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Workers and Their Work

Sir Arthur Sullivan

It is dusk in Victoria-street, London, as Sir Arthur Sullivan stands at his own fireside, smoking his cigarette, which lightens the labour of finishing the score of the new comic opera to be presently read at the Savoy Theatre.  On the walls around hang sketches by the Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lorne, a portrait of Jenny Lind, presented to the composer by that admirable artist, and an engraving of Raffaele’s Madonna di San Sisto. In answer to my question, Sir Arthur says —

"As a general matter of habit I write almost entirely at night, when posts have ceased from troubling and omnibuses are at rest.  I can do more between twelve and four, when my quiet is entirely undisturbed, than I could get through in the whole day.  And as I am not obliged to rise early, it seems as convenient a time for working as any other.  You, who know what it is to be perpetually disturbed while writing copy, will at once understand how fatal interruption must be to musical composition. I don’t for an instant infer that one is easier than the other, yet cannot help thinking that writers can pick up the broken threads of an idea more swiftly than musicians can.  It is impossible for us to work to advantage in short spells — bit by bit, as it were — for an hour or so at a time, as I understand one can write or paint.  It takes a long time for the musician to get thoroughly hold of his subject, and when he is in full swing he likes to write on and on till he is beginning to get tired.  Nobody, I should think, could write any fairly good music when he is fatigued and jaded.  I apprehend one must come fresh to any artistic work."

"You have never undergone the drudgery of teaching?"

"I have given a few lessons, but very few.  I began to write early in life, and during the time I was composing serious music went through some little hard times, like other beginners in every art or craft.  But instead of teaching for bread I, fortunately, wrote songs, at first for five and then for ten guineas a piece and more.  They happened to strike the public taste.  Many of these I published on the ‘royalty’ system — so much per copy sold.  ‘The Lost Chord’ has brought me a yearly income ever since.  The only one of my better known songs that I sold outright was ‘Sweethearts,’ for £700 to Chappells.  I was pleased to get so much money, and I hope and believe my friends did well by the bargain.  You know all about ‘Cox and Box’ with Mr. Burnand’s capital words, and my subsequent work with Mr. Gilbert.  The sale of the book containing the full score of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ was almost incredible.  The first batch ordered and printed was 30,000.  I have a collaborator in Mr. Gilbert, who writes lyrical words in a manner equalled by no living author.  Words pretty enough to read are not always effective when sung.  Fortune has been very kind to me."

"It is precisely because you have gained such honours and rewards as to be beyond all suspicion of envy, jealousy, discontent, or disappointment that I ask your opinion on the present and probable future of music and musicians in England."

"I have been successful in my own country beyond my deserts, and I am always received most cordially abroad.  I am, I believe, but am not quite sure, the only English composer of to-day who has had an important work performed by the French Conservatoire.  I am to conduct the forthcoming Leeds Festival, and have personally nobody and nothing to complain of.  And I do not teach.  So I can afford to be outspoken on behalf of my brethren.  The knowledge and appreciation of music have enormously increased in this country during the last 20 years, and will probably go on increasing; but I am not so sure that the position of the professional musician will improve in proportion.  In England there is a curious preference for musical foreigners.  Italians, Frenchmen, and, above all, Germans are preferred both as teachers and executants.  For instance, the direction of the Birmingham Musical Festival is considered a sort of blue ribbon among English musicians.  It has been given to a foreigner who speaks very little English, against whose ability I have not a word to say, except that a German who cannot speak English appears oddly selected to conduct English choruses."

"Sir Michael Costa was a foreigner."

"True; but he was domiciled in England, and, moreover, had a position such as no other person is likely to enjoy.  He reigned at once over the Royal Italian Opera and the Philharmonic and Sacred Harmonic Societies.  And he was an almost ideal conductor and a sound musician, although not endowed with any special creative faculty.  He, of course, conducted the Birmingham Festival for years.  This was very different from importing a foreign musician for the occasion."

"You then hold patriotic views as to art?"

"I know it is laid down that art has no nationality.  In a broad sense this is true, but in its particular application to musicians it is very wide of the mark.  As a free trader you insist on free-trade in art.  Tell me then how English musical executants are received abroad, how an English violinist would get on in a French band, how an English flute player would be accepted in Germany.  I am not referring to ‘stars,’ but to good average performers.  Look at the conditions of the Paris Grand Opera concerning the production of new operas by French composers!  There is no idea of ‘fair trade’ or reciprocity of any kind with regard to ordinary English musicians abroad.  But English people, who have excellent professors of their own, prefer Germans to teach the pianoforte to their children.  Perhaps they get them cheaper.  I do not know, but I should think it very likely from various incidents which have come to my knowledge.  The prejudice in favour of foreign teachers seems to promise badly for the young people whom we are now educating as musicians in this country."

"The field of labour will grow larger."

"Not in proportion to the number of bands. There is, I apprehend, imminent danger of the supply outrunning the demand.  And so long as distinct preference is shown for foreigners the profession will remain as the only one without prizes.  When the greatest distinction that an English musician can achieve is conferred upon a foreigner, not even resident here, what have our young people to look forward to?  They are an army of rank and file without hope of commission or command."

"Or a church without bishoprics."

"Without deaneries, rectories or even curacies, as long as foreigners are employed in preference to Englishmen.  If there were no competent conductors for a great musical festival in this country I would say nothing; but there are several — Mr. Barnby, Mr. Cowen, Mr. Stanford, and others.  Foreigners will have nothing to do with our pictures, our books, our music or musicians.  Why we run mad after them and their work I do not understand.  There seem to be art periods in various countries.  That of German music since Bach has been very short.  Excepting Wagner, whom it would be too long to discuss, the last great German name is Schumann.  Take purely French music from Grétry to Gounod, and tell me what it all amounts to.  Now I come to Italian opera.  You understand perfectly that I do not mean opera sung for convenience in Italian, as the older scholars wrote in Latin as a common language, but the modern Italian school of opera.  The Italian opera of the chief masters, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, is dead for a very good reason.  These composers of melody wrote for great artists, for a galaxy of wonderful singers who interpreted their work superbly.  When these melodies are now sung by an artist of nearly the same calibre everybody will go to hear them; but the operas are not intrinsically strong enough to bear indifferent or even moderate execution.  In ‘Semirade’ there is a duet which is good for nothing unless it is sung to perfection.  And the famous things in ‘Norma,’ ‘Sonnambula,’ and the ‘Puritani’ require exquisite handling and voices of exceptional power.  Just now there is a scarcity of great singers, and Italian opera, properly so-called, is dead, for a time at least, in consequence of the impossibility of adequate performance.  The rage now is for everything German in music, just as it is for German clerks in the city."

"Is not the area of music large enough for all?"

"Not, as I think, for all who are now studying it as a profession in this country to make a living upon.  Everybody cannot achieve success as a composer.  Playing the organ at church is a help to a young musician but those who hope to live by their art divide themselves naturally into two classes, teachers and executants.  I will give you in round numbers an idea of the army of young persons now going through a course of instruction at the public institutions in London.  The Royal Academy of Music has 500 students, the Royal College of Music 200, and the Guildhall School of Music, I believe, 1,300 or 1,400.  I do not say that all of these — especially the latter — intend to live as professional musicians, but a great number have a hope of doing so.  It is, I should think, very foolish to give a son musical training unless he has almost what is called genius, or at least decided talent.  Competition will be very great, and the weaker will be thrust to the wall.  At this moment a great number of well-taught young musicians are very hard put to it to find anything like employment, remunerative or otherwise.  The sheet-anchor of these is supposed to be teaching, but teachers are, owing to many causes, becoming more numerous than pupils.  As for the executants, they have to struggle against foreign competition also.  The possessor of a very fine voice has an advantage over everybody, but many strive to become singers who are very poorly qualified in that prime necessity.  And when singers and instrumentalists are proficient they are met by a serious competitor in the shape of that new development, the musical amateur."

"Is he or she very formidable?"

"Extremely so as interfering with the bread and butter of the profession.  You urge that the general interest of the public in any pursuit must be in favour of those professing it, and quote the prosperity of the theatre as an instance.  The cases are not parallel, although there is some similarity between them.  You know the theatrical amateur well!  Have not you found that he is, as a rule, much more interested in what he acts himself and his friends and rival amateurs act than in studying the method of a genuine actor, except perhaps for low comedy business?  He will go sometimes night after night till he learns ‘that bit of business’ with the key or the candlestick, or whatever it is, but he is all the time thinking how nearly he can imitate Brough or Toole, or Terry."

