The conductor at the Leeds Musical Festivals of 1874 and 1877 had been Sir Michael
Costa. However, his imperious and autocratic attitude towards the committee had
alienated some of its members who were anxious to see him replaced. At meeting of
the Executive Committee in December 1879, considerable time was spent discussing
the appointment of a conductor for the 1880 festival.
Costa still had his adherents. The other names considered were Charles Hallé and
Sullivan, Sullivan's name being proposed by Frederick Spark, the Honorary Secretary of the festival and its driving force for more than fifty years. Three votes were taken at that meeting which resulted in Hallé being invited to conduct the next festival. But Hallé was only prepared to accept the position if his Manchester orchestra was also engaged. This was unacceptable to the committee who felt that Hallé's orchestra was inferior to that which had been assembled for the 1877 festival, made up of London musicians.
When the committee met on New Year's Day 1880, the three names were considered
afresh. This time, Costa obtained the most votes. He was invited to conduct the 1880 festival, but the invitation had the condition attached that he would conduct the works selected by the committee and provide a list of the band for their approval.
Costa decisively declined the invitation. Hallé had been ruled out because of his
insistence on the engagement of his own orchestra. Sullivan, who had not had a
majority in any of the votes taken, was the only candidate left.
On 8 January 1880, the following telegram was sent to Sullivan who was then in
From Fred Spark, Leeds, to Arthur Sullivan, musician, New York.
Will you accept conductorship of Leeds Festival next autumn? Committee await
Not receiving an immediate reply, Spark wrote to Sullivan two days later:
My Dear Sir,
On Thursday last I telegraphed you. No reply has yet been received.
I now write officially to say that at a meeting of the Festival Executive Committee on
Thursday, January 8th, you were selected conductor for the next Leeds Festival, to be
held in the autumn of this year. I named to the committee the terms you had stated to
me you were willing to take for the duties, viz., £300, to include the charge of £100
for the privilege of our first producing your new oratorio, David and Jonathan - that
is £200 as conductor, and £100 for the oratorio. The formal resolution which has been passed is as follows:
"That Mr. Arthur Sullivan be appointed conductor subject to arrangements
satisfactory to the committee as to his remuneration, services, the constitution of the
band, and the selection of the programme being made."
We have no doubt whatever that you will readily agree with the programme which
will be selected by the committee, and I enclose you sketch of the works proposed. Of
course the committee will gladly consult with you as to the full programme before it is
The committee will arrange with you as to the selection of the band, which it is
desired shall be at least as good as that of our last Festival.
On receipt of your reply a meeting of the General Committee will be convened, when
it will be proposed to confirm your appointment as conductor.
Please reply at once.
Fred. R. Spark, Hon. Sec.
Sullivan replied by telegram on 13 January:
Accept if terms mutually satisfactory. Will write.
On 28 January, Sullivan wrote:
My dear Sir,
I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 10th inst. Will you kindly convey
to the Committee of the Leeds Musical Festival my appreciation of the honour they
have done me in offering me the conductorship of their next festival.
I am happy to accept it upon the terms mentioned in my letter written to you in
October upon the eve of my departure from England, and also subject to the
arrangements as to my services, constitution of the Band, selection of the Solo Artists,
programme &c being satisfactory to myself as to the Committee.
Will you kindly let me know the exact date of the festival, and any other details that
may be useful, as I shall not return to England until the end of April.
I am, dear Sir,
Some members of the Committee felt Sullivan was trying to gain control of aspects of
the Festival which they felt were properly their responsibility as Costa and Hallé had tried to do before him. Spark spelt out the committees views in his reply on 14
Your letter of January 28th accepting the conductorship of the Leeds Musical Festival was read to the committee at its weekly meeting last Thursday.
The Festival is fixed to be held on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday,
October 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th. There will be seven grand performances, and on
the Saturday night a People's Festival Concert, with chorus, organ, and some of the
principals (both vocal and instrumental), but no band. We adopt these days in order that we may have full rehearsals on the Monday and Tuesday.
