Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



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ANDREW CROWTHER: Sullivan reportedly complained about Ruddigore that it was a play with his music added-i.e. Sullivan felt he was being pushed into a corner. Looking at their next opera, The Yeomen Of The Guard, it looks as if Gilbert was making a deliberate attempt to give Sullivan proper opportunities. The lyrics are more "musical", and give the impression of having been more carefully thought about in terms of their musical possibilities.

I've quoted Gilbert before as saying that "Is Life a Boon?" and "Were I Thy Bride" were written to show that English could be as musical as Italian. "I Have a Song to Sing, O" is an inspired imitation of a particular style of folk-song and is, I think, unique in Gilbert's output. At the start of the Act 2 Finale we have Gilbert experimenting with Elegaics (it is, I believe, a fairly accurate imitation of this classical metre); and then, of course, we have polished examples of the familiar G&S forms-madrigal, patter-song, etc. (I have a particular fondness for "I've jibe and joke" because of its comic philosophy, so close to Gilbert's own, and because it's one of the few songs which fit my minuscule vocal range.)

'Tis done! I am a Bride!" shows Sullivan taking unusual liberties with the words, repeating them when he wants, and not taking his usual care to make rhyme and meaning clear to the listener. A concession from Gilbert to Sullivan?

ARTHUR ROBINSON: In reading, "Is Life a Boon?", "Were I Thy Bride" and "'Tis done," I am impressed that Sullivan set them so well-I'm no musician but I suspect it's much easier to set music to more regular metres, such as Gilbert usually used.

I never realized the metre was elegiac until I noticed that the libretto indicated it was.

I agree about the repetitions, and the de-emphasis of rhyme, I don't think Sullivan's setting makes the meaning less clear (as does happen with other composers, including Frederic Clay in WSG's Ages Ago).

BILL SNYDER: The mezzo I directed as Phœbe sang Cherubino in Figaro soon after that. I remember her saying that "Non so piu" and "Were I thy bride" had a strange similarity in that they start out sounding as if they will be strophic, then start doing very individual things and go off on tangents, then come back to what would be another verse, then go off again.

PAUL McSHANE: For my money, Sullivan reached the apogee of his career with the unaccompanied pieces of music in Yeomen. Just think about them:

But compared to the rest of the canon, the first half of Act I of Yeomen is boring. Regardless of the quality of the music, Phœbe's opening solo is maudlin, the yeomen's chorus dreary, the Dame's song stolid, the trio forgettable, Fairfax's solo morbid, the plot stagnates, and Gilbert's dialogue in all of this lacklustre. In fact, the opera doesn't come to life until Point's entrance-then it begins to be entertaining.

TOM SHEPARD: "Phœbe's opening solo is maudlin," not to me. I think it's beautiful. "The yeomen's chorus dreary," It's majestic. "The Dame's song stolid," A great piece of characterization.

BRUCE I. MILLER: The first act is boring only if you don't understand the true synthesis of music and words.

The Overture is so stirring and evocative in itself that it must cause one's blood to rise.

Phœbe's solo is terribly interesting because of the Freudian shifts in her focus between the times she's spinning and the times she's not. It must be admitted that most performances don't convey this very well because they misunderstand Sullivan's "meno mosso" direction.

The Tower Warders chorus perfectly highlights the spectacle and grandeur of the setting. Dame Carruthers's Tower Lenged solo is beautifully evocative. But admittedly, no one's sitting on a pork pie during any of this...

The first trio, far from being forgettable, crystallizes the emotional conflict among the three family members in a concise, thrilling manner.

"Is life a boon" is morbid? There's no hope for you, Paul. There isn't one-not one-musical number in Utopia which equals the clarity of expression and genuine sentiment of this solo.

It might be well to remember that we're talking about MUSICAL theater. If musical values aren't important to you, you're bound to be disappointed in a work such as Yeomen or Gondoliers, in which musical values are extremely important indeed.

PAUL McSHANE: So let us consider Yeomen as MUSICAL THEATRE (Bruce only put the word "musical" in capitals-I prefer to think of them both equally). To summarise, in the first half of Act I, (excluding the overture, which I also rank as No.1 in the canon), we have five successive songs of sombre mood. I happen to like two of them as pieces of music, but even if you rave about them all musically, with their lyrics varying between melancholy and doom, the dialogue uninspiring and the plot taking forever to get going, the start of Act I is not good theatre.

WILLIAM FLORESCU: Perhaps my favorite G and S musical moment is the trio at the beginning of the Act II finale...sigh...

GEORGE TIMSON: Gene Leonardi points out that, like most great operas, The Yeomen Of The Guard has plenty of lugubriousness in it. Unlike most, though, it also does its comic turns with the lightness and wit of G&S at their best. The epitome of this dual excellence for me comes in the first act Finale, when Phœbe and Fairfax complete their mutually-teasing "from morn to afternoon", as buffa as can be, and the last chord is supplanted by the bell tolling for the prisoner. When Elsie comes out then and sings "Oh Mercy, thou whose smile has shone...", well, folks, for my money, Grand Opera doesn't come much grander than that! If it weren't G&S, I think it would more universally be regarded a masterpiece, since audiences wouldn't come to it with expectations that it was "just" Gilbert & Sullivan!

BILL SNYDER: Does anyone not have a chill come over him at that point!? I've got goosebumps just thinking about it.

TIM DEVLIN: I agree. It is one of many moments in Yeomen that are wonderfully effective. (Particularly if the cast does not anticipate the bell!)

Another moment is the trio "How Say You, Maiden". For the final verse the libretto reads ALL: Temptation, oh, temptation etc. But Sullivan pulls out two strands with a telling difference. To the two 'men of the world', with their tumble of 'head over heels', this temptation is nothing special; but to Elsie, with her sustained phrases on 'Oh, temptation' it is clearly different.

Another moment comes towards the end of the Act II finale, when Point tries to recall Elsie with "I Have A Song to Sing, O"! But Elsie does not answer: the chorus answers, which emphasises and increases Point's isolation; and they answer unaccompanied and pianissimo, with a pity which is even more isolating.

Here, and often in The Yeomen Of The Guard there are splendid moments because the G&S collaboration was working so well. The only second-fiddles were in the pit.

Page created 6 June 1997