"Still he goes to the play, and in a manner encourages the drama, as the musical amateur goes to opera, oratorio, and concert."

"Hardly.  I think, on reflection, you will agree with me that musical amateurs as a body go very little to public performances.  They care as a body infinitely more for their own singing and playing than for that of the most famous artists.  Look at the audiences at the Monday ‘Pops’ and many other concerts.  They are composed of the same persons, not of musical amateurs.  Many of these sing and play very well, and as nearly everybody likes what is fairly good and costs nothing better than something very good for hard cash, musical amateurs make their own and their friends’ music instead of paying professional performers.  Such joys are cheap, and appear to interest the amateur musical mind very much.  But they lop off an important item from an artist’s income, just as vast institutions like the Guildhall School of Music deprive private teachers of numerous pupils.  I should think half the music of London is performed by amateurs to one another.  They have their inner public, their partisans and admirers, just like Handel and Buononcini, Grisi and Lind, Wagner and Gounod.  They are perfectly happy among themselves, but afford very slender support to professional musicians."

"Then you are not hopeful as to the outcome of enlarged musical teaching?"

"It is only as to the craft that I am not very sanguine.  It may be excellent for the nation if hard on my brother English musicians.  Possibly it is only a phase of a change which may make England a great musical nation.  I will not attempt a forecast on this part of the subject.  What I see before me is that foreigners are preferred for teaching, and for the great prizes of the highly skilled musician; that amateurs are becoming in a way rivals to the profession as executants; and that probably a great school like the Guildhall School of Music, with excellent professors, is perhaps a little confused as to its purpose, or is in a manner diverted from its purpose by the public.  The latter is quite in consonance with our national genius for giving to those who have.  When an educational prize, such as a scholarship, is bequeathed it is competed for and sometimes won by the children of parents who could amply afford to pay for their education without begging from the founder.  Our old grammar schools have been treated very much like this, and when cheap and admirable musical education is given for sums not exceeding forty pounds a year, persons of considerable income avail themselves of the opportunity.  But the effect is curious.  The classes intended to be benefited are cut out, and the intention of the foundation reversed.  The Guildhall School of Music gives excellent teaching to intending teachers and also to a crowd of ordinary pupils.  It thus educates teachers and takes away the persons to be taught by making the latter its own pupils.  Perhaps the right people are sometimes missed, but very rarely I think, for musical capacity is of all that which declares itself early."

"Shall we ever have a genuine National serious Opera?"

"I know the American saying about prophecy, so I don’t pretend to know.  But it seems likely enough.  There is room for something, and this might be created here as well as on the Continent and imported.  But many conditions are required for success in operatic management.  I apprehend that a successful opera must be played every night to make money.  Life is too hurried now to calculate over one opera on Mondays and Wednesdays, another on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and another on Fridays and Saturdays.  People will not, I think, do this; and then, if you run your opera every night, you require a double cast — or, as they say in poor coal country, a "double shift" — of singers.  Good singers will hardly consent to sing through a grand opera every night.  Very few have sufficient physical power, and even they would be wise not to exert it.  So there would be difficulties in management apart from competition and execution.  You must also consider the rivalry of the concert room.  I do not now speak of the great rewards given to the prime donne popular throughout the civilized world.  My remarks are generally concerning musical people, in Mark-lane style, "from fair to middling."  But a good singer now gets as much for singing two or three songs at a concert as for singing through a long and difficult opera, requiring some knowledge of the stage as well.  But I yet think that England may become a great musical country, and that before long we may have a National Opera."

And Sir Arthur Sullivan having finished his cigarette bids me farewell, and addresses himself to his writing table to get on with the score of the new comic opera.  It is needless to inform the readers of the Daily News that musical composers do not "tinkle-tinkle" on the pianoforte to develop their ideas, but put them upon paper at once, without piano or other instrumental or vocal accompaniment.


"Workers and Their Work.  Sir Arthur Sullivan."  Daily News, no. 12,090, Sat. January 10, 1885, p. 5. (Abridged version reprinted in Musical World, 24 Jan. 1885, as "King Arthur of the Table Round:  An Interview with Sullivan," and Sir Arthur Sullivan Society Magazine no. 56, Summer 2003.) 


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