Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Score

3.1 - General feelings about the score

David Craven, who at the time was overseeing the Utopia discussion, posed a few "starter" questions, of which this was one:

- Does anyone have any passionate feelings about the score?

Robert Jones: Yes, I passionately feel that much of it is simply dull. I don't believe he's lost his touch (he certainly has it in GD), but he's not there ALL the time. On the other hand, I passionately adore much of the music, particularly: 'Oh maiden rich' (the 'Knightsbridge nursemaids' chorus is one of my favourites in the entire canon); much of the Act I finale, especially the "posterity" song and ending; the minstrel song; the Court Entrance and Drawing Room music; 'Eagle High' of course; 'When but a maid.' (and I may be alone in this one!); the tarantella; Act II finale.

Neil Ellenhof: I think the main problem with the music is Sullivan's failure to change his musical style as time went on. It was very much the mixture as before. The one exception is the minstrel scene and to me that is the one place in the opera when there is some excitement. I think G and S tapped the market for a new good but not exceptionally good opera. Also an opera that opens with lazy langour doesn't augur well.

Ron Orenstein: Patience opens a LOT more languidly than Utopia. Anyway, Basil Hood must have liked it - the opening line of THE ROSE OF PERSIA is "As we lie in languor lazy..."

David Duffey, quoting George Bernard Shaw's review: "I have only one fault to find with Sir Arthur's luxurious ingenuity in finding pretty timbres of all sorts, and that is that it still leads him to abuse the human voice most unmercifully. I will say nothing of the part he has written for the unfortunate soprano, who might as well leave her lower octave at home for all the relief she gets from the use of her upper one.", and later still: "A composer who uses up young voices by harping on the prettiest notes in them is an ogreish volupuary; and if Sir Arthur does not wish posterity either to see the stage whitened with the bones of his victims or else to hear his music transposed wholesale ... he should make up his mind whether he means to write for a tenor or a baritone, and place the part accordingly."

Nick Sales: Whilst being far from an authority, I would suggest that Utopia's strengths lie principally in its musical numbers, and blame the larger part of the failure on Gilbert.

David Craven again: Can any of Utopia's fans argue a "different bloom" in its music?

Marc Shepherd: The score of Utopia Limited certainly takes Sullivan in a new direction, though I have always seen it as a retrogression.

3.2 - Was Sullivan unable to rise above a feeble libretto?

Marc Shepherd: Some composers could write inspired pages even when presented with feeble material. Sullivan wasn't like that: he rarely rose above the raw material.

Arthur Robinson denied this, pointing out THE CHIEFTAIN as an example.

Robert Jones: It has been said that Sullivan may have lacked inspiration because of Gilbert's uncertain libretto. But AS received the song lyrics before the dialogue was filled out, so it's unlikely that he was aware of the deficiencies of the final work until he'd set most of the songs.

3.3 - Today he is not well - Sullivan's ill-health and its effect on the score.

Bruce Miller: One factor no one has yet mentioned was the state of Sullivan's health and emotional outlook during the period Utopia was composed. He was a very ill man - in fact, he nearly died during a severe attack, when he had only about half-completed the score. Slowly and painfully, he finished it, but he was now almost 15 years older than when he overcame similar difficulties when writing Pinafore, and the libretto for Utopia was no Pinafore.

Ron Orenstein: Absolutely. I have always felt (with no proof whatever) that you can hear this in "Haddon Hall". Sullivan almost died during its composition, and the score is wildly uneven - some glorious things contrasting with real bilge. I often wonder if the break in his ability to put his health problems aside while composing happened then, and we still hear it in Utopia.

Nick Sales: No, I can see the logic behind it, yet the evidence of his earlier heroics (Pinafore, Iolanthe etc.) whilst suffering suggests this idea is a non-starter for me, however old he was at the time.

3.4 - Where's the overture?

Neil Ellenhof: I am sure many of you know but I don't. Whatever became of the Overture toUtopia? I think one using the tunes would be helpful in making them more attractive to the listener as they occur in the opera. Also, a more exciting recording than the 1975 D'oyly Carte would be helpful. I remember being very grateful for the recording when it came out (I still am) but I think some less moribund company would be able to draw more interest out of the melodies such as they are.

Bill Snyder: Was there ever one? I ended up just writing one for the second production I directed.

Bruce I. Miller: The authentic Introduction to Utopia is the one played on the 1975 D'Oyly Carte recording. Its authenticity has been confirmed via two separate sources, although unfortunately Sullivan's autograph full score has not been seen since it was auctioned off during the first World War. As to why it was not published in the vocal score is anyone's guess; perhaps it was withdrawn after the earliest performances, because the opera was found to drag and the Introduction did little to enliven the proceedings. The vocal score was no doubt issued at least a week or two after the premiere, so if the decision to excise was made early enough, the excision would have been reflected there.

