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The Melody-Maker of the Savoy

A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan

During the last few weeks there has been no busier man in all London than Sir Arthur Sullivan. When he has not been at work upon the score of his new opera he has had to transfer his energies to the stage of the Savoy Theatre, and divide his time between the piano and the baton. Little wonder, then, that his Cerberus in Victoria-street has been more than ordinarily cautious in the selection of those favoured callers whom he graciously allows to pass into the presence of England's most popular composer. By a fortunate combination of circumstances (writes a representative of 'The Pall Mall Gazette') I found myself the other evening on the threshold of No 2, Queen's Mansions, and, being duly armed with the password, was requested to 'step this way'. The mighty melody-maker is sitting in the cosy little room which has witnessed the evolution of so many operas. Books and pictures surround him on all sides. In one corner stands the piano whose resounding wires have given birth to countless tunes. Sir Arthur, who looks quite appropriately Venetian in his flannel shirt and loose open jacket, is pondering over a voluminous bundle of 'score', and occasionally indicating orchestral effects in pencil upon the surface of a blank sheet.

'I am terribly busy, and have only a few minutes to spare,' are his first words, as he greets me with a cordial hand-shake. 'A few minutes', however, is an elastic phrase, and so I instal myself in an available armchair. 'I am just thinking out the overture,' Sir Arthur goes on, 'for, of course, we must have something to play before the curtain goes up. This is the second act' and he points to the pile of music in front of him 'from which I am taking a theme or two. We have had our first band rehearsal to-day at Princess' Hall, and correcting the parts is no light task, I can assure you.'

'And do you always leave your overtures to the last moment?' 'Oh, yes; always. Hamilton Clarke, who is now in Australia, used to help me with them very often when I was pressed for time. Do you remember the "Mikado" overture? He did that for me. I just arranged the order of the piece the "Mikado's March", then "The sun whose rays", first for the oboe and then for violins and 'cellos, two octaves apart, and finally the allegro. He wrote the whole thing in a very few hours: in fact, he made it almost too elaborate, for I had to cut it down a little. The "Iolanthe" overture was a quick bit of work, too. I did that myself, completing it in less than two days. And there was a lot of fresh writing in it too. I dare say you will recollect the "Captain Shaw" motive combined with those florid passages for the wood-wind.'

'And is the new overture to be in strict "form"?' 'No. As you know, I took the trouble to do that in the case of "The Yeomen of the Guard", but it went for nothing after the first night.' I venture to dissent from this last statement, but Sir Arthur is inflexible on the subject. 'Naturally,' he says, 'I should prefer to please serious musicians in such a matter, but one must consider the general public.'

'Of course you will have an oboe solo in your introduction?' 'Ah, that settles it,' laughs the composer. 'I was just considering that point when you came in, but as you have put it in that way I shall not do so this time.' I shudder at the possible mischief I have done, and beg Sir Arthur not to throw over the instrument he always treats so beautifully. 'Well,' he says, 'what is one to use for a solo if not the oboe? The clarinet is not really effective, the flute is out of the question, so is the bassoon; the cornet I hate as a solo instrument, and strings would hardly do. So you see it is a case of "reductio ad oboe."'

'Are you a very rapid worker?' 'Well, that depends. