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A Chat with the Composer of "The Lost Chord"

Sir Arthur Sullivan and His Work

It is such a pity that the readers of a magazine should, speaking comprehensively, be in ignorance of the dangers by flood and field, the encounters, and the escapes, which are daily survived in their interest by its contributors!  Little do the gentlemen of England, who sit at home at ease leisurely skimming the contents of their favourite magazine, think of the risk which has been run for their amusement or instruction.  Knowing the enormous difficulty of the enterprise, it was not unnatural that I showed signs of rebellion on being told to have a "chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan."

"Have a chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan!"  To obtain a chat with Nelson on the column above Trafalgar Square were far easier.  However, dreading that any hesitation would tempt my Editor to quote Richelieu’s irritating "There’s no such word as fail," I could but acquiesce, and depart into solitude to ponder on ways and means to attain the unattainable.  For did not report say that the composer of Ivanhoe and Patience, and a thousand other gems, dwelt in an eminently impregnable fortress, or on an island set in a lake of fire, if not in a private and particular Seventh Heaven, where never yet did Penholder penetrate?

But on the other hand, since the Post Office Directory calmly states that this unapproachable musician may be addressed at 60, Victoria Street, one’s course seemed plain — send a letter there, and await the result.  A few hours only elapsed ere the following surprise was delivered:  "Sir Arthur Sullivan will be happy to see you tomorrow at three o’clock," written by the hand of his secretary.  So far, so good.  But when I arrived, and Sir Arthur joined me in his dressing-room, all my hopes of merging from the encounter with flying colours vanished, for this is what happened —

He, with freezing politeness:  "Forgive me if I ask you to remind me of the object of your call."

I:  "To gain information for Messrs. Cassell’s NEW PENNY MAGAZINE."

He:  "Ah, to be sure, but there’s nothing on which I wish to inform Messrs. Cassell for the Magazine."

I:  "However, since I have to write about you, I must needs have some topics."

He:  "Why write about me?  I have never done anything to deserve such treatment.  I’ve never killed anybody, or worked a miracle, or even taken part in a scandal."

I:  "In fact, all you have ever done is to make life pleasanter for other folks.  Cannot you tell me something about the doing?"

He:  "Nothing."

I:  "Or about the other folks?" 

He:  "Absolutely nothing."

I, beginning to feel rather hopeless:  "Or about anything pleasant which has ever happened to you?"

He:  "No.  The fact is I don’t approve of this sort of journalism; this turning a fellow inside out for public inspection!"

I, in despair:  "Then why did you let me come?"

He:  "Why did I?  I think it was because I liked your letter.  You express yourself very well; that comes of your profession.  Tell me" (thawing suddenly, since no longer himself the topic), "do you honestly like journalism, and the meetings with all sorts and conditions of men which it entails?"

I:  "Yes, I like it," seizing an irresistible opening, "but only when the meetings prove agreeable."

A sympathetic twinkle of fun showed itself for an instant in Sir Arthur’s dark eyes, when the door opened and a ministering angel appeared in the form of an old acquaintance, Wilfred Bendall.  He, surprised to find in me the impersonation of the journalist of whose advent he had been warned, immediately came to the rescue of a situation which looked like becoming too critical for comfort, and by a series of well-directed questions and reminders of the days of yore, soon led his friend into such a communicative state of mind that my mission, which ten minutes ago had looked so like failure, in the end fulfilled itself without further effort on my part.

To give a résumé of the whole, sorting into chronological order those events which bear on the history of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s career, disregarding the conversational form in which they were related, will probably be the most advantageous method.

When but a small boy, between four and five years old, Sir Arthur Sullivan showed so much taste for music that it became quite evident that his father would have a worthy son.  To tolerate a discord was so impossible to the child that even when he strummed on the piano for his own amusement he would only strike notes that sounded well together.

His father, Thomas Sullivan, an Irishman, was bandmaster at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst from 1845 to 1856, and during that time the band reached an unusually high standard, thanks to the very musicianly care he bestowed upon it.  His wife was of an old Italian family named Righi.  To such a happy combination as that parentage afforded may probably be owed the determination and the sprightly fancy which are evident characteristics of our subject.  For be it known that often have his gayest melodies been produced in short intervals of such pain as would have totally annihilated anyone of less steadfastness of purpose.

