Art Songs10:18, 11th April 2017
Inspired by some of the most influential writers and artists of his day, Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote songs that display real musical individuality, adding a more imaginative dimension to the easy pastiche of his light operas. Pianist David Owen Norris introduces his new recording of Sullivan songs, featuring a trio of talented young British singers.
Sir Arthur Sullivan’s songs are the work of a singer, and a good singer at that – he was First Boy after only a couple of years in the Chapel Royal. Thomas Helmore, the choirmaster, took singing seriously. He was famous for the beauty and purity of his one-note chanting – Sir George Elvey, the organist at Windsor, hearing Helmore on a day when there was no choir and no organ, remarked: ‘I never in my life heard anything to approach the grandeur and solemnity of that monotone service.’ The young Sullivan took this lesson to heart – his most famous song, The Lost Chord, begins by quoting the versicle ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’.
John Hullah, the Gareth Malone of his day, helped to teach the Chapel Royal boys to sing, and Sullivan learned something of his later breezy comic style from Hullah’s catchy compositions. So Sullivan’s early musical life was spent under the influence of two great singers. ‘Mr Hullah grinds them, and I strop them’, said Helmore, referring to the processes applied to cut-throat razors.
Sullivan was sharp enough to start his song-writing career with Shakespeare. Our selection begins with the five songs published in 1866. ‘Sigh no more’ is such quintessential Sullivan, with its rising bass settling into a marching oompah (Vaughan Williams’s useful technical term), that it resurfaced two decades later in The Yeomen of the Guard. ‘Orpheus with his Lute’ is often heard still, though usually with Sullivan’s expressive discords ‘corrected’ – a shame, for Sullivan, like every great composer, is always ready to bend the rules, as we hear again in the unorthodox progressions of Desdemona’s harp in ‘The Willow Song’.
I mentioned Sullivan’s comic style. ‘A life that lives for you’, a setting of a poem by his friend Lionel Lewin, shows him transcending that style. Four pages of trademark wit – and how rare wit is, in music – suddenly change gear for an intense declaration, repeated with intensified harmonies and an active bass. It’s such a good passage, in fact, that Elgar borrowed it for his own ballad ‘As I laye a thynkynge’.
Lewin died before he and Sullivan could get far with their planned Arthurian opera. Only the song ‘Guinevere!’ gives a tantalising glimpse of something that might have been far better than Ivanhoe turned out. Lewin’s death at 28 from typhoid should remind us not to snigger at Victorian poetry’s obsessive familiarity with death. Adelaide Procter, the poet of ‘The Lost Chord’, died of tuberculosis at the age of 39, which should wipe away the smiles too often seen during her ‘Will he come?’ a classic race against time. We’re saving Sullivan’s many Procter settings – in her day she was outsold only by Tennyson – for a later disc, by the way.
Tennyson himself is complete in our present selection. George Grove introduced Sullivan to Tennyson in 1866, suggesting that the Laureate write what he called a Liederkreis for Sullivan to set to music. John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, was to have illustrated it, but Tennyson hummed and hawed for so long that the artist withdrew. Sullivan eventually overcame the poet’s scruples about the flimsy nature of his lyrics, and published his cycle in 1871. It was thought that Millais’ initial interest had left no trace in his work, so imagine my delight on a visit to the Yale Art Gallery to find myself confronted by a Millais (of 1871) that encapsulates the whole argument of the songcycle: a young lady holding an opened letter and a photograph stares dubiously into the middle distance. The title is Yes or No? It’s our cover image. There are some very beautiful songs in the cycle, but the correct answer to Millais’ question is perhaps a little too obvious. Sullivan found a more congenial lengthy vocal form in his remarkable setting of Byron’s translation of Anacreon, ‘I wish to tune my quiv’ring lyre’. This monstrous scena really has everything, and Charles Santley was a lucky man to sing it in the 1868 Three Choirs in Gloucester. If you compare it with Schubert’s ‘An die Leier’ (same text), you’ll see why Sullivan is famous for his operas and Schubert is not.
Sullivan returned to Tennyson at the very end of his life. ‘O swallow, swallow’ and ‘Tears, idle tears’ form a fitting crown to his song-writing career, the one a serious apotheosis of the pattersong, the other a subtle web of motive and harmony, certainly the greatest setting of the lyric, and not least remarkable for its apt opening invocation of Dowland’s Lachrymae pavane.
Sullivan is best understood on his own terms. His contemporaries expected him to be a German composer, because that was all they really knew, except for Italian opera. However, Sullivan’s operas are quite unlike anything Italian, and not just because of Gilbert’s maverick brilliance. The songs also show us that Sullivan is no pale imitation of something else, but his own man, drawing on musical experiences both deep and specifically English – church music and the military music of his Army bandmaster father – and building on 19th-century English achievements still too little known: Hullah’s opera to Charles Dickens’s libretto, for instance, or the Byron settings of Alexander Lee. Not that we need to know any of that. Sullivan is vivid enough to leap off the page all by himself, given a hearing.
Singers Mary Bevan, Ben Johnson, Ashley Riches and pianist David Owen Norris can be heard on a new two-CD album of songs by Sir Arthur Sullivan from Chandos records (CHANDOS 10935(2)). The performers will present a Rhinegold LIVE recital of music from the new recording at London’s Conway Hall on Tuesday 25 April.