopled by various mythological creatures. The Fairy Queen and the mariner, both of whom brought their former lovers with them, fall in love and after several minutes of musical frustration on the part of their rejected partners, the mariner and Fairy Queen kiss, whereby she becomes mortal. The music is somewhat interesting, but I don't consider it great Sullivan.

Clearly, looking only from the point of view of the spectacular, what was the highlight of the Festival was the concert at St. Peter's Church. Performers were the Ditchling Choral Society, the Mid-Sussex Sinfonia (ably conducted by Janet Canetty- Clarke, who looks exactly like Nancy Reagan from behind), and soprano Elizabeth Armitage. This all-Sullivan concert was well- attended by the general public as well as the members of the Society. The "Te Deum" was particularly powerful with the hundreds of performers making music of such intensity that the floor and walls of the church (not to mention the audience) trembled. Also in that concert were the "Overture In Memoriam", the "Iolanthe Overture", and, my personal favorite--a piece that I believe would be well-received by lovers of Sullivan's works with Gilbert, the "Merchant of Venice Suite".

In what was easily the most boring 45-minutes of the Festival, Anne Stanyon went on about "The Great Leeds Conspiracy", dealing with the background to the unseating of Sullivan as conductor of the Leeds Festival after 1898. I was not the only member of the audience who fell asleep.

The performance billed as a "Celebrity Recital" involved soprano Kate Flowers, who has a marvelous voice, and baritone Christopher Knowles, who does not. Together and individually, they sang Sullivan songs such as "The Sun whose Rays" (Mikado), "The Night is Calm [and Cloudless]" (The Golden Legend), "Little Maid of Arcadee" (Thespis), "The Lost Chord", "The Vicar's Song" (Sorcerer), "Ho! Jolly Jenkin" (Ivanhoe), "A Shadow", and "Prithee Pretty Maid" (Patience). Mr. Knowles, who has an extremely limited vocal range for one who considers himself a professional singer, seemed very pleased with his performance. But he was not nearly so pleased with his singing as he was with his talk (nearly an hour long!) on "Sullivan and Stagenhoe". It seemed that Stagenhoe was the summer retreat that Sullivan had used during 1884 and 1886. Much of Mr. Knowles lecture, which he read as though every line was a joke, was taken from Sullivan's diary and letters written during the Stagenhoe period. If there was any significance in this , I missed it. "On Oct. 14, Sullivan got a haircut!" (Ha Ha) "On Oct. 24, he played billiards!" (Ha Ha) "On Sep. 2, he had guests who stayed for two weeks!" (Ha Ha) (Even swallowing the remainder of the bottle of my "mildness pills" had no effect on my criticism of Mr. Knowles singing and speaking abilities.)

Of all the many performers of Sullivan's music at the Festival, the songs sung by Jacqueline March (soprano), Angela Shaw (mezzo), Nicolas Chisholm (tenor), and Toby Sims (bass) were the most professionally performed and perfectly executed. They sang the world premier of Sullivan's little perpetual canon "I am at a loss what to write in this book". The piece, written in 1886, was Sullivan's joking contribution to the "Livre D'Or" of the Baron Ferdinand De Rothschild. This book, a compilation of verses, aphorisms and quotations from the Baron's friends, contains the canon for which Sullivan wrote his own text. Also beautifully sung by the quartette were "Yea, Though I Walk" (Light of the World), "When the Budding Bloom" (Haddon Hall), "The World is But a Broken Toy" (Princess Ida), "The Long Day Closes", "The Beleauguered", "Oh Hush Thee My Babie!", "Joy to the Victors", "The Rainy Day", "Echoes", and "Lead, Kindly Light".

The talk by Roger Wild, which he called "More Lost Chords", was fascinating as it included the playing of a part of his collection of vintage disk and cylinder recordings of Sullivan's music on vintage machines. Of particular interest to me was the "D'Oyly Carte Blooper" tape and the German 78 of "The Sun Whose Rays" (Mikado) or "Die Sonnen Lacht".

Also of interest was Mr. John Cannon's slide presentation of "The G&S Collector's World". I wish there had been time to see more of these charming collectors' items from Mr. Cannon's large collection of G&S memorabilia.

On Sunday morning, we all walked to church. Considering that the volunteers from the Society membership had only an hour of rehearsal time, their performance of Sullivan's church music was amazing. I was not impressed, however, with the quality of very many of Sullivan's hymns. After in the shower, singing in church is the most comfortable place for most non-singers to let loose. From my experience, hymns are written in such a way that someone with no musical training can figure out where the music is leading and can avoid the trick of singing each note of an unfamiliar piece a second behind everyone else. This was not possible with Sullivan hymns (for the most part). Still, the choir did a marvelous job.

