You are here: Archive Home >Arthur Sullivan > Interviews > A Master of Melody
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Sullivan Interviews

A Master of Melody

A Chat  with Sir Arthur Sullivan

What a host of recollections the mere mention of Sir Arthur Sullivan's name brings to one's mind!  I can well imagine that if, at some future date, say towards the middle of the next century, the man of the future were asked to name six — no, I will say three men of the present day with whom he would most like to converse, Sir Arthur Sullivan would be one of that limited number; for may it not be said that, apart from his great ability and splendid career, of which one can leave the public to judge, he is, as someone has aptly termed him, our "musician-laureate"; and indeed, if we have our "only generals," is he not, as far as popularity and genius are concerned, our "only composer"?  And then, again, is it too much to say that the result of Sir Arthur Sullivan's brilliant and diversified musical work during the past thirty years has been to transform a largely unmusical country into a largely musical one?

Sir Arthur Sullivan would be the last man to make such a claim; but I imagine that it would not be going one whit too far to say that, so far as our musical world is concerned, Sir Arthur's work has marked out a new era.  Since the times of Elizabeth and Henry VIII., when Great Britain stood in the forefront as a musical nation, slowly receding, however, until the days of Charles II., when the revival in music was mainly confined to trivialities of the French and Italian school, the musical forward movement in this country had been an exceedingly slow one, and it is only during the last thirty years that we can lay claim to having become a really musical people.  The rapid strides which have been made in our musical world have certainly been coincident with Sir Arthur Sullivan's career, and it is safe to say that, directly and indirectly, in addition to the brilliant work which he has accomplished, Sir Arthur Sullivan has been the great pioneer of a real musical reformation amongst us.

When it is admitted that Sir Arthur Sullivan does not look with any particular favour on the way of the "interviewer," it can readily be understood it is not due to any lack of geniality; for, as all his friends and acquaintances know, Sir Arthur is geniality itself, but rather to his inability to find time for matters apart from his many social duties as well as his work.

It was some two or three years ago that, at Walton-on-Thames, I first had the privilege of a brief chat with him on a busines matter which had no sort of connection with interviewing and in alluding to Sir Arthur's reluctance to being "interviewed" I do so with a not unnatural desire to express my gratitude for the valuable time and the very pleasant conversations which the distinguished composer has, on different occasions, so kindly and generously accorded me.

Sir Arthur Sullivan's career has been of such exceptional brilliance and of so public a character that it would seem, in a sense, almost superfluous to enter into biographical detail; but his life's history is so full of interest to all of us, and especially so to all lovers of music, that it will perhaps be of advantage to allude to some of the main points of Sir Arthur Sullivan's life-work, in addition to recording the little chat which I had with him on behalf of THE YOUNG WOMAN.

"My first published work," Sir Arthur remarked, "was the music which I wrote to Shakespeare's Tempest, when I was eighteen years of age and studying in Germany, and it was the performance of this work, a year after I returned to England, in '62, which first brought my name before the public at all prominently."

In talking with Sir Arthur Sulluvan, and in thinking of the work he has done and the great influence he has exercised on the musical world, it is difficult to believe that he was born fifty-five years ago, — for two very different reasons.  In talking with him it is hard to believe that he is over fifty, because of the extreme youthfulness, so far as the word indicates extreme mental and physical alertness, indicated in the keen quick glance, the good-humored laugh, and the intense interest which Sir Arthur takes in everything connected with his profession and outside it; and, on the other hand, it is very hard to believe that all Sir Arthur has done has been accomplished in the space of one lifetime.

An able writer, Mr. Charles Willeby, has said, in writing of the great master of melody:  "As the only career parallel to his, that of Adelina Patti has been instanced.  The suggestion is not without point.  Both are products of the ‘forties,' both have Italian blood in their veins, both have reached the highest pinnacle of success, and both are truly beloved by a country which has a reputation for callousness with respect to the provider of its artistic pleasures. . . . All value that there is in the comparison is constituted in the mere fact of the comparison itself — the fact that for brilliancy, for a series of glorious triumphs, there is only one career in the world of music at all analogous to that of Arthur Sullivan."

Sir Arthur's Italian descent was on his mother's side; his father was, of course, an Irishman, and a very clever executant musician.  How the youthful Arthur Sullivan attended the band rehearsals so that he knew the value of every band instrument before he was eight, and how he became chorister at the Chapel Royal, beginning his successful career by winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship, must be well known to everyone; but I do not think that the pathetic way in which one of his first and best-known overtures came to be written is so well known, and I must once more quote Mr. Charles Willeby's book on the Masters of Contemporary Music, to which, for reliable detail, Sir Arthur has on one or two occasions referred me in regard to this circumstance.

It happened that Arthur Sullivan had accepted an invitation to write a work for the Norwich Festival.  "As the time approached for its completion he worked and worked, but without any result satisfactory to himself.  About a month before the Festival, in sheer despair at his inability to satisfy himself, he said to his father (to whom he was passionately attached), ‘I shall give up the Norwich work.  I can't get an idea of any kind.  I suppose that the fact of sitting down in cold blood to write an abstract work by a certain date, with nothing suggestive to work upon, paralyses me.'  ‘No, my boy,' said his father. ‘You mustn't give it up, you will succeed if you stick to it. Something will probably occur which will put new vigour and fresh thoughts into you. Don't give it up.'  How truly prophetic were his words! Three days afterwards his father died suddenly. On the evening of his funeral the poor fellow, heartbroken as he was, sat down to bury his grief in his work.  How fully he did so we only recognise when we listen to the sorrowful long-drawn strain of his "In Memoriam" overture. It is so truly elegiac. What his father had said was true enough; all that he needed was something suggestive to work upon, but he little thought how powerful that something was to be. Within eight days of his father's death, the work was finished and ready for the Festival."

W ith the "breaking" of young Arthur Sullivan's voice came the end of his choral efforts at the Chapel Royal, and having studied harmony and counterpoint with Goss, and the pianoforte with Sterndale Bennett in England, we find him at Leipsic working hard both at pianoforte playing and composition.  At this time Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Schubert were his ideals, and, very naturally, a reflection of these composers is to be found in his earlier work.  At this time he wrote a string quartette, which was afterwards heard by Spohr in Leipsic, and it is said that, when the lad was introduced to him, the master could hardly believe that it was he who had written it.  "So jung," he exclaimed, "und doch so weit in der Kunst!"  (So young, yet so advanced in art!)  Then the Tempest music came to be written, and in '61 Sullivan returned to London, bringing the score with him.

As far as the greater public is concerned, I am not sure that it is not by such splendid pieces of melody as "The Lost Chord," rather than by larger efforts, that the good work which Sir Arthur Sullivan has done will be best, or more popularly, remembered.  The composition of this truly beautiful song is also linked with sad memories in the life of the composer, for its composition came about in this way.  His much-loved brother Frederic fell ill, and for three weeks his brother Arthur watched by his bedside night and day.  One night — the end was not very far off then — while his sick brother had for a time fallen into a peaceful sleep, and he was sitting as usual by the bedside, he chanced to come across some verses of Adelaide Procter's with which he had five years previously been very much impressed.  Now, in the stillness of the night, he read them over again, and almost as he did so he conceived their musical equivalent.  A stray sheet of music-paper was at hand, and he began to write.  Slowly the music grew and took shape, until, becoming quite absorbed in it, he determined to finish the song.  Even if, in the cold light of day, it were to prove worthless, it would at least have helped to while away the hours of watching.  In a short time it was complete, and not long afterwards in the publisher's hands.  Thus was written "The Lost Chord," perhaps the most successful song of modern times — at all events, one whose sale has, up to now, exceeded 250,000 copies.

In any consideration of Sir Arthur Sullivan's musical genius one cannot but be struck by his extraordinary versatility.  His work covers a wide field, and whether he may be considered best in symphony or oratorio, in cantata or opera, must remain, for the most part, a matter of taste.  His melody is to be found everywhere, and the hymn-book has been enriched by such tunes as the popular setting to the hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers."

Even in a brief summary one should not forget to mention the place which Sir Arthur has occupied in our national life as musician-laureate.  It was in 1863, on the occasion of the marriage of the Prince of Wales, that he was asked to compose the music, and the music which he has written for all sorts of popular functions forms no insignificant portion of the catalogue of his work.  "On Shore and Sea" was written at this period for the opening of the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1871, for which Gounod also wrote "Gallia," and in the following year came the Festival "Te Deum" in celebration of the recovery of the Prince of Wales.  In 1886 he wrote an ode with Lord Tennyson for the opening of the Indian and Colonial exhibition by the Queen, and in the following year an ode with Lewis Morris for the ceremony of laying the foundation-stone of the Imperial Institute by Her Majesty.

It would be impossible, also, to apply any measurement to the amount of innocent fun and happy hours which multitudes have derived from the Gilbert-Sullivan operas.  I well remember being taken, when I first came up to this wonderful London of ours, by a friend of mine, a clergyman to see the "Mikado."  My friend was, too, a cleric inclined to asceticism, and yielding to no one in his robust Puritanism, but it would not be easy to say how much he enjoyed the libretto of the "Mikado," and the strange quips and jests which Sir Arthur Sullivan so cleverly infuses into the delightful melodies of his music.  But the number of good clerics present on that occasion and other occasions was not a small one, and many of us have not forgotten to be thankful for the "innocent merriment" and for the exhilarating music which was an education as well as a perpetual delight.

I found Sir Arthur at home, on the occasion of which I am writing, at his town house in Victoria Street, and a veritable House Beautiful it is.  From the moment you enter the hall, with its hanging Arabian lamps, its ornate and harmonious decoration, with its lovely screen of old Cairo woodwork, until you find yourself seated with Sir Arthur in his study (a handsome room on the ground floor facing the street), whilst your host, who is one of the most delightful conversationalists imaginable, selects a Turkish cigarette from a case which reposes on the centre table, on which stand quaint and well-shaded lamps lighted by electricity, you are impressed with the melodious harmony, so to speak, of your surroundings, and indeed a little enthusiasm is excusable where everything seems to so accurately reflect your host's good taste and personal refinement.

"Of course there is a good deal of scope for the young woman in the musical world," Sir Arthur remarks, in reply to one of my questions; "but, as you know, the profession in all its branches is very much overcrowded.  It is a curious thing that although so very many young women are exceptionally gifted, they only shine as executants.  They do not seem to possess any real power, so far as composition is concerned.  They can compose pieces much as the average man can write an intelligent letter; and just as you would not on that ground describe him as a literary man, this feminine facility in composition implies little more.  Yet they are splendid executants, singers, and players."

"Do you still give audiences to young people who wish your opinion with regard to their ability as singers or pianoforte players," I interject; "or have you found it too much of a tax on your time?"

"I have been compelled to give it up.  I found that if I yielded to every request — and one cannot very easily make distinctions — that I should have no time for anything else, but be listening to the efforts of beginners for the rest of my life.  I have been obliged to have a little form printed, which I send out in very much the same way that I suppose an editor does in regard to rejected manuscripts.  I get a score of letters every day on the subject, as it is, and my secretary has really no time to answer them.  Then, again, I don't at all like delivering judgment.  It's very unpleasant.  One must give honest criticism, and it is very unpleasant to have to say to a girl, ‘You have no talent — try something else.'  Few people have any conception of how very much moderate talent there is nowadays.  The more of this moderate talent there is, the keener, of course, the competition becomes.  Naturally, the tendency with the great bulk of these would-be musicians is to become badly-paid teachers.  But the teaching is much better than it used to be, thanks to the better instruction given in the Royal Academy, the Guildhall School of Music, and similar schools and academies.

"The attention which the public gives to all-round instruction in music is startling; in fact, I should be inclined to say that it is overdone.  My own theory, as far as possible my practice as well, has always been to educate a good listener rather than an indifferent performer.

"Of course, any competent young woman can get a good deal of employment at parties and at small concerts all over the country, whilst the higher and more remunerative work remains in the hands of a comparatively small number of the greater artistes."

Then, in response to a more personal reference, Sir Arthur replies —

"Yes, musical composition entails a good deal of hard manual labour.  Here, for example," and as he spoke Sir Arthur brought down from a shelf a ponderous volume containing, as I discovered, some 720 tremendous pages of full orchestral score, "is my scoring in ‘Ivanhoe,' every semiquaver of which for voices, fiddles, other stringed and wind instruments, and so on, has necessarily to be written out with my own hand before the work can be ready for the copyist."  Every worker feels the strain of downright clerical work, but the enormous amount of manual labour entailed in the orchestrating of a full score, for voice and band parts, is of an exceptionally heavy character, and an awkward accompaniment to the genius of the composer.

"But before the work of composition commences, I suppose you have a sort of shorthand for the first stage?"

"Quite so," was the reply.  "Here is a sheet of it.  It consists, as you see, of diminutive dots and dashes.  I suppose it differs from good stenography in one material respect, that no one else would understand it, although it means a good deal to me."

"And have you anything at hand at the present moment?"

"Well, I suppose I may be said to be resting for the present," said Sir Arthur smilingly, "as I have nothing definitely in hand.  I have, however, promised to write a work for the Leeds festival, but the difficulty is to find a good subject."

But I feel that I have bothered Sir Arthur sufficiently, and as I rise to go I make an inquiry as to whether he has any word to say to the beginner who wishes to acquire high musical honours, and Sir Arthur replies, "No, I don't think I have, unless it be to warn the beginner that the standard of excellence in every department of music has risen tremendously during the past twenty-five years, and any young woman or young man will find it very hard work to rise above the rank of mediocrity.  Incessant practice and good physical health are necessary to the executant, but in any case the great secret is to start young.  Whatever else may be acquired in middle age, musical ability is a birthright.  It can be developed, but never acquired."

Lawrence, Arthur.  "A Master of Melody.  A Chat  with Sir Arthur Sullivan."  The Young Woman 6.62 (Nov. 1897) 41-44. 

Archive Home  |  Arthur Sullivan  | Interviews

   Page modified 23 November, 2011 Copyright © 2011 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.