You are here: Archive Home > Arthur Sullivan > Celebrities at Home
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Arthur Sullivan


From The World, 12 November 1879, pp. 3 - 5.


The bright-eyed dark-haired gentleman who is lighting a cigarette from a candlestick of novel construction—a present from the Duke of Edinburgh—is Mr. Arthur Sullivan, Doctor of Music of both Universities, Knight of the Order of Coburg and the Legion of Honour, the greatest living English composer, and the pleasantest of companions. For Mr. Sullivan is endowed with that gift rare everywhere, rarest in England, the gift of vivacity. That the musical temperament is not necessarily vivacious is proved by the many illustrious composers who inclined strongly towards melancholy. Mr. Sullivan, however, may owe his cheerful temperament rather to his race than to his musical destiny. Of Irish parentage on one side and of Italian descent on the other, he perhaps retains the vivacity of the Irish with the more solid intellectual qualities of the Italian. Lively as his manner is now that he is again thoroughly restored to health, it is, however, no difficult matter to bring him to a serious level. It is only necessary to allude to one of those bright pretty things that he 'dashes off in a moment of inspiration.' Mr. Sullivan is instantly affected with one of the sudden inquiring looks for which he is famous. He evidently thinks at first that a sudden summer madness has come upon the speaker; then the expression of his singularly mobile countenance alters to a smile as he detects the subtle trick of a practised joker. On this particular day he obstinately refuses to be 'drawn' upon his favourite theme—that inspiration never comes to anybody who does not look for it. He contents himself with a glance more of sorrow than anger at his tormentor, and points out to a guest, ignorant of china-mania, the crossed swords and star which distinguish the Marcolini period of Old Dresden. By no means a lover of 'decoration by pot' alone, Mr. Sullivan yet sets great store by his blue-and-white Dresden service, and another richly-gilt set most exquisitely painted. To him all beautiful things suggest an equivalent to his own art, to which he strives, above all things, to impart positive character. A remarkable instance of his faculty in this peculiar direction is afforded by the exquisite part-song, 'We will wash him, mend him, tend him' [sic] , in the second act of the Sorcerer, which at once brings before the mind's eye chintz gowns, flowered waistcoats, and a dance upon the village green. This beautiful specimen of what may be called light-handed work was once sung with immense applause at one of Mr. Leslie's concerts by Madame Patey, and other artists in the front rank of their profession,by whom every delicate nuance was charmingly and sympathetically rendered. Hereat the purists took fright, and, difficult as it is to believe, actually protested with solemn dullness against the introduction of music written for a light theatrical piece into a concert otherwise composed of 'serious' work. Dull people always do this kind of thing, and quite overlook the well-worn truth, that to play with a subject the author must know it thoroughly. These are the people who call Frenchmen superficial because they are clear, and Germans profound because they are ponderous.

As Mr. Gilbert deserves honour for the ability with which he defends authorship against the outrages of managers, publishers, hoc genus omne, so does Mr. Sullivan merit glory for the thoroughly artistic hopefulness and manly self-denial which enabled him to resist the temptation of tuition—the rock on which so many musicians of fair promise have struck. Happily for the public and himself, he preferred long years of hard work, sweetened now and then by that praise which is so remote from solid pudding, to the very handsome income that teaching would have given hi at once. With the audacity which sometimes accompanies genius, he spurned the pot-au-feu of the instructor, and determined to live by genuine work. None but those acquainted with the musical profession can do full justice to the difficulties which beset the young composer, who, instead of spending his day picking up seven or eight guineas in trying to hammer music into inharmonious skulls, devotes the whole of it to original work, and trusts for his bread to its success. He has of course one immense advantage over the giver of lessons. Be the latter never so skilled, he comes to his original work wearied and jaded, and under these depressing circumstances the fire of genius must require a world of stirring before it will burn brightly. This life of alternate drudgery and inspiration Arthur Sullivan determined should never be his. Like a musical Cortez he burned his ships, and trusted to the unexplored possibilities of art to justify his resolve.