While nearly everyone was rehearsing the Sunday hymn-sing, I enjoyed watching a wonderful video performance of Thespis produced by the Connecticut Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Very clever and seamless job of piecing together familiar Sullivan melodies to the Thespis libretto. And beautifully done! I loved it! If you haven't seen this production, do so.

After the dance concert of "L'Ile Enchantee", before we all headed to our respective methods of transport home, we were able to sing along with Max Morris, who ably directed the instrumental ensemble in selections from Pinafore, Pirates, and Yeomen (as well as a medley of Sullivan's "popular" songs, none of which I had ever heard before).

In conclusion, I would like to say that this Fourth Sullivan Festival was generally a delight. That it was done at all brings great credit to the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. If you haven't looked into all that this organization has to offer (even to those whose love of Sullivan is limited to his works with Gilbert), do so. And start making plans now for the next Festival, which will take place on 8, 9, and 10 May 1992 in Nottingham.

S/A Cole was a bit surprised at the remarks about member Anne Stanyon's presentation at the Sullivan Festival. She had seen a copy of the presentation and had thought it sounded like it would be pretty interesting. Well, we are in the rare position of being able to come to our own conclusions about it: the following is an extract of that talk by Anne Stanyon.

The Great Leeds Conspiracy; Sullivan, the 1898 Festival and Beyond

by Anne Stanyon
presented at the 1990 Sullivan Festival in Birmingham

This paper presents on-going research. Much of the second part, because of the nature of the evidence, is, at present speculative.

Few would have predicted that the 1898 Leeds Triennial Musical Festival would be Sullivan's final appearance as Festival Conductor. Since his initial appointment in 1880, Sullivan had been largely responsible for Leeds' establishment as the Blue Riband event of the national festival calendar. Under his conductorship, the committee had attempted to commission new works from Verdi and Brahms, and had been successful in commissioning Dvorak. Sullivan himself had produced two of his greatest works, The Martyr of Antioch, and The Golden Legend, for Leeds. His first active involvement in planning the 1898 Festival had come at the beginning of December 1897, when he was already heavily involved with the composition of The Beauty Stone. In the end, Sullivan carried the October 1898 festival through to outstanding critical and financial success which represented a tremendous artistic and personal triumph. Although the Festival committee was responsible for the overall organization, it was the Conductor, who determined the programmes, liaised with the commissioned composers and artists, recruited the orchestra, and supervised rehearsals. It was a demanding position, since the whole thing had to come together during the three final full rehearsal days.

The conductorship was also an elective position, with no guarantee that the Festival Committee would renew the appointment for the next festival. Why then, did a man of Sullivan's eminence in the British musical establishment continue to involve himself with an affair which was essentially onerous? Prestige. It is difficult involved in relating the man who wrote the Savoy Operas to the man at Leeds conducting Wagner or Mozart. In Sullivan's mind, there was a widening credibility gap as well--a gap which would only be filled by his continuing association with Leeds.

In March 1898, he floated the notion of resigning the Festival conductorship in a letter, but the fact that at some time during the spring of 1898, he decided to see the festival though, would seem to indicate the importance it occupied in his own list of priorities. A bitter letter to the Leeds Committee's secretary, Frederick Spark, though, seemed to indicate something had passed between them:

Have I lost interest in the Festival? No, certainly not. . . But I cannot help thinking that it is the other way; that the festival has lost interest in me. We know the effect of a drop of water continually falling on stone; and from 1889 until now, the same style of press criticism has been poured on me until even Leeds itself believes every twopenny-ha'penny musician who waves a stick, especially if he is a foreigner, is a better conductor than I, and it is only because of the prestige attached to my name that I am chosen as the conductor. . ."

The cumulative effect of the October festival, witnessed by the amazing scenes in the closing moments of the Festival, and the nature of the music critics' comments, was that something extraordinary had happened that year. Sullivan was the star of the festival, and, for once, seemed to have pleased most of the people who mattered for most of the time. The Festival Committee had every reason to be pleased: receipts were up and expenses were down. But in September 1899, less than twelve months after his singular success, Sullivan was being induced to resign the conductorship for the 1901 Festival. Although there was no public announcement until November, it is clear that there was plenty of back-stage acrimony and no little controversy, both at the time of the announcement and subsequently.

The Committee's public statement, following the 1904 Festival, mentioned Sullivan's ill health as the motivating factor. On the limited evidence available, I feel that there was more to it than that. The first intimation that Sullivan's services were no longer required by Leeds, according to his September 16, 1899 diary entry, appears to have taken him by surprise, and both hurt and bewildered him. The draft for his responding letter reveals him coming close to pleading with Spark for his retention, while still maintaining his self-respect. He acknowledged the Committee's right to elect a new conductor, but stated that as far as he was aware, there had been nothing prejudicial in his conduct during the 1898 Festival to warrant such an action.

