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THE NEW MUSICAL DRAMA AT THE SAVOY.
WHAT SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN SAYS.
It was on Monday night that I called on Sir Arthur Sullivan, and his innumerable well-wishers will be glad to learn that I found him not only looking well in health, but several years younger than he did on the last occasion I visited him — about six months ago. Why the phenomenon? Well, I believe the great secret — if a reason be necessary — is to be found in the fact that he has been working incessantly day after day on the new piece, and Sir Arthur thrives astonishingly on exceptionally hard work. The writing of the music for the new drama has not been less arduous — perhaps more so — than the setting of any of his famous light operas, but every note of it has been written in less than four months. "Monday, May 23rd," was the date of my call. "It was at 4.30 this morning that I completed the orchestration," Sir Arthur exclaimed, and the work was not begun until the last week in January. Omitting all thought of the creative part of the work, it is difficult to imagine the amount of sheer manual labour, and the rapidity of composition, which this statement implies.
"I think the work has proved more arduous than anything else I have done," said Sir Arthur, "and this is not explained by the fact that the piece is of a serious character, because the composition of a light or comic opera where I must appear to be in a chronic state of high spirits, and write in a light, tuneful vein throughout, with the constant fear of the commonplace or banal before me, is no easy task. But in this case it was a long time before I got into the right groove, and the construction of the concerted numbers, and the instrumentation took me more time than usual. Most of my Savoy operas have taken me about a fortnight to ‘score,’ but I am sorry to say I have been nearly a month over the instrumentation of this piece.
"I think it should be made clear beforehand that this piece, ‘The Beauty Stone,’ is of a totally different character to anything we have had previously at the Savoy Theatre. It is not ‘heavy,’ and I hope the same thing may be said of the music, but it is a romantic drama, not a humorous piece, and though it possesses light qualities, and may admit of humorous treatment in some of the songs and incidents, it is written on serious lines. There is certainly nothing depressing about it. That will, I think, be granted, but I am so afraid that the audience will come to the theatre expecting a comic opera, with all the quips, cranks, and jokes pertaining thereto, and not finding them will be disappointed. Oh, no, it doesn’t end unhappily or anything of that sort. There is an undercurrent of pathos throughout the play, and the opening scene begins with a duet of despair because they are old, poor, and wretched, between the old couple Simon and Joan, Mr. Lytton and Miss Rosina Brandram, who sing their song at the loom."
"Well, it isn’t like that all the way through," said Sir Arthur, cheerfully, "or those people who had come solely to be amused might, perhaps, burst into tears and leave the theatre! But the motive throughout is that the possession of beauty does not necessarily bring happiness with it. Of course you get the humorous element, as you do in romantic and historical novels, although — " smilingly — "you would hardly describe them as being comic books!
"The Evil One, which will be played by Mr. Passmore, is dressed in the costume of the period, and mixes with the crowd. He has everything to do with the action of the story, and is represented as the Devil of the middle ages, when, as is explained in the preface, ‘he was a constant figure in popular imagination, familiarity engendering a sentiment in which contempt fought strongly with awe for preeminence.’ He adopts various disguises, a friar and so forth, is nobody’s confidant, and is throughout a stranger to those with whom he converses, a mysterious personage. He holds the Beauty Stone and hands it to one and the other — always with results that — but I mustn’t tell the story."
"And the vocal music?" – "There are twenty-four numbers, six or seven of which are long concerted pieces. I don’t know that you ought to ask the composer which of them is likely to attract most attention — so far as the music is concerned — but I might instance two light duets with dancing which take place between the Devil (Passmore) and Jacqueline (Miss Emmie Owen), a sort of waif, who becomes his page and attendant, and a tender duet for the two old people, recalling their youthful love."
"Saida is the prima donna of the piece, and will be played by Miss Pauline Joran, who is not only a great singer, but an admirable musician. She was educated as a violinist, but has a wonderfully fine voice and a dramatic ability which I think will convince everyone that we are very fortunate to have secured such a brilliant artiste for the part. One of the most striking scenes in which Saida figures is at the point where she endeavours to lure back the hero — Philip, Lord of Mirlemont, to her love. This is a fairly long piece of concerted music, written in an oriental vein and in this as by way of accompaniment to Saida’s song — and the dance — I have to bring in a chorus of knights and dames who sing in a fashion which suggests a series of hushed ‘asides,’ alternating with a chorus of Eastern maidens."
"Which means a task of intricate workmanship?" I suggest, and then I enquire, "But what does ‘the oriental’ in music really imply?"
"Well, I have tried to give it an unconventional colour. The conventional oriental colour in music is gained by the use of certain intervals, such as the augmented second and the diminished fifth, but I have rather tried to give it oriental colour by means of the languor of the music and by adopting a scale of my own after the Greek modes," and Sir Arthur very good-naturedly ran over on the pianoforte some of the scales for the first, according to the conventional, and then, the scale which he had adopted, and a few bars of the music — langorous and bringing to one’s mind the suggestion of strange eastern scenes and colour.
"And how may I describe the scale which you have adopted?" I inquired ruthlessly, after thanking him. "I don’t want to be too technical, but music lovers" I ejaculated desperately. Then I saw by the expression of Sir Arthur’s face, as he commiserated my endeavours to grapple with musical matters that some little joke was forthcoming.
"Well, you see," he explained, laughing heartily, "it is quite my own secret invention that scale: but, if you like, you can mention that it is a compromise between the Phrygian Mode and the Hypo-mixolydian. No doubt this is quite clear to you?"
Under these circumstances an interviewer can only "preserve his face," as the Chinese express it, by becoming even more remorseless in his interrogation, and I adopted this course.
"And the Devil music — is it weird?"
"No, not in the conventional sense. It is characterised by a certain grim levity — that is how I should distinguish it."
In reply to a further question Sir Arthur said: "The part of the hero, Philip, is taken by a newcomer, Mr. Devoll, who can be relied upon, I think I may say, to give the best possible rendering to a very strong part. Love ditties are not absent, but it is not the traditional tenor part where the rapturous tenor is made to look — well — like a consummate idiot! It is a part which implies manliness."
"You know, I’m not partial to being interviewed," said Sir Arthur, at parting; "but, for or against it" — laughing good-humouredly — "I feel sure I can never do right! Either I am secretive and quite inaccessible, because I don’t accede to any journalist who may choose to knock at the door, or if I am caught in a weak moment in this way I am told that I am trying to puff and advertise my operas. I must think over it, and try to decide which is the worst charge! But you can easily see that, adopting either of the alternatives, I shall be equally wrong!"
It was evident that neither charge has disturbed Sir Arthur’s equanimity in the slightest degree, but it will be admitted that the forthcoming production stands in no need of the services of my journalistic "advance agent," and it is to be hoped that one will not have assisted the absurd suggestion of "advertisement" in thus taking advantage of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s characteristic good-nature and courtesy by thus attempting to lift just a bit of the "curtain."
"The New Musical Drama at the Savoy – What Sir Arthur Sullivan Says." Daily News, 25 May 1898, p. 3.
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