|Arthur Sullivan > Interviews > Sullivan Speaks for "Chums"
Interviews with Sullivan
The well-known composer of the "Golden Legend" received me at his magnificent house in Victoria Street. Its somewhat sombre exterior is no index of the sumptuous comfort within. Furnished throughout in Oriental style, with Mushabeer screens, luxurious divans, heavy pile eastern rugs, and a wealth of quaint bric-à-brac and objets d’art, it marks Sir Arthur Sullivan at once as a man of taste and also a lover of comfort.
The study, in which I awaited his arrival, is a triumph of cosiness and beauty. From the centre of the ceiling hung a great Turkish lamp in brass, whose seven little flames in glass vessels cast a warm red glow on the room. In one corner I noticed the theatrophone — a telephonic arrangement by which Sir Arthur is able to enjoy the music of the principal London theatres and concert-rooms without leaving the house. The walls were lined with well-stocked bookshelves, over which was a choice assortment of old china. A large photograph with a long inscription brought to mind the long and intimate friendship which existed between Jenny Lind and Sir Arthur, beginning at a time when he was little more than a boy in the world of music.
I had scarcely settled myself in one of the seductive couches when the door opened and the composer made his entrance. He is a short, thickly-set man, with dark iron-grey hair and black side-whiskers and moustache. His face is one of singular power, and his bright eyes with their drooping lids bespeak the musician at a glance. First greetings over, as he inhaled a cigarette, Sir Arthur said, speaking in his slow, quiet way: —
"You know, as I have often told you, I hate being interviewed. In fact, I never will submit to the ordinary general interview, but I don’t mind saying a few words to the boys, and telling them some anecdotes of my earlier days. It is very hard to say anything when you ask me my advice to boys — there is so much one would wish to say, and it has all been said over and over again before.
"Perhaps the thing that I — and, in fact, all men who have got on in the world — feel to be one of the greatest things to bear in mind is — ‘whatever you do, do it as well as you possibly can.’ It is the old proverb over again — ‘What is worth doing at all is worth doing well.’ Always aim to do your present occupation to the very best of your ability. It is a first-rate thing for a boy when he has done anything to feel — ‘Well, that is the best thing I have ever done.’ It may not be — very often is not — and very soon he will get dissatisfied with it and try to better it. But all the same, he should always feel on its completion — ‘I could not do it better: it is the best I am able to do." It shows he has thrown himself into his work or whatever it was. He should be pleased with it when it is done — his own conscience should praise his effort.
"That is a great thing, and it goes a long way towards success. It is a thing, too, that the dullest can aim at. Do their best, always nothing but their best. Never mind how bad it is, if it is their best. Everyone can do that.
"I remember once, in my earlier days, I was doing some little stage music for an opera at Covent Garden, and I was worried because it took me so long and gave me so much trouble. I could not do it superficially. It was only a little thing, and yet I felt I had to put my whole being into it. I took as much pains with the orchestration as if it had been some great work, a symphony or an oratorio, and the consciousness of this bothered me, and I one day said as much to Beverley — you know, the great scene painter. He was then doing some work for Covent Garden. His reply has stuck to me ever since. ‘That is how it should be. If I had to paint a brick wall I should take as much trouble over it as if it were a miniature of the Queen.’ That is the spirit in which to set about life."
Sir Arthur Sullivan stood leaning against the mantelpiece, and one could see from the emphasis with which he spoke that he really felt the importance of what he said. He impressed it on me over and over again, and constantly, in his subsequent conversation, recurred to the subject — always in his subdued tones, but none the less keenly — as his message to boys. His last words as I was leaving were, "Don’t forget to tell them that about feeling that they have done their best whenever they have done anything."
But to return: —
"The story of my boyhood? Oh, gracious! That is rather a large order. Well, let me see." And he thought for some moments. "I almost forget it. But I suppose I had better begin with my earliest recollections. The first thing, then, that I remember must have been when I was three years old. We were moving down to Sandhurst. My father, you know, was bandmaster of the Royal Military College. I don’t remember the journey one scrap, but I can distinctly recollect wandering about great bare empty rooms, and inspecting them in our new house on our arrival. That stands out very vividly. After that there is a long blank.
"The next thing is that my father made me learn every instrument in the band except the bassoon and the hautbois. I used to practise all day long, and spent most of my time in the band-room. In fact, though, of course, I didn’t play in the band, I took part in all their practices. Very soon I was able to undertake any instrument. And no one knows how useful, how invaluable, that training has been to me. To it I attribute all my powers of orchestration. I know every instrument as an old friend, know their worth and their peculiarities and their strong points — ay, and their weak ones, too. Oh, it has been a blessing to me, that early training.
"And, by the way, that suggests another word of advice to boys. Let them acquire every scrap of knowledge that comes in their way; they mustn’t think anything beneath them; learn all they possibly can. Well, to continue, I went to a private school, a little place in the village. A new master had just come there from one of these training colleges, and, compared with the other people about — mostly regular old fossils — he was quite one of the rising generation. He was for ever talking to me about the lovely music at Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, and what splendid musical training the choirs had. Well, that simply turned my brain. I was mad on choirs; I read about them, thought about them, and even dreamed about them.
"My father was very much against my going to a choir school, but I was bent on it. I remember as well as if it was only yesterday jumping out of bed one morning with what seemed to me an inspiration. I ran into my father’s room, and found him dressing.
"‘Father,’ I said triumphantly, ‘Purcell was at a choir school.’ I thought that was an unanswerable argument, and was much disappointed that my father did not think so too. On the contrary, he thought it was high time I was moved away from the influence of my choir-talking schoolmaster. So at the age of eleven I was moved to a boarding-school in Bayswater. But here I stuck to my old determination. I had set my heart on a musical career, and my new master wrote to my father and said he had much better allow me to follow my inclination.