3.5 - Was Sullivan running out of steam?

Neil Ellenhof: The only composer I can think of whose popularity lasted through 12 or 13 works is Verdi. His style changed a great deal along the way. There was Sullivan when opera composers were writing verismo, Broadway was just about at George M. Cohan and Sullivan was offering the same musical style as 20 years before. His other works of the 90s are no more interesting. Here and there a good number. He spent an enormous amount of time and effort on The Beauty Stone (much more than on the Mikado) and I have never been able to finish listening to it. Its as if he was frozen in time about 1870

Ron Orenstein: A lot more than 12 or 13! Anyway, Offenbach remained pretty popular through some 70-90 stage pieces, depending on how you count them, though certainly not every one was a hit. Donizetti and Rossini also wrote lots more than a dozen without falling off noticeably.

3.6 - Music we love to love

Marc Shepherd: Clearly, SOME numbers caught Sullivan's imagination -- 'Society has quite forsaken', 'A tenor, all singers above', 'Eagle high', and so on.

Tom Shepard: There are some numbers ('Although of Native Maids'; 'Society has quite forsaken') which I like tremendously, but I also like some energetic moments like 'A Company promoter'.

Mike Nash, though expressing his extreme indifference to the score as a whole, wrote: 'Sweet And Low' is a gorgeous duet.

Lady Sophy with the Twins

Arthur Robinson: Reviewing the songs, I found that much as I like the score, there are only four numbers that I consider G&S at the top of their form--'Let all your doubts take wing', 'Although of native maids the cream,' 'A tenor all singers above,' and 'Society has quite forsaken'. There are also several songs with brilliant ideas that don't lend themselves well to music; Sullivan has set them in a dramatically suitable way, and as well as I can imagine anyone doing, but they aren't exuberant like the best G&S. A few examples: 'Bold-faced ranger,' 'First you're born,' 'It's understood I think,' 'Some seven men,' 'With wily brain'. It's almost as if the lyrics are restricting Sullivan's musical fertility. Some of Sullivan's most glorious music in Utopia is written to (IMO) rather mundane and irrelevant lyrics, such as 'Words of love' and 'Eagle High'.

Paul McShane: We've all experienced feelings where we watch or listen to a G&S performance, and feel that special ecstasy as a well-loved piece of music sweeps over you - we wouldn't be wasting our time in Savoynet otherwise! You know what I mean about these special pieces - if you're listening to them on the car's tape deck, you immediately rewind to hear them a second time. The magic moments for my unsophisticated musical ear in Utopia are: 'Society has forsaken', which for my pleasure knows no peer in G&S. The 'Knightsbridge nursemaids' ensembles. The end of Act I (despite Marc's dissatisfaction with it) , particularly when the music 'winds up' to bring all the cast into the number, joining Zara, Fitzbattleaxe, Scaphio, Phantis and Tarara. I rank these last two up there with the Iolanthe Act I finale and Climbing over Rocky Mountain as the ensemble pieces which give me most enjoyment in the series.

Bill Snyder: That really good raw material, IMHO, includes 'O make way' (I like the change from 3/4 to 6/8), 'Although of native maids the cream', 'Bold-faced ranger', 'Subjected to', the Finale I from 'Well, at first sight..' to the end, and most of Act II except 'A wonderful joy.' I have to admit that lots of that I like because I've had singing actors who could make it work. Chief among these is 'Words of love', which is the only truly erotic love duet Sullivan ever wrote. It isn't the Chapel Scene from MANON, or "O, soave fanciulla" from BOHEME, but in context, with the right singers, it can be really stirring.

Nick Sales: Yes, O.K., there are a good few numbers in which Sullivan didn't exactly cover himself in glory (Note: see below) and I don't really blame Gilbert for any of them. On the other hand, there are numbers in Utopia which I love intensely, and would fiercely protect. They are: Entrance of Nekaya and Kalyba "How fair! How modest!'; Duet 'Although of Native maids'; 'First you're born'; Entrance of Zara & CF & Lifeguards and the whole 'Knighstbridge Nursemaids' passage; 'It's understood, I think, all round'; both soprano/tenor duets; Finale Act I - all (even tho' Goldbury does seem to go on for ever) 'Oh Zara/A tenor, all singers above'; 'Society has quite forsaken'; 'Eagle High'; Finale Act II. Most of these I would place extremely high up in my top 50 G&S songs, shall we say. I know I shall never tire of hearing them.