To attend the daily practices of the Sandhurst band was little Arthur Sullivan’s greatest pleasure, and not many years had passed before he could play every wind instrument, and thoroughly understood the capabilities of each as component parts of the orchestra.  When the moment came for sending him to school he begged to be allowed to become a member of the choir of the Chapel Royal or of Westminster Abbey, but decision being given in favour of a school kept by an elderly man named Pless, in Bayswater, there the boy went.  However, determined to gain his point, he soon persuaded that amiable person to take him to call on Sir George Smart, organist of the Chapel Royal, who lived in Great Portland Street, in the house where Weber died.  Sullivan sang "With Verdure Clad," accompanying himself on the piano, with such good effect that he was sent on at once to the Rev. Thomas Helmore, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal.  Mr. Helmore who was satisfied with his voice, and delighted with his sympathetic manner of singing, readily admitted him to the choir and as a boarder in his house, 6, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where the rest of the boys lived and had their education.

Sir Arthur Sullivan is emphatic in his praise of the admirable method of voice-training and general musical culture practiced by Mr. Helmore, as indeed are Edward Lloyd and W.H. Cummings, both ex-children of the Chapel Royal.

An incident which speaks volumes for the great musical endowment of the boy Sullivan took place when he was thirteen.  He had sung the solo soprano part of The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, composed by Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley as an exercise for his degree of Doctor of Music at Oxford, and when at the end of the school term he went home for the holidays, he said to his father, "There is a splendid march in that new work; you really ought to get it for the band."  But, as it was not published, that seemed an impossibility.  However, determined not to be beaten, the boy sat down early one morning, and before night he had written out the march from memory in full military band score.  The Sandhurst Band, very proud of the really marvellous achievement of its young associate, excelled itself in the perfection of its rendering of that music.

During the succeeding June the examination took place for the scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, just founded in memory of Mendelssohn through the efforts of Jenny Lind, who had given a performance of Elijah at Exeter Hall with the object of providing funds for the purpose.

A great many competitors presented themselves, and were all in turn dismissed but two, the eldest and the youngest — Joseph Barnby and Arthur Sullivan — who were considered so equally matched that after a very exhaustive examination judgment was reserved until the morrow.  The receipt of the letter which brought to Sullivan the news that victory lay with him is still remembered as providing the most rapturous moment of his existence.  He shows to visitors to his house in Victoria Street a framed cutting from the Illustrated London News of 1856, announcing the winning of the Mendelssohn Scholarship by "Master Sullivan, chorister in her Majesty’s Chapel Royal," remarking that it was the first time he had seen his name in print.

The professors at the Academy under whom he studied were Sterndale Bennett and Arthur O’Leary for the pianoforte, and John Goss for harmony and composition, and he also attended the orchestral and choral practices under Charles Lucas.  The original scholarship was extended to a second year in consequence of good progress, and at the end of that time it was again given to Sullivan that he might be enabled to go to the Conservatorium at Leipzig.  The two and a half years spent in Leipzig he describes with enthusiasm as having been "perfectly lovely," and tells amusing anecdotes — deftly led thereto by the kindly Mr. Bendall — of some of his fellow students, amongst whom were Carl Rosa, John Francis Barnett, Edvard Grieg, Franklin Taylor, and Edward Dannreuther.

His masters at the Conservatorium were Moscheles, Louis Plaidy, Rietz, Reinecke, and Ferdinand David.

Those were the days when the music of Schumann, Schubert, and Wagner was just beginning to hold its own, in rivalry to that of the generally adored Mendelssohn, and Sullivan was soon enrolled amongst the staunchest adherents of the new school.  On his return to London in 1861 he went to Cipriani Potter, then the head of the Royal Academy of Music, and poured forth torrents of eloquence on the subject of his freshly discovered divinities.  But Potter, who had been an intimate friend of Beethoven, would not heed, and merely shook his head over what he considered the ruin of a promising youth.

