Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Part 5 - Music and Songs

5.1 - General Comments
5.2 - Favourites
5.3 - The World Is But A Broken Toy

5.1 - General Comments

Tom Shepard: Just to get the argument going, I would say that virtually the entire second act shows G&S at their lyrical best.

Jeremy Spillett: I shall propose that this is Sullivan's most successful work. The second act is a musical masterpiece - with a succession of brilliantly orchestrated songs - all culminating in a Finale that is Sullivan's undoubted greatest. Anyone who has tried to sing it will know that it is guaranteed to sort out the "men from the boys" and clearly indicates those operatic societies who can - and those who can't. I suspect it is too difficult for those more used to "musical" type productions, and hence the reluctance to perform it these days.

Louis Wernick: Several of you have pointed out the excellence of Hilarion's solo right in the middle of the Act II finale. It occurs to me that this is one place where Gilbert's and Sullivan's excellence were picked up by composers who followed their lead in the operetta genre. In the first half of the next century, both Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow and Emmerich Kalman's Countess Maritza include, in the second act, a tenor solo that is obviously given strength and plot movement in the fashion of Hilarions' solo at the point in Princess Ida.

Lisa Berglund: In thinking about Nozze and Ida, it strikes me that, unless I'm misremembering, Ida is the only opera that restores order not through some topsy-turvy legalism or similar Gilbertian device, but thanks to a character who has the strength to admit that she was wrong. (I except Yeomen for the moment, as not exhibiting topsy-turvyness to begin with.) I wouldn't say that Ida has the lumninous generosity of Mozart's Countess, but she, and possibly Hilarion, are the only characters I can think of who actually CHANGE. (Again, possibly place Yeomen, depending on your views of Elsie, Point and Phoebe.)

Mike Storie: A few seasons back when we did Princess Ida, I gave a talk at a local arts college about the opera and about musical parody. The gist of the talk was about how it is difficult to make fun of other's music because the audience has to be pretty well educated musically to get the joke. And if they don't get it you will probably be accused of producing a derivative work, at best.

The example I used was "This helmet I Suppose" from Ida. I changed the words and asked them to pretend that it was a little-known song from Handel's Messiah. It is sung by Joseph as his family arrives at the manger:

This manger I suppose,
Will serve as our repose,
The cattle bray,
It's full of hay,
And pungent to the no-o-o-o-se,
Yes pungent to the nose.
It's p-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ungent to the nose.
(And so on, etc., etc. until "For unto us a Son is given.")

I got my comeuppance about a month ago when I attended a production of Handel's "Xerxes" by the Seattle Opera. My companion (also a G&S buff) were commenting how the "supertitle" operator was having an easy night of it since a.) it was already in English, and b.) for two sentences of lyric they would sing on for 15 minutes!

The production (excellent by the way) was a bit confusing to follow because the King was played by a woman, his brother was played by a counter-tenor, and then there were two sopranos, one pretending to be a man. I often had to resort to lip reading to determine who was singing. I was just dying for a baritone song and it finally came in the third act. The father of the bride sang beautifully for about 20 minutes. The only lyric was "Thank my lucky stars. How fortunate I am." Three cheers for Gilbert!

In any case, during the first intermission, I inadvertently started to hum "This helmet I suppose . . ." My friend picked up on it and we were stuck with that tune for the rest of the evening.

Handel is great, but Sullivan sure nailed him.

5.2 - Favourites

Paul McShane: The outcome of our mini-survey for favourite numbers in Princess Ida was as follows:

1. The total number of respondents was 17. This is not really enough for a proper statistical survey, but thank you anyway to the other 16 for participating.

2. There was quite a large spread across various songs for the most favourite number. The first prize goes to "The World is but a Broken Toy" with 4.5 votes (you may recall that it was allowable to nominate more than one number, with fractional votes being allotted to each) out of a maximum of 17. The only other numbers with 2 or more votes were "I am a maiden" (2.5 votes) and all or part of the Act II Finale (2.3 votes).

3. As foreshadowed earlier, there was a much greater consensus on the worst number. The booby prize went to "Come, mighty must" (10.5 votes out of 17), with the runner-up (including second-last votes from those who ranked "Come Mighty Must" as worst) being "I Built upon a Rock".

Neil Ellenoff: I am fascinated how many of you love Princess Ida, As I have previously said, it is may favorite. I have also had this reaction from classical music lovers who didn't like G&S in general.

5.3 - The World Is But A Broken Toy

Andrew Crowther: I've argued before that the lyrics of "The world is but a broken toy" are supposed to be understood ironically. Ida sings this facile philosophy of disillusionment with the world, and the three others reply, in effect, with a sarcastic, "Oh, yeah, sure."

Sarah Mankowski: Hilarion and company are trying to pass themselves off as new pupils, so of course they agree. I mean, they can hardly get into a big debate about world views at this point

Andrew Crowther: After all, when you come to examine Ida's lines, they make no logical sense. "Its pleasure hollow - false its joy . . . /Its pains alone are true": on what principle should we dismiss the world's joys and accept its pains? It's the attitude of someone who is determined to be disaffected with the world.

Sarah Mankowski: It's the attitude of many teenagers as they begin to realize that the world isn't fair, that they're not the center of the universe. Ida is twenty-one, rebellious, but also revealing a somewhat immature prospective in this song.

Andrew Crowther: I agree absolutely! I noticed very recently that the attitudes in this song are essentially the same as the ones in "Comes a train of little ladies" in Mikado. All those questions about whether the world's beauty is but a bubble bound to break ere long and whether its palaces and pleasures are fantasies that fade - clearly their "genius tutelary" is Ida, stopping off on a world tour. I wonder how many other lyricists, writing a chorus for a group of schoolgirls, would have written such essentially pessimistic verse?

But Sullivan's music topples this irony, and makes it a genuine and heartfelt cry of sorrow - "sadness set to song". The jibes of the three men are overwhelmed by the emotion of the music, so the listener finds it very easy to miss their objections.

Nick Sales: Andrew's reasoning is (as always) sound. But am I alone in being eternally grateful to Sullivan for misinterpreting Gilbert?

Andrew Crowther: I'm sure not. I don't think I made this clear, but I too love the song - despite the music not being, strictly speaking, on the same wavelength as the words.

You could argue (well, I could) that this song articulates one of the central themes of the opera. Ida is a woman who has retreated from the world, disillusioned. (Like Faustus in Gretchen - only no one will understand my reference.) She has decided that it is a "broken toy", and not worth consideration. That may be the real reason she has decided to hide herself away in Castle Adamant and create a new world of women. It is the task of Hilarion and his chums to change her mind about this, and so, in this song, they seem to agree with her while really undermining what she says: "The world is everything you say,/The world we think has had its day . . . /We've tried it and we know." (With the implication that Ida hasn't tried it and doesn't know.)

In other words, Ida hasn't set up her University simply to educate women, but because she is foolishly dissatisfied with the world as it is: the "happy ending" occurs when Hilarion convinces her that the world is fine as it is ("I see my error now"), and leaves the follies of women's education to become a good little wifie. (You see that I haven't abandoned my conviction that Ida is an anti-feminist piece in essence.)

Sarah Mankowski: Ida does seem to convey the message that young women rebel because they're young and foolish, and all they really need is the right man to straighten them out.

Bill Snyder: Heartfelt agreement with you here. To me, this indicates the point at which Hilarion falls in love with Ida. Yes, he says earlier that he has loved her, as has been his duty. On the other hand Sullivan's musical map of Hilarion's progression from the lilting superficiality of "Ida was a twelvemonth old" to his emotional involvement in "Whom thou hast chained" seems to make an important turn when he actually meets her. She is not interested in sunshine from cuCUMBers or such stuff; she's got principles and brains and . . . uh . . . pluck! Maybe I'm reading more into him than he deserves, but the music tells me otherwise.

Page created 10 May 1998