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Notes on the Music

by David Lyle

In the years between 1875 and 1896, Arthur Sullivan, in collaboration with W. S. Gilbert, created the unique and enduring series of brilliant comic operas which secured, for both men, a permanent place in music theatre history. Because of this, the composer's prodigious output of songs, oratorios and orchestral works - which made him Victorian England's most feted composer - have tended to fade from popular view, although, more recently, interest in them has been re-awakened and new audiences are — gradually — coming to realise that Sullivan was much, much more than a gifted purveyor of popular tunes, and that his whole output deserves serious consideration.

Exactly when Sullivan first felt the urge to write a full-scale opera is hard to tell; what we do know is that, as the years with Gilbert passed, he grew more and more dissatisfied with the lack of humanity in the writer's plots, and the constraints upon his expression which the strongly-marked rhythms and ironic content of Gilbert's words caused. This dissatisfaction led, from about 1888 onwards, to the composer working with Richard D'Oyly Carte in the planning of a theatre, where British opera - which had fared badly since the days of Balfe and Wallace and was, as an art-form, almost defunct - could enjoy a renaissance, assisted by Carte's entrepreneurial zeal and Sullivan's popularity. These plans came to fruition in 1891, when the newly-built Royal English Opera staged the composer's romantic opera, "Ivanhoe", with a libretto by Julian Sturgis, based on Scott's great and immensely popular novel.

Sullivan knew exactly what kind of opera he wanted to write; in a statement he gave to the San Francisco Chronicle, as early as 1885, he had made it clear that he did not want to produce a copy of French, Wagnerian or Italian operas, with their "gaudy and tinsel tunes" (French), "mysticism and unreal sentiment" (Wagnerian), and "fantastic airs ... and farfetched effects" (Italian). Rather, he wanted to produce something not based on "...gods or myths", but on plots "...that give rise to human emotions and human passions." Importantly, he asserted that music "...should speak to the heart, and not to the head", and that his opera of the "new school" would be "...an historical work".

The subject he chose typifies the Victorian absorption with, and passion for, Romantic, historical dramas, where heroes spent their time rescuing maidens in distress and generally doing terribly valorous and chivalrous things. To the Victorians, this was how their England had evolved over the generations, and Scott had played a great part in creating the traditions and the whole, very theatrical, pageant. Sullivan warmed to the passions and human values exemplified by Scott's characters and wrote music which was suffused with his own humanity and generosity of spirit, and which brought the cardboard cut-out figures to life in a touchingly honest, and almost naively human, way.

In "Ivanhoe", Sullivan was writing in what he saw as a popular vein - the "heart" and not the "head" - and he deliberately eschewed a rehearsal of well-worn European styles. Perhaps the best guide to the style of the music of "Ivanhoe" is that found in "The Yeomen of the Guard", and, particularly, I think, in the structure and atmosphere of the great first act finale. Indeed, in some ways, the nine scenes (in three Acts) of "Ivanhoe" can be seen as nine such finales - through composed, and with inherent cohesion which also relates to the rest of the opera.

The pattern of scenes in Sturgis' book was designed to allow the composer to write contrasting music - for example, the first Act begins with the large choruses and bustle of Rotherwood Castle, and ends with the pomp and pageantry of the Tournament. In between, is the very personal scene involving only Ivanhoe, Rowena and, at the end, Isaac. Acts Two and Three have similar structures.

Within this framework, Sullivan writes music of considerable thematic and harmonic unity, based firmly in diatonic style. More adventurous, chromatic harmony is used, though it is reserved for scenes involving soloists alone - such as, for example, in the magnificent, extended duet between the Templar and Rebecca, which ends Act Two. Notably, the "darker" keys - particularly towards the flat side - with their richness and complexity of overtones and harmonics, are reserved for the more intimate, intense, indoor scenes, while the "brighter" and "simpler" keys - C, F & G majors — are used for outdoor scenes, to provide a musical canvas to the pageant-like pictures and situations.

I have mentioned that thematic unity is apparent in "Ivanhoe"; while this is not fully developed - as Wagnerian leitmotiv is, for example - it does serve to identify characters and situations. Thus, the opening notes of the work signify the Saxon faction, headed by Cedric, whilst the Knights Templar are characterised by a rising, arpeggio figure. Initially, this figure is restrained and dignified, but, in the scenes where Torquilstone Castle is set on fire, and in the duel between the Templar and Ivanhoe, in Act Three, it takes on a frenetic character, indicating conflict and tension. And, in an exquisite moment, near the end of the opera, where Rebecca finally leaves Ivanhoe with Rowena and returns to her father, Sullivan uses a melodic fragment, sung earlier by Rowena, to underline the gentleness of Rebecca's character, with subtlety and poignancy.

In every programme note I have written for the Society, I have commented on Sullivan's superb skill as an orchestrator, and this skill is nowhere more evident than in the score of "Ivanhoe". The density of the orchestral palette is immense, with the dark tones of cor anglais and bass clarinet added to the wind band, and the harp giving glitter and richness to the overall texture. The brass chorus is full, with two trumpets, three trombones, four horns and tuba adding tremendous depth to the ensemble.

Though, as has been noted, our version of "Ivanhoe" contains several cuts, to bring the opera within a realistic evening's time-scale, the overall effect is still powerful and uplifting. That peculiar spell which only Sullivan can cast is evident in every scene and I believe that you will revel, as we have done, in discovering the riches that lie within this marvellous score. I think this is a work which has been unjustifiably neglected and I am sure that, after hearing it today, you will agree that it deserves its place as an important landmark in the history of British opera.

David Lyle,
Musical Director
The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Edinburgh

1999 is David's twenty-second year as Musical Director to The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Edinburgh. Born and educated in Edinburgh, he is prominent in the musical life of the city, and is well-known as a conductor, accompanist and orchestral timpanist. His services as a musical director are constantly in demand, and recent engagements have included Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and Allegro, and Sullivan's and German's The Emerald Isle.

His specialist field is the music of Sullivan, and he has conducted on several commercial recordings of the composer's non-Gilbert operas, including the first-ever of Ivanhoe, which he is thrilled to be conducting for the Society's 75th. anniversary year.

Future plans include a concert featuring Sullivan's incidental music to The Merchant of Venice, and the suite from the ballet, Pineapple Poll, in addition to music by German, Bizet and Sibelius. Next year, to celebrate the centenary of Sullivan's death, he intends to pawn everything and stage a performance of Sullivan's oratorio, The Golden Legend, which will involve large choral and orchestral forces.

Page created 3 October 2003