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A Talk With the Composer of "Pinafore."

The composers [sic] Gilbert and Sullivan, who represent in the musical world the part that Beaumont and Fletcher played in the early days of English literature, have gained a world-wide reputation by their joint productions.  The musical member of the copartnership, Arthur Sullivan, who was knighted by the Gladstone ministry at the direction of Queen Victoria, arrived in this city yesterday on a visit to his relations.  A CHRONICLE reporter called upon the composer and found the author of "Patience" and "The Mikado" to be a man of small frame, inclined to stoutness, with large black eyes and every feature denoting the Italian blood which he inherited from his mother.  In manners and conversation Sir Arthur exhibits that quiet self-repression which seems to be an essentially component characteristic of all men of any force of character.  Speaking of his own works, he said:

"Both Mr. Gilbert and myself were very much surprised at the success of ‘Pinafore’ in America.  The work is essentially English, dealing with English institutions, and yet the American public seemed to appreciate every point of the libretto and understand the import of the music as a satire on the English navy.  It is commonly thought that these various satirical works, with their airy tunes and sprightly plots, are merely light and fanciful pieces.  If they are entitled to any claim as compositions, I rely entirely on that underlying vein of seriousness which runs through all my operas.  In the composition of the scores I adhered to the principles of art which I had learned in the production of more solid works, and no musician who analyzes the scores of these light operas will fail to find the evidence of seriousness and solidity pointed out."

"Is it true, then, that you place more dependence on your oratorios, symphonies and hymns as musical works than on your light operas?"

"It is.  My sacred music is that on which I base my reputation as a composer.  These works are the offspring of my liveliest fancy, the children of my greatest strength, the products of my most earnest thought and most incessant toil.  Speaking of these hymns, as I was passing through Utah I stopped at Salt Lake City and visited the Mormon Tabernacle. There I heard sung one of my earliest productions, composed years ago, and set to original words.  I was much affected at this recollection of my boyhood and young ambition."

"To what fact do you attribute the decadence of the Italian school of opera?"

"The Italian school is dead from its own inherent defects.  The works of Verdi, Bellini, Rossini and Mercadante are never sung as is necessary to bring forth what merit there is in the composition.  The great fault of these great composers was that they wrote for extraordinary voices.  As these voices no longer exist, the works cannot be represented as they should.  The silver tones of Mario, the godlike strains of Sontag, the divine tones of Grisi, live only as memories.  The success of the Italian operas depended upon the wonderful voices of those who sang them.  Besides, in analyzing the Italian grand opera, you will find that in a great many cases the most widely divergent emotions and the most opposite sentiment were expressed in the same manner, and depended entirely upon the singer and his dramatic ability to express the true passion.  What do I think of the Wagnerian episode?  I will tell you.  Wagner’s success was greatly due to his personal influence, his iron will and his untiring industry.  His chief merit lies in having shown to the musical world the possibilities of operatic music.  He has shown us the combination of the drama and the opera, but deviated from his theory or was at fault in practice in concentrating all dramatic effects in the orchestral portions of his work, and subordinating the stage and its action to the orchestra.  He has shown us a picture that can be painted, but has not painted it himself."

"What then is the opera of the future?"

"Oh, your question suggests possibilities of which all true musicians dream, and reveals a vision which seems near and enchanting, but which is far off.  The opera of the future is a compromise.  I have thought and worked and toiled and dreamt of it.  Not the French school, with gaudy and tinsel tunes, its lambent lights and shades, its theatrical effects and clap-trap; not the Wagnerian school, with its somberness and heavy ear-splitting airs, with its mysticism and unreal sentiment; not the Italian school, with its fantastic airs and fioriture and far-fetched effects.  It is a compromise between these three—a sort of eclectic school, a selection of the merits of each one.  I myself will make an attempt to produce a grand opera of this new school."  Here the eyes of the composer closed and he leaned back in his chair as if lost in thought.

"Yes, it will be an historical work, and it is the dream of my life.  I do not believe in opera based on gods and myths.  That is the fault of the German school.  It is metaphysical music—it is philosophy.  What we want are plots that give rise to characters of flesh and blood, with human emotions and human passions.  Music should speak to the heart, and not to the head.  Such a work as I contemplate will take some time."


"Sir Arthur Sullivan:  A Talk With the Composer of "Pinafore.""  San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1885.


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