The Leeds conductorship was eventually bestowed on Sir C. Villiers Stanford. Stanford's career had been all that many had wished of Sullivan. Sullivan had, however, rejected the academic world, concentrated on the market place, and earned both a fortune and the uprobium of the musical establishment, as Stanford's own comment, in the wake of the premiere of The Golden Legend, reveals:

[The Golden Legend] restores him to his legitimate position as one of the leaders of the English School, and in as much as one of the genuine successes of his last composition will have made a return to less elevated forms of the art a matter of difficulty, if not impossibility, the musical world may be led to hope for a series of lasting treasures from his genius. . .

It may be worth recalling that at the time, Sullivan was involved in producing a "lasting treasure": Ruddigore.

By the 1890's, Sullivan's position as the premier English musician was seemingly unassailable: a factor which must have been irritating to those who saw themselves as the heirs apparent. First on the list of contenders was Charles Villiers Stanford, who resented press accusations during late 1899 that he had been responsible for the removal of Sullivan. When Benjamin William Findon, Sullivan's cousin and reporter for The Echo, published a critical biography of Sullivan in 1904, Sir Arthur Sullivan: His Life and Music, Stanford demanded a retraction of the passage concerning Sullivan's "resignation" and an apology. The passage was expunged from the 1908 publication (entitled Sir Arthur Sullivan and His Operas), and the pulping of the 1904 edition was a result of Stanford's action. Given Sullivan's connection with Findon, it is possible to assume that Findon was informed of the Leeds situation from Sullivan's standpoint, and felt bound to represent Sullivan's views. The expunged passage said:

. . .There had sprung up a little clique of Newspaper critics who were inimical to [Sullivan] in every way. Nothing that did not emanate from Kensington Gore [i.e. the Royal College of Music] was to their liking. . .Sullivan was the thorn in their ideas, owing to his overwhelming popularity. . .In due course the final rupture [with Leeds] came, and Sullivan was allowed to sever his connection with Leeds, and with not the least public recognition of the work he had done during the twenty-one years he had been their musical director. . .At the Festival the year following his death the only tribute paid to his memory was the performance of the In Memoriam Overture. In no other way did his name figure on the programme. . .For the man who had laboured to such good purpose for Leeds, and who had done so much for English art, it was deemed sufficient that he should be represented by one short orchestral work. . .

It appears that Findon's indignation on his cousin's behalf had got the better of him. Leeds' 1904 statement said,

. . .At the time (i.e. of Sullivan's resignation) a committee for the 1901 Festival had not been elected. When a meeting of guarantors for the purpose of election was held, on November 10, 1900, the following resolution was unanimously passed and forwarded to the Hon. Secretary. That this meeting regrets that Sir Arthur Sullivan is unable to continue to act as Conductor of the Leeds Musical Festival. . .On November 16th, Mr. Wilfred Bendall (acting for Sir Arthur Sullivan) replied, saying that Sir Arthur had been very ill for a fortnight, and adding, "I have just read him your letter. He was much pleased with the kind resolution passed by the Leeds Committee. He will, of course, reply officially as soon as he is able to attend to business again.

From that illness Sir Arthur Sullivan did not recover--his death occurring on November 22nd. . .

There is a twist even to this tale. Stanford, when dealing with the controversy in his autobiography, emphasized that, in 1899, the Committee for the next Festival had yet to be elected before any choice of conductor could be determined. However, by November, 1898, a provisional committee was in existence. Thus, considering the chronology of events, I would suggest the ultimate decision to jettison Sullivan rested with his two long- term Leeds associates, secretary Sparks and Festival Chairman Thomas Marshall: a decision which received ratification by the provisional committee, enabling a fait accompli to take place before the full committee was actually convened.

In any event, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, whatever their intention, Spark and Marshall had seriously mishandled the affair. If anxiety over Sullivan's health was central to his removal, why had spark apparently been willing to jump through hoops in 1880 to secure his election as conductor? And why was he re-engaged for the 1889 and 1892 Festivals, when his condition was considerably worse than in 1898? At the crudest level, the Committee was endangering valuable revenue. Sullivan's name on the programme was a guarantee of ticket sales. Was there anyone, circa 1900, able to rival Sullivan's personal magnetism? The members of the Leeds provisional committee had deluded themselves if they honestly believed that the affection which the public had bestowed on Sullivan would be transferred to Stanford--a fact amply demonstrated by the declining receipts from the 1901 and 1904 festivals.

We'll be looking forward to the publication of the complete paper in an appropriate journal in the near future.

This article appeared in Issue 27 (September 1990) of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist. For information on Society membership write to: The Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society, c/o Miss Sarah Cole, 613 W. State St., North Aurora, IL 60542-1538.

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