However, Sullivan, as was usual with him, got his own way in the end, for having persistently played Schubert, Chopin, Gade, and Schumann at Mr. Potter’s house several evenings consecutively, he had the delight of making a complete convert.  The same thing happened, regarding Schumann, to Sir George Grove, secretary of the Crystal Palace and an authority on matters musical, and to August Manns, conductor of the band, who, on being shown by Sullivan Schumann’s first symphony in B flat, proceeded to put it down for immediate performance during the ensuing series of winter concerts.

Just before Sullivan left Leipzig he had composed a setting to Shakespeare’s Tempest, which had been given with great success at the Gewandhaus, and in the spring of 1862 — on 5th April to particularise — it was included in the programme at the Crystal Palace.  The music made such a stir, awoke such paeans of praise from all the critics, that it had to be repeated on the following Saturday, when all musical London decamped in a body to Sydenham.  Amongst the audience on that eventful occasion was Charles Dickens, who had been so much enchanted with the composition that at the end of the performance he made his way round to the artists’ room, and, seizing Sullivan’s hand with his long, strong fingers, he exclaimed:  "I don’t pretend to know much about music, but I do know that what I have been listening to is a very great work."

Dickens and Sullivan were intimate friends, and to the young composer the association was a delight, for the author was the most charming companion imaginable, full of fun, yet with ever ready sympathy should a grey day intrude in a time of life which contained mostly sunshine.

Other folks, more or less celebrated, whom Sullivan constantly met at about that date, were Charles and Wilkie Collins, Browning, Mrs. Lehmann, one of the married daughters of Robert Chambers, the Edinburgh publisher, founder of "Chambers’ Journal," and Chorley, at whose house in Eaton Place were given pleasantly informal little gatherings.  Rossini was another whose friendship the young musician valued very highly, and to whose inspiration he feels that he owes his love of operatic work.  Sullivan was then (in 1862) organist of St. Michael’s Church, Chester Square, and had just composed six Shakesperian songs which he sold for five guineas each to Messrs. Metzler — a good investment for the publishers, by the way, since included in the series were "Orpheus and His Lute" and "The Willow Song."

In order to learn the inmost details of stagecraft, he accepted the post of organist at the Royal Italian opera, Covent Garden, offered him by his old friend, Sir Michael Costa; this he retained for four years, during which time, in addition to the ordinary duties of an organist, he composed the music of a ballet for that house.

His ready adaptability to any and every emergency made Sullivan invaluable to his employers.  Nothing ever came amiss to him, hours of work were never too long or singers too exacting; his devotion to music in every mood carried him and them happily through all.

Compositions came quickly from his facile pen, but, having learnt the folly of selling a song outright, he agreed with Messrs. Boosey for a royalty on each copy of "Will He Come?" "Sweethearts," "Once Again," "Looking back," and "Let Me Dream Again," which arrangement has meant, as may be imagined, a most satisfactory revenue.  In 1866 Sullivan supplied the music to Cox and Box, which was the first of his great dramatic successes. Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old, followed at the Gaiety Theatre, and after that came Trial by Jury at the Royalty, which started the collaboration with W.S. Gilbert, for which the world must needs for ever congratulate itself.

Mr. D’Oyly Carte also secured the next production of these two brilliant brains, and put on The Sorcerer at the Opera Comique; but, it failing to hit the public taste, he soon asked them to supply him with fare more likely to be popular, and in May, 1878, H.M.S. Pinafore was launched,  Astonishing as it may seem, considering the immense success which it finally achieved, its career did not start at all brilliantly; but Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was then conducting the Promenade Concerts at Covent Garden, nightly played an arrangement of Pinafore music, which helped to gain interest for the opera.  Then it went to America, and ran like wild-fire all over the States, was performed at New York in eight theatres at the same time, was hummed, and whistled, and quoted to such an extent that it came to be considered a pest, and there was talk of imposing a fine should anyone be heard to use a line from it in ordinary conversation.  "What, never?  Well, hardly ever!" was the plague of the existence of a certain editor, who threatened his entire staff with dismissal should yesterday’s offence be repeated — the catch-phrase having appeared in twenty articles in one edition.  Most of the long list of Gilbert and Sullivan operas which followed the triumphant PinaforePatience, Iolanthe, Yeomen of the Guard, Ruddigore — have been so successful that they have had to be translated into almost every European language.