Ron Orenstein: IMHO the best musical moments are: 'In lazy languor' (I love the orchestral "vamp" just before the first entry, which gives that languid tune some vigour); Oh make way (the clever switch from 3/4 to 6/8, even if the duet itself does sound like 'For everyone who feels inclined'); the whole scene from 'Quaff the nectar', EXCEPT 'A king of autocratic power'; Lady Sophy's waltz is a personal favourite and the girls' duet is one of the best things in the score. FIRST YOU'RE BORN!!; the lovely little orchestral waltz between Dramaleigh's and Blushington's arrivals; 'Words of love' - a most interesting and effective accompaniment. Well, the Christy minstrel number, sure; 'with wily brain' (great fun in both words and music, except for "don't be unhappy/It's still on the tapis" - is that the best Gilbert. could do?). 'Oh sweet surprise' - so wonky that it works; 'Oh the rapture unrestrained'

3.7 - Music we love to hate

Marc Shepherd: Sullivan...disappoints. Yes, there are several individual numbers that satisfy, but the score as a whole does not stand up. In Utopia, one senses that Sullivan was largely disinterested. Clearly, SOME numbers caught his imagination, yet, there are so many others of mind-numbing mediocrity -- 'A king of autocratic power', 'Quaff the nectar', 'Upon our sea-girt land', 'With fury deep we burn', 'When but a maid of fifteen year', etc. While the best numbers in Utopia match the G&S of old, there are too many that are far below that level.

Tom Shepard: Sullivan did about as well as he could for most of it, but even he got incredibly banal with 'Wise Men' and 'A King of Autocratic Power'. It's as though he said "the hell with it" and didn't give himself the time to be more clever or inventive or charming.

David Duffey: If you promise me faithfully not to mention this to a single person, not even to your dearest friend, I don't think "Eagle High" rollicking. Although it is fun to belt out, I think it is Sullivan at his churchy worst.

Robert Jones: Perhaps Gilbert was consciously taking the piss out of him (Sullivan) when he came up with the second verse.

Nick Sales: My candidates are: 'Subjected to your heavenly gaze'; 'Then I may sing and play' (particularly the middle passage); 'When but a maid of fifteen year'; 'Ah, Lady Sophy - then you love me!'; 'Oh the rapture unrestrained'; 50 - 75 % of 'Some Seven Men'; 'A wonderful joy'.

I wouldn't delete anything else song-wise, I really wouldn't. On reflection, if sitting at home listening to the CD armed with the remote control unit, those are the only cuts I'd make - and I would make them almost every time.

3.8 - Of native music the cream?

Derrick McClure: Does anybody else find that one of the things wrong with Utopia is that the setting - Utopia - is curiously ill-defined and ill-focused, both musically and dramatically?

Robert Jones: Yes, I find that. Yesterday, I sat down and played the entire vocal score of Utopia and decided that I like ALL the music (even when played by me). I also decided that Sullivan maintained a consistent theme almost throughout the piece. However, that theme certainly does not conjure up images of South-Pacific islands in my mind. It made me think rather of the Minstrel song.

Bruce Miller: Derrick, you have hit on one of the score's problems - by no means its only one, but a significant one. Someone here recently suggested Hawaii as the locale. Hawaiian music (which is, after all, directly related to what we now call Polynesian music) had not penetrated British consciousness by 1892; it started to become something of interest to the American public via the phonograph and gramophone shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Had Sullivan known of this music, he might very well have integrated aspects of it into Utopia, as he did with the Japanese music in Mikado (and Italian and Spanish dance music in Gondoliers). Indeed, it might have provided for him a measure of interest and excitement in the composition which he seems not to have had.

Ron Orenstein: I think Sullivan does attempt to evoke a Utopian locale in patches......

Marc Shepherd: .......but the attempts are nowhere near as successful as in The Mikado, The Gondoliers, or even The Grand Duke. Also, too many of the numbers are in triple meter, which contributes to the overall sense of boredom in the score.

Ron Orenstein: The contrast between such Act I passages as the rather simple unison of "O Make Way for the Wise Men" and the somewhat loose-limbed music of "Quaff the nectar" with the four-square harmonies of "Eagle High" and the prettified but rather "cultured" drawing-room music seems to me to point exactly to the stuffier aspects of anglicization - note that when the Utopians finally rebel they do so in another near-unison (or certainly simple harmonically) chorus - returning to their roots, as it were.

