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Sir Arthur Sullivan
uperstition may be wrong. The devoutly believing ones call it sinful to believe in anything but the decision of Providence. The unbelieving ones, on the contrary, tax the superstitious with believing too much. But when one comes to think of what is possible and what may be called impossible, where is the mind bold enough who would dare to give a decision one way or another? What the Greeks called fate, what the Middle Ages called the Lord’s judgment, what we may call accident, they all tend to the one terrible power, unknown and inscrutable, that decides and conceals from us the future even of the very nearest hours – a power we have to bow to whether we understand it or not, just as we calculate with the utmost precision the rotation and appearance or disappearance of all the worlds in the spheres, without even being able to conceive the distances which we so accurately calculate.

Among the superstitions noted generally are certain years when the most excellent wine grows, when the most famous men are born, and other devices more or less reliable. In 1842, two of the greatest stars on the musical horizon were created: Arthur Sullivan and Adelina Patti. Unprecedented is the success of both; unprecedented is their glory; unprecedented is the golden reward which rains upon Danae from Jupiter-public. Luck – that is the word, so often used as an explanation of the unusual success of any man, because it is so consoling for jealous, envious, would-be rivals, not to admit the superior genius, or the greater knowledge, or the more amiable qualities of character, while just the very combination of all these qualities is required to lift on the high pedestal of contemporaneous recognition the performer, the composer, the poet, or the statesman.

Arthur Sullivan, born on May 13th 1842 (see again the superstition that the 13th brings ill-luck), consequently now over 46 years of age, was predestined, if embracing the musical career, to excel in it, for his blood from the father’s (an excellent bandmaster) side is Irish, whereas from the mother’s side it is Italian. He was a wonderful child, although not a wonder-child, and he owes to serious prolonged study under the best masters as much advancement towards his high position as to the natural gifts, without which all learning can lead to nothing; for this must be well borne in mind, although it wants a great sculptor to make an immortal bust of a block of Carrara marble, yet it wants the pure, spotless marble from which to make a masterpiece of sculpture. The effect which an eminent pianist will produce on a Steinway grand will certainly beat that which a little schoolgirl will make on the same piano, but it equally wants the instrument which responds to all the intentions of the performer, who could, for instance, not play a sonata on a dining-room table, however great his skill. It ought, therefore, to be well borne in mind that both natural gift and solid study are necessary to reach a great result, and that a man gifted with a very musical organisation without knowledge of composition, orchestration, &c., will never do anything grand in music; but it must equally be understood that music cannot be learned only, and that whoever has no ideas, no inspiration, no melody, can learn the rules, the laws according to which his ideas are to be treated, but if he have no ideas, he has the dress without the body to it, the piano without the inspired performer, and paper and ink and grammar without the brain full of ideas. This is why you so often hear in England of an excellent musician who has learned the orthography, the syntaxes, the style, and who, on the strength of what he has learned, become a Doctor of Music, but his compositions, operas, or oratorios fail to please or to attract the public, because study can only develop the faculty of expressing ideas with effect, but the ideas must be there, just as the most elaborate mining apparatus will bring no gold to light where there is no ore.


Sullivan – born with that rich mine of ideas, both deep and light, grave and melodious, having begun his musical productions with one of the severest forms of composition, a quartet, having composed glees and hymns, oratorios and operas-comiques, songs and overtures, and, save the mark ! successful in all – is one of those rare born geniuses who, from the first, have given the measure of their power, and have, through a long series of works, maintained and fortified their glory. His father, as I said, was bandmaster, and quite a little fellow Arthur was when he appealed to the different members of that band to teach him his instrument; and at eight years, not much higher than the clarionet, he performed his part with the band. He entered the choir of the Chapel Royal, and was taught by Mr. Helmore, Chaplain-in-Ordinary to the Queen. After eighteen months’ study he was able to write an anthem, submitted to Sir George Smart, who was so pleased with it that he directed it to be sung in the Chapel Royal, where Dr. Blomfield, the Bishop of London, heard it, and, inquiring the name of the composer, presented him with the first half-sovereign, the predecessor of the long row of sovereigns to follow. At the age of fourteen, whilst still at the Chapel Royal, he gained the Mendelssohn Scholarship, and was placed by the Committee in the Royal Academy of Music, where he had for teachers Sterndale Bennett and John Goss. His voice broke at sixteen, and he was sent as Mendelssohn’s Scholar for three years to Leipsic, there to study composition under Rietz, counterpoint under Hauptmann, piano under Moscheles and Plaidy.

This, as you can see, meant business, and he began composing in good earnest by writing for the “Œffentliche Prüfung” (public examination) an Overture, The Light of the Harem, and a String Quartet of such merit that it was shown to Spohr, who looked with amazement at the young fellow, and asked him, “So jung und schon so weit in der Kunst?” (Such a mere lad, and already so advanced in art?). Then he wrote, in rapid succession, success after success; and this is the list of his works as they followed each other: 1862, Tempest (performed at the Crystal Palace) and The Sapphire Necklace; 1863, The Enchanted Isle (ballet performed at Covent Garden) and his only Symphony in E (performed at the Crystal Palace); 1864, a Cantata Kenilworth (produced at the Birmingham Musical Festival); 1866, Overture, In Memoriam, for the Norwich Festival, and Cox and Box. On these two, one of the saddest and one of the merriest of his compositions, I shall have something to say presently. In the same year he wrote a Concerto for the violoncello (performed by Piatti) and The Contrabandista; 1867, an Overture, Marmion, for the Philharmonic Society; 1868, The Prodigal Son, for Worcester; 1869, an Overture di Ballo, for Birmingham; 1871, On Shore and Sea, for the opening of the Kensington Exhibition; 1872, Te Deum for the recovery of the Prince of Wales; in 1872, too, he wrote Thespis for Toole, which ran a hundred nights; 1873, an Oratorio, The Light of the World, for Birmingham; in 1875 came the Trial by Jury and The Zoo; 1877, The Sorcerer; 1878, H.M.S. Pinafore; 1880, The Pirates of Penzance, and, for the Leeds Festival, the Sacred Drama, The Martyr of Antioch; 1881, Patience; 1882, Iolanthe; 1884, Princess Ida; 1885, The Mikado, which not only made the tour of the world, but is even now given in several Continental towns three or four times a week; 1886, his great masterpiece, the Oratorio The Golden Legend, which was put to the severest test this autumn at a Festival where the town was split into two distinct camps, one who favoured the Conductor engaged, and one who stuck to the Organist of the town, who was not engaged, as he had expected; so that the whole of the followers of the Organist severally stayed away from the Festival altogether, and the performances made very poor receipts indeed, except one day, when The Golden Legend was given; then Montagues and Capulets flocked to the hall, which was filled to overflowing, and the receipts reached the highest possible sum. In 1887, Ruddigore, and 1888, The Yeoman of the Guard, close for the moment this brilliant array of successes, in which I have not included his numerous popular songs, at the head of which stands The Lost Chord, a truly magnificent song, of which over 180,000 copies have been sold; and Let me dream again, dedicated to Madame Nilsson, and which, with many others, yield a steady income of royalty.

I mentioned two works with merry and sad incidents above, both belonging to the same year. When in 1866, that is when he was 24 years old, and had a commission to write for the Norwich Festival, he could not find an appropriate subject, and said to his father, to whom he was devotedly attached: “I have a mind to give up this whole affair, I don’t know what to choose for a subject.” “Don’t do that, my boy,” said the father; “don’t give it up, something will happen that may furnish you with an opportunity.” And three days afterwards something did happen – his father suddenly died. Remember what I said in the beginning of this notice anent superstition. Half mad with grief, his son followed the coffin to the grave, and when he came home and sat with his mother brooding over his loss, he suddenly jumped up and said: “Mother, I can’t bear it. I must cry out my grief in music.” And there and then he sat down and wrote. And thus was the overture In Memoriam created. Another and much more cheerful opportunity, and one of historical interest, was the evening when he saw Du Maurier and Harold Power perform Offenbach’s farce Les Deux Aveugles. It instantly stimulated him to try his hand on a similar exhilarating work, and leaving the party with Burnand, the genial editor of Punch, he asked him for a libretto for a similar production. Burnand proposed Cox and Box. Sullivan instantly accepted, but, like other great composers, he deferred writing the score from week to week until, the work being announced, the last week arrived, when he had promised to conduct the performance on Saturday. He diligently wrote and got copied the score, but when Friday came the last half was not written. So on Friday night at 8 o’clock he got two copyists to sit up with him, and while he scored they copied until 7 in the morning; then they broke down, and here were yet three numbers to be written and copied. In despair Sullivan wrote these last numbers in the orchestral parts only, not having time to write the score, finished at 11, took a bath, at 12 he rehearsed at the theatre, and at two the performance began – everybody knows with what success. His social position is such as not only to be received by, but himself to receive Royalty at his house, which is furnished and provided with every comfort that elegance, wealth and taste can accumulate in any set of rooms.

This is a rapid sketch of one of the most brilliant careers known. Sir Arthur Sullivan, a composer of immense resource, tried in all possible genres of musical work – song, madrigal, opera, oratorio, symphony – has great originality, infinite (not endless) melody, deep knowledge of orchestration, a master of the form and rhythm, has musical wit, which exists just as literary wit, and a facility of writing simple, easy, and enchanting phrases. Not always serious enough for grand oratorio, now and then phrases escape him which are not by any means of a sufficiently solid style (as in The Martyr of Antioch). So, too, in his operas and operettas, here and there repetitions of previous ideas, and perhaps this or that phrase of not very distinguished style, form the black point on the brilliant wing of the butterfly, which, though a small spot, brings out the other colours in still greater relief; but these are the spots in the sun, and when I have said that, in his private life a man of the most spotless honour, he has for many years been the sole support of his deceased brother’s numerous family, whom he has most generously and liberally supported and brought up, I have said enough to explain why I hold up as one of the most celebrated and most justly admired men of this century Sir Arthur Sullivan.

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