Difficult, indeed, is it to realise that the music which has thus contributed to the gaiety of nations was often composed during short intervals from pain so intense as to render the sufferer almost insensible.  Two of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s compositions are pathetically associated in his remembrance with the sufferings of others, viz., "In Memoriam" and "The Lost Chord."  He had been asked to write an overture for the Norwich Festival in 1866, but when the date of the performance was drawing dangerously near he was still without an idea, and, feeling entirely at a loss, he said to his father:  "I shall give up the commission.  Nothing will come to me."

"Oh, no, my boy, don’t do that, something is sure to occur soon to give your thoughts a new direction.  You must not give it up."

In three days the adored father suddenly died of aneurism of the heart, and his son, on the night of the funeral, in a passion of grief, seized a pen and some music-paper.  By the morning his work for the Norwich festival was ready.  "The Lost Chord" dates from some time later, when Arthur Sullivan’s brother was seriously ill, and he sat for weeks by the bedside, almost fearing to breathe lest the invalid should be disturbed, whilst Adelaide Procter’s beautiful words incessantly repeated themselves in his tired brain, but without evoking any musical equivalent.  However, at last, when the crisis was past and the invalid had fallen into a restful sleep, an inspiration came to his guardian, and by the dim light of the carefully shaded lamp the setting of "The Lost Chord" was finally accomplished.  To know the circumstances of this immensely popular song’s creation is to have yet another reason for admiring its pathetic melody.  Of all the huge successes scored by Sir Arthur Sullivan, "The Lost Chord" is well in advance as regards numbers of copies sold; next to it comes "Sweethearts," and then "Let Me Dream Again."

He is an extremely rapid worker, and is always stirred to special wealth of invention when pressed for time; indeed, he confesses that to sit calmly down to compose for an indefinite occasion is quite unendurably boring to him.  But once aware that a work must be done and ready for rehearsal by a certain date, however near at hand, his flow of ideas is unlimited.  He never uses a piano when composing, and he scores the whole orchestral work before having heard a note of the music.

The labour of putting his ideas on paper is to him most tedious, and, as he insists on doing very note of it himself, it really does mean an almost overwhelming task.  Think, for instance, of Ivanhoe, with its countless pages for an orchestra of about 100 performers.  No wonder that to accomplish the scoring of it required five months of incessant work.  That Sir Arthur Sullivan goes at a tremendous pace when once started will be understood from the following "record" breaking specimen of time occupied —

Overture to Iolanthe composed between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Overture to Yeomen of the Guard, twelve hours.

Epilogue to Golden Legend composed and scored for orchestra and chorus in less than twenty-four hours.

The work of "reducing" Sullivan’s operatic compositions for the piano has for some time been entrusted to Mr. Wilfred Bendall.

The abode in which this most prolific composer does his work is a ground floor flat in Victoria Street, but as unlike any other flat as Stonehenge is to Salisbury Cathedral — the latter in all its wealth of grace and ornament being taken as a simile for his delightful surroundings.

The rooms lead out of each other and into spacious passages in the most satisfactory manner, avoiding the least suggestion of cramped space. Treasures from everywhere meet in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s London house, for he has travelled much, and has never returned without bringing some fresh additions to his store of unique belongings, and always the very best of its kind procurable.  Some Persian tiles which form a hiding-place for flower-pots in his drawing-room were the source of envy to Sir Frederic Leighton, every time that connoisseur in such matters visited his friend.

For an absolute rest — when he "wants just to walk about and breathe and get strong for more work" — Sir Arthur Sullivan goes to Switzerland.  For a "half-holiday" he goes to Weybridge; but to do things by halves is not a weakness of his, as my readers must needs acknowledge, especially when so long a "chat" for a magazine is brought to a close by the gift of his portrait, specially signed for their benefit — and mine, who claim the photograph eventually in remembrance of "a famous victory."  


"A Chat with the Composer of "The Lost Chord" – Sir Arthur Sullivan and His Work."  The New Penny Magazine 5.54 (Feb? 1900) 61-67. 


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