"The fact was he could make nothing of me. I hated Latin; Greek I would not learn. History and geography were all I made my way with: I had a passion for history and geography — I have still. Well, my father finally consented. So my new pedagogue escorted me to see Sir George Smart, then organist of the Chapel Royal. He asked me one or two questions, patted me on the head, and took me downstairs and made me sing to him. He seemed much struck with my voice, and as I accompanied myself was astonished to find I was something of a musician. He told me to submit myself to the Rev. Thomas Helmore, the head of the choir school.
"Off we set again, I in great spirits. When we got to Onslow Square, where Helmore was supposed to be living, we found he had left, and that his house was in the hands of caretakers, or someone who did not know where he had gone. We did not know what to do. My master was for giving it up there and then, but my heart was set on finding the man. I divined that if he had lived there he must have eaten something, and suggested a round of the tradesmen in the neighbourhood. The very first butcher’s we went into was able to give us his new address. That was funny, wasn’t it?
"Well, it was a Saturday that I saw him. On the Monday I got a note from him asking me to come on the Tuesday. I joined the school at once. It was Holy Week, and on Maundy-Thursday the choir had to sing at the distribution of the Maundy money. I had only been in the school two days and had to sing one of the parts in the duet. I stayed on in the choir for three years, as keen on music as could be. Of course, I had had no real technical training, except just what we picked up at the rehearsals — the choir practices I mean. But I was everlastingly composing, and Mr. Helmore — an excellent man, for whom I always had the greatest admiration — used to take an interest in me and encouraged me. He got me to bring my compositions to him, and would correct them, and give me hints on harmony. Everything else that I learnt I had to find out for myself, and I was always at the piano.
"During my time there I experienced the greatest emotion that I have ever known, or ever shall know now. The choir used to go to sing in the choruses of Jenny Lind’s oratorios, and the first time I heard her sing I was quite paralysed by the beauty of it. I had never, and have never, heard anything so lovely. I have heard better voices, but never such exquisite singing. I got back in the evening and sat half the night on the stairs. I was in such a state of nervous prostration I could not go to bed. I never knew there could be such exquisite music on earth. I could not cry, I could not speak, I could not really think – I was simply paralysed with a strange, overpowering emotion."
At the very recollection of that night Sir Arthur became quite excited, and spoke with unusual energy.
"Shortly after that — I had just turned fourteen — I read in a newspaper of the foundation, principally through the instrumentality of Jenny Lind and the very oratorio I allude to, the Elijah at Exeter Hall — I read of the foundation of the Mendelssohn Scholarship. The first competition was just about to take place, and as the limits of age were fourteen to twenty, I determined to go in for it. I asked Helmore’s leave, and he gave it, but was not at all sanguine of my success.
"I sent in my compositions, and out of thirty candidates, Barnby, now Sir Joseph Barnby, and myself were picked out to appear at the Royal Academy before Goss, Sterndale-Bennett and the rest, to undergo a viva-voce examination. We were told that on the morrow one of us would receive a letter nominating him the successful scholar. You may be sure I was much too excited to sleep a wink all that night. The whole of the next day I was in a perfect fever, rushing every minute to the door to see if there was a letter for me, and as often returning disappointed. Late in the afternoon, just as I was beginning to lose heart, there came a postman’s rap. I rushed off and met the maid with a letter. ‘Master Arthur, there’s a letter for you.’ And I did not need to look inside to know that I was elected the first Mendelssohn Scholar.
"My voice had not then cracked, so I was obliged to stay on with the choir. But through the kindness of Mr. Helmore I was allowed to study at the Academy. I was there for two years, and was then sent out to complete my training in Leipzig, where I stayed until the termination of my scholarship.
"At the age of nineteen I returned to London with the music of Shakespeare’s Tempest. And I think we may say that there my boyhood ends, and my musical career begins. But I must just say one word of what extremely kind friends Jenny Lind and her husband, Herr Goldschmidt, were to me all through my early days. She took the deepest interest in me from the moment I won the scholarship."
In the course of further conversation Sir Arthur reiterated his advice to boys, and went on to speak in the warmest terms of how much he owed to the choir school of the Chapel Royal and Mr. Helmore.
"He was a splendid man, and knew exactly how to manage boys. I am sure they were a far more conscientious set than most schoolboys, and I put it all down to the fact that he trusted them. If he wanted a thing done, he put them on their honour, and he could rely on its being done; and it is to be hoped that feeling will never die out.
"Well I remember many a Saturday morning. We used to have a half-holiday on Saturdays, and were allowed to go where we liked in the afternoon, so long as we were back by tea-time. But sometimes we would want to get away before dinner for some reason.
"In the morning we used to rehearse the music for Sunday. And Mr. Helmore would say to us: ‘Well, boys, as soon as you have that music perfect you may go. But I rely on your doing it before you go out.’
"We used to troop off to the music-room and stick at it without stopping till it was perfect. We never once scamped it or shirked just because he wasn’t there, although sometimes we were dying to get away, and had to give up something to stay. All that did us a lot of good. Ah, I can see it now, when poor Alfred Cellier and myself were leaders of the choir. One of us would play and the other conduct, taking it in turns; and we used to go on till it was even better than usual when we were put on our honour like that."
Mountmorres, Lord. "Sir Arthur Sullivan Speaks for "Chums." –And gives us Interesting Talk about His Boyhood." Chums issue 69, Jan. 3, 1894, 295-6.
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