What we should wish you to do, as regards the band, is to furnish us with a list of
those players whom you desire should be engaged, together with the amounts you
think should be offered to each player. We, of course, know the terms paid at our last
festival; but in many instances, we believe, the charges were excessive, arising from a
knowledge on the part of some of the bandsmen that Sir Michael Costa had insisted
upon their engagement. It has always been our custom to include in the band some
half-a-dozen thoroughly competent players living in Leeds - of course, in a
As to the solo artists, the committee always secure the services of the best available
singers, consistent with fair remuneration. Already we have engaged Mdme. Patey,
Mr. Ed. Lloyd, Mr. Henschel, and are negotiating for Albani. As sub-principals, we
are in correspondence with Miss Anna Williams, Miss Mary Cummings, Mr. Jos.
Maas, Mr. M'Guckin, Mr. H. Cross, Mr. Pope, Mr. F. King, &c. In this department Sir
Michael Costa never asked to have a voice.
Respecting the programme, the committee will, as I think I named to you. gladly avail
themselves of your advice ; but as they are responsible to the public for the
programme, they desire to retain the power of selecting the chief works, always asking
and gladly receiving any suggestion from the conductor. Sir Michael Costa threw
many obstacles in the way certain works which the committee desired to produce, so
that a feeling sprung up in favour of a change of conductors. For instance, Beethoven's
Choral Symphony was strongly objected to by Sir Michael at the last Festival, and
it was, in consequence, omitted from our programme. Bach's works were also opposed
by Sir Michael, though we did succeed at last in getting the Magnificat done.
I enclose you list of our last band, and band engagement form, from which you will
see that the actual engagements were made in the month of June.
Trusting you will return to England in good health, and with a determination to make
the Leeds Festival the finest in the kingdom,
I am, yours truly,
Fred. R. Spark, Hon. Sec.
Both Sullivan and the committee were satisfied with this arrangement and his
appointment was announced. It provoked much comment, most of it favourable as can
be seen from this extract by a local gossip writer:
I am delighted to know that the Leeds Festival Committee have succeeded in securing the services of Mr. Arthur Sullivan as their conductor. Though a comparatively young man, being only thirty-eight, Mr. Sullivan has proved himself to be a composer of the
highest merit, in every class of music, except "grand" opera. Oratorios, symphonies,
overtures, illustrative Shakespeare music, songs, church music, and operetta - in all
these the name of Sullivan has for some time been prominent. As a conductor, he is
regarded by those who have watched his career as possessing great ability - albeit, he
is quiet and unobtrusive in the orchestra. No gymnastic exercises, no stamping of the
feet, no loudly expressed directions will he indulge in on the orchestra. All necessary
instructions are given by him at the rehearsals. And this is as it should be. Against Mr.
Sullivan, I hear, were pitted Sir Michael Costa and Mr. Charles Hallé; and many
members of the Festival Committee were dubious as to the wisdom of the proposed
change. There is one point, however, in the election of Mr. Sullivan about which I am
particularly pleased. It is the fact that for an English Festival we are to have an
English conductor. Too long have we in this country bowed down to foreign
talent, even when it has been far inferior to English talent. On the selection of an
Englishman over Costa and Hallé as conductor, an admirer of Pinafore sends me the following from that work, slightly altered:
We might have had a Russian - a French, or Turk, or Prussian,
Or else I-ta-li-an.
But in spite of all temptations to go to other nations
We select an Englishman!
A chorus of 306 were engaged and had begun rehearsals under their chorus master,
James Broughton. Sullivan's first rehearsal in Leeds was on 4 June when he was
greeted with cheers and applause by the chorus. He rehearsed works by Bach,
Beethoven and Mendelssohn on that occasion.
On 14 June, Sullivan wrote to Spark:
Is there any chance of the committee consenting to a slight increase in the orchestra? It would simplify matters for me very much, and since I have heard the chorus I do not think any band can be too good for them. If we could have 2 first violins extra, 4 second violins extra, (to make 22 of each), 2 violas extra, 2 'cellos extra, 2 double basses extra, making 12 more strings altogether, the orchestra would be superb.
The request was not granted and Sullivan tried again:
The orchestra as at present constituted, with double wind, consists of 111 performers, and I think by a little judicious management I could do with an addition of 10 instead of 12 strings. If your committee can see their way to give me this addition, I should be quite content. I propose the increase should be 2 first violins, 2 second violins,2 violas, 2 'celli, total 10; and by engaging the horns and contra fagotti to play fourth bassoon, this would give an entire orchestra of 120.