Nick Sales: I would agree that Sullivan's use of Unison singing (Ullallicah! and elsewhere) represents his attempt to at least differentiate between the natives and the Immigrants - and I would say it works - to all except those who are bothered that it's not genuine South Sea Island Music.

Bruce Miller: Ron: You say that Sullivan attempted this. How do you asses the extent of his success? Derrick's original suggestion was that Sullivan was less focused than usual, a point with which I would agree. While recognizing what you've elaborated, I would also point out the rather four-square harmonies in the chorus at the end of "A King of autocratic power we" as betraying the original Utopian musical language which you suggest Sullivan may have been setting up. Sullivan seems to be trying, as you suggest, to do this, but it is a rare instance of him not seeming able to give his score that vivid identifying sound which marks nearly all of his other operas with Gilbert.

Ron Orenstein: I would agree with this - I was merely trying to point out that I think he was aiming for a deliberate effect. I suspect he had not quite satisfied himself about what "Utopian" music should sound like.

Bruce Miller: Those "rather simple unison passages" really do lack, it seems to me, a strong sense of a distinguishable musical culture

David Craven: Interesting. That is exactly how I would describe much of the authentic Polynesian music which is normally performed by a single chanter accompanied by percussive hits on various percussive instruments.... (Called an Ulili, but the spelling may be a bit wrong...) The music of old (pre-missionary Hawaii) was rather unison. The music of post missionary Hawaii was rather "churchy"... (again not the tin pan alley Hawaii music of the US 20's)

David Craven: I'll follow up in a bit more detail on Hawaiian Music and Hawaiian history. As for the comments on Hawaiian music.... the music which 1920's American associated with Hawaii and Polynesia is not really true "Hawaiian" music. The native music is much more of a chant. The Uke is, after all, from Portugal, not Hawaii... In fact, much of the music which would have been popular in Hawaii would have been quite "churchy" in nature. If one listens to Hawaii Aloha or Hawaii Ponoi one will very clearly hear touches of Sullivan Hymnody. In fact, the "Hawaiian" Hymnal is very much a collection of hymnody of the early to middle 18th century.

Bruce Miller: You'll have to be more specific in your linking of "authentic" Hawaiian music to what Sullivan provided in Utopia. I hear nothing in Sullivan's score such us you suggest - a chanter with rhythmic percussive accompaniment, unless you're referring to "Oh, make way for the Wise-men," which seems to me an isolated incidence. For Mikado, Sullivan had a number of authentic Japanese musical models (some of which he actually used in his score), supplied to him by at least one person knowledgeable on the subject. He was able to incorporate this material with great imagination into the score of The Mikado, albeit perhaps in a naive manner. Do you know if anything like that obtained while Sullivan was composing Utopia? If not, and one has to go only on the music of Utopia Limited as Sullivan left it to us, any so-called Hawaiian or Polynesian musical links seem tenuous at best.

David Craven: Hawaii and Great Britain had a large number of ties which significantly predate the Sullivan period. In fact, the Hawaiian flag contains the Union Jack. King Kamehameha the second and his wife, the Queen, died while visited King George IV in 1825. Many members of the Hawaiian Monarchy continued to visit Great Britain in particular for many years. Was Authentic Hawaiian music directly supplied to Sullivan? I have no idea, and I suspect that had it been supplied, it would have been of little use as the "chant" which was the authentic music of Hawaii would have been, at best, difficult to incorporate, and the music being written in Hawaii at the time (for example the Queen's prayer was written by the last Queen of Hawaii who died in 1917. Except for the fact that the words are in Hawaiian, it would fit right in with traditional "churchy" sound for the period. Eagle High, in my opinion, would fit right in with Hawaiian music of the period (which I am familiar with having sung a good deal of it in High School, assuming that you are defining Hawaiian music as that being written in Hawaii at the time.) Hawaii was, until the US finally rested control, a very Anglo-focused area (tempered by Missionary New England fervor.)

Tom Shepard: We may be overstressing the importance of "ethnicity" or lack of it, in Utopia. For sure, Sullivan was not operating at full speed, but the lack of "native type" music doesn't mean much one way or the other. Although Rodgers and Hammerstein get a little "Far West" in South Pacific and The King and I----at least for a few particular numbers, the bulk of these scores is pure Richard Rodgers, just like the bulk of The Mikado is pure Arthur Sullivan.

The bulk of Utopia, musically, is just not so pure A.S.S. So I don't deny that it might have been a bit more interesting had Sullivan tried a little harder to be a bit more exotic, but the fundamental problem with Utopia is not its lack of musical exoticism; it is its lack of musical invention.

Page created 20 January 1999