It is probable that his emancipation from the groove into which too many musicians unhappily fall is due to the confidence inspired by his masters at Leipzig, where the early promise of his youth developed into high technical skill. As a boy, he had learned to play upon several instruments, and, under the care of the Rev, Thomas Helmore, priest in ordinary to the Queen and master of the boys attached to the Chapel Royal, had learned to use his voice very prettily. Living, like the rest of the Chapel boys, with the master at Cheyne-walk, he advanced rapidly in musical knowledge; and after eighteen months' instruction wrote an anthem and showed it to Sir George Smart, who decreed that his young protégé's work should be sung in the Chapel Royal. Mr. Sullivan's eyes twinkle merrily as he tells how the Bishop of London, on being told the name of the author, sent for him, patted his black curly head, and presented him then and there with ten shillings. The approbation of a bishop and the receipt of so much money made the flame of ambition to blaze up in his youthful breast, and encouraged him to compete for the Mendelssohn scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Little Sullivan was only just of sufficient age—fourteen years—when he won the prize for which England has Jenny Lind to thank. Since then, he avers, he has known all the heats and colds of artistic life, but never has endured such agony as during the long hours of waiting for the result. At the time referred to the scholarship was worth but twenty pounds a year, since increased by the exertions of Mr. Sullivan to ninety. The Committee first placed him at the Royal Academy of Music, in order that he might continue singing at the Chapel Royal, which he did for about a year more, when his voice broke, and the Committee sent him to Leipzig for three years as a Mendelssohn scholar, at the expiration of which period he continued his studies at the expense of his excellent father, who as long as he lived proved his fastest friend. At Leipzig there was the best kind of instruction for young Sullivan: Julius Rietz taught him composition, Moritz Hauptmann theory and counterpoint, Moscheles and Plaidy the pianoforte. When the young Mendelssohn scholar arrived, Leipzig was, as he now describes it, divided into two camps, the Tweedle-dum being Mendelssohn, and the Tweedle-dee Schumann. The controversy was fierce and wide. The Mendelssohnians sneered at the Schumannites as revolutionists, and the Schumannites politely cursed the Mendelssohnians as pedants; while Wagner, being yet an outsider, was anathematised by both as a quack. So great was the rage on musical minds, so sharp the shock of battle between the rival armies, that young Sullivan found it imperative at last to choose a banner lest he should be crushed into nothingness between the contending hosts. Commencing as a Mendelssohnian, he at last went over to the opposite side, and, what is more remarkable, converted on his return to England no less a person than Mr. Cipriani Potter. The veteran at first refused to entertain the claims of the new school, till Mr. Sullivan fired with the zeal of proselytism captured him for an entire evening and made him devote it to Schumann. It is very amusing to hear Mr. Sullivan recount how he gradually, from 'Strike but hear,' advanced by degrees, till Mr. Potter learnt to pity, pardon, and embrace that new music of which he ultimately became one of the most enthusiastic apostles. While at Leipzig the young English musician had composed a stringed quartette, which attracted the notice of Spohr. This was followed by music for the Tempest, brought out in 1861 at the Crystal Palace, to the great contentment of Charles Dickens. Then came in rapid succession the Sapphire Necklace, the overture of which alone survives; and the 'Wedding March,' on the occasion of the marriage of the Prince of Wales, a production which procured him the advantage of presentation to the English Royal Family, the members of which, with that keen sympathy with art which is one of their most prominent characteristics, have since taken the warmest interest in Mr. Sullivan's career. At Paris he encountered the veteran Rossini, engaged in composing an air to celebrate his dog's birthday; and on his return to England wrote the music for the Enchanted Isle, a ballet performed at covent Garden, and a most valuable experience for the author, as giving him a beginning of stage knowledge, since most skillfully utilised. Then came in succession a cantata, a symphony, an overture, and an oratorio; In Memoriam, written on the occasion of his father's death; the Te Deum for the thanksgiving on the recovery of the Prince of Wales; and the Light of the World.

While doing this last-mentioned work of the severer kind for fame, Mr. Sullivan, as he confesses with a grave smile, found himself under the necessity of producing music of a lighter character in order to make an income. Fortunately for this generation, he was obliged to write songs as potboilers; and in the beginning the pot that they boiled was a remarkably little one. Songs, for which music-publishers would now give hundreds of pounds, were sold for almost nominal sums. Mr. Sullivan's first great success in song-writing was made in 1863, when he parted for five pounds with 'Orpheus with his Lute,' a property which proved worth five hundred a year to the publisher. With time and practice the author grew wiser, and retained a royalty on his works; so that very substantial reward attended 'Hush thee, my Baby!' perhaps the most popular part-song ever written. This brilliant success was followed by the ballad 'Will he come?' and a series of songs now sung all over the civilised world. Of these 'Once again' may be pronounced the most popular, and 'Looking back' as having the steadiest sale. 'O ma charmante!' was another great success; and then came 'Let me dream again,' written for that charming artist, Christine Nilsson, and 'Sweethearts.' The sale of the two last named exceeded seventy thousand copies. Lovers of that noble song, 'The Lost Chord,' will be glad to hear that its sale has already brought more than a thousand pounds to the composer. Just at this moment there is some little danger that the reputation of Arthur Sullivan as a solid musician of the higher class will be overshadowed by the enormous popularity attained by the light and pretty music which, wedded to Mr. W. S. Gilbert's exquisitely-humorous 'words,' has driven America as well as England mad over H.M.S. Pinafore. This purely national and original vein of production was hit upon in the oddest way. Thirteen years ago Charles Burnett, a writer on Punch, died, and his family being left in sore distress, a benefit was arranged, and Mr. F. C. Burnand promised to collaborate with Mr. Sullivan in a musical piece. Time passed, till within a week of the benefit it occurred to the collaborators as they were going to church that they had collaborated nothing. Mr. Burnand was equal to the occasion. 'Let us,' said he, 'set Box and Cox to music.' Sullivan, struck with the happy thought, said, 'Book it;' and in seven days the work was written, learned, rehearsed, and rendered by Messrs. Du Maurier, Harold Power, and Arthur Cecil. Transferred to the German Reed entertainments, Cox and Box ran for five hundred nights, and Mr. Arthur Cecil achieved a genuine triumph. Few will forget his singing of the delightful 'Lullaby Bacon.'

The success of Cox and Box opened up a prospect of lucrative work to Arthur Sullivan, whose first work produced in conjunction with Mr. W. S. Gilbert was Thespis, written for Mr. Toole, and adapted to the peculiarities of his individual organ. Thespis ran a hundred nights; but is now obscured by the brighter lights of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, and Pinafore, the latter of which was worked out during the intense physical pain which preceded his serious illness of last summer. In Mr. Gilbert Mr. Sullivan has found a collaborator after his own heart. His lines are always smooth and perfect in rhythm, and what is more important, as Mr. Sullivan avers, are eminently suggestive. The composer lays great stress upon this point, inasmuch as he holds that the 'words' of a musical piece should suggest the music. In producing their work the authors of Pinafore proceed after a method of their own. Instead of the 'book' being, after due consultation, written and then set to music, the work goes on simultaneously by a gradual process of piling up number on number. Above all things it is kept in mind that the opening chorus and air must be lively and characteristic, and that the finale to the first act shall put the audience in good humour. Another serious matter is to decide when the music shall be made of the first importance and when subordinated to the words. When a dramatic situation can be perfectly illustrated by the music, the composer allows his power full scope; but when explanation is needed, cuts down his music to mere intoning, as in the immortal 'I'm Monarch of the Sea,' in which the repetition of 'his sisters, his cousins, and his aunts,' has tenfold the force and fun it would have if sung to an air. Bit by bit book and music are produced, and the work is done; and what the over serious call an amusing trifle is produced—no trifle to the labourers before the mast of H.M.S. Pinafore.

It is good to hear Mr. Sullivan, when, casting off his air of joyous insouciance, he talks seriously to pupils of the National School of Music, of which he is Director. It is, Mr. Sullivan will tell aspirants, only the result of seventeen years' labour in the best schools that has enabled him to play with his art, and play with it profitably. The great masters, he will point out for their consolation, worked even harder than he has done; they had a greater mine, but the ore took quite as much trouble to get. at. Granted capacity, he continues, infinite labour must be given to the production of anything really good. Simplicity is of all things the most difficult of attainment, and is always the result of the perpetual pruning of a luxuriant mind. Beethoven's sketch-books supply proof of this. The exquisite vocal theme in the ninth or choral symphony was written and rewritten twenty times; and Weber, who of all musicians conveys most distinctly the ideas of freedom and spontaneity, worked like a slave to achieve these qualities. In fact music, like all other artistic productions, signifies hard work, and perhaps the hardest of all; for when the outline—the air—is found, then comes the toil of colouring, the patient working out of the instrumentation. It is, of course, very important that all this labour should be expended upon good material; but Mr. Sullivan has no difficulty as regards his songs. Words are sent to him at the rate of two thousand copies of verses per year; and it takes up a very large part of his secretary's time to return the unsuccessful sets at once. But when all this is done the composer 'still is not happy;' for his life is made terrible by the perpetual apparition of young persons, mostly of the unfair sex, who demand his advice as to the expediency of their 'adopting music as a profession,' and who refuse to go away until 'that dear Mr. Sullivan' has heard them sing and play. Verily, success has its penalties as well as its rewards.

Archive Home | Arthur Sullivan

   Page modified 19 August 2017 Copyright © 2017 Paul Howarth All Rights Reserved.