The committee considered Sullivan's request, but turned it down on the grounds that
there was not enough room for the extra musicians in the Town Hall and lack of funds
to pay them. Being told of this, Sullivan, according to the minute book, "at once gave
Sullivan's second visit to Leeds was on 31 August when he rehearsed for the first time
his new cantata The Martyr of Antioch. He brought with him his pupil, Eugene
D'Albert, who had arranged the piano reduction for the Vocal Score, to accompany the
chorus. Sullivan outlined the narrative of the new work to the chorus before
proceeding with the rehearsal proper, which was reported in a local newspaper:
For the rendering of the various numbers, nothing but praise can be awarded, seeing that the vocalists had had no opportunity of studying the music. The 'slip's made were remarkably few; and the warm praise that the composer-conductor bestowed on the singers at the conclusion of the rehearsal was well deserved. He remarked that he did
not consider it difficult to sing the music, the difficulty was the 'reading; but the
manner in which they had read the music was only equalled by the promise they gave
of how they would sing it. These pleasant congratulations were not all on one side, for
after several of the choruses the vocalists manifested their appreciation of the
composer's success and talent.
Sullivan proposed that only people connected with the Festival should be allowed to
attend rehearsals. He wrote:
Adverting to our conversation at Leeds with reference to the admission of persons at rehearsals who are disconnected with the Festival, I cannot too strongly urge upon the committee the propriety of steadily refusing all such applications, except in the case of the chorus, to whose friends I believe it is customary to give admission to the gallery.
The fact of strangers being present not only confuses the conductor, but hampers the
singers, and good artists will not sing out at rehearsals when they are being criticised
and carped at by persons who come out of idle curiosity, and, of course, know nothing
of the difficulties we have to contend with; and probably would go away with quite
erroneous ideas upon the subject rehearsed.
With regard to the London rehearsals, I must take a stronger course, and ask you to be
so kind as to get cards printed and forwarded to me, as I do not intend anyone to be
admitted, except on production of a card signed by myself.
I should be much obliged if you would urge upon the committee the expediency of
adopting these measures, without which, in my opinion, success cannot be relied
The committee decided that one ticket for each rehearsal would be given to each choir
member and that a maximum of 300 tickets would be made available to other people
who would donate half a crown to the Medical Charities who would benefit from the
profits made by the festival. The London rehearsals referred to by Sullivan would be
for those London musicians who would make up the orchestra.
Sullivan stayed at 13 Lyddon Terrace in Leeds during the Festival and wrote to his
mother on 10 October that he was "resting before the battle begins tomorrow - we
commence rehearsal at 10 sharp and rehearse all day and all the evening, and again on
Tuesday. You come down on Thursday, and you shall be made comfortable."
The Festival opened on Wednesday morning with a performance of Mendelssohn's
Elijah Sullivan was heartily greeted by both band and chorus when he took his place at the conductor's desk, demonstrating how popular he had become with both. On the quality of the orchestra, The Leeds Mercury commented:
The mere playing of the overture demonstrated the quality of the band as a faultless musical machine. Perfectly balanced in its several parts with "strings" brilliant as English strings only are, and with principal players in the "wind" of whom each is an a accomplished soloist, the Festival Orchestra has a right to claim the highest rank to which an orchestra can aspire.
The choral singing in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was singled out for praise in The Times:
The performance of the Leeds chorus, as far as I can recollect, is unsurpassed - nay, unequaled, by any previous rendering in England; and it is not too mush to add, abroad... As to sonorous effects, the splendid A of the soprani - the stumbling block of many choirs - will not soon be forgotten. It was like the tone of some gigantic instrument, so full and sustained was the sound.
Sullivan had achieved this by directing the sopranos alternately to rest for a bar in the passage where the upper A had to be sustained for a prolonged time.
Summing up Sullivan's conducting of the festival, The Athenaeum wrote:
Mr. Arthur Sullivan amply justified the action of the committee in appointing him as conductor, for if exception had to be taken now and again in matters of detail to his method of leading, still, as a rule, he wielded the bâton with skill, taste and judgement.
As the conductor of the festival, Sullivan had been a success. He would go on to conduct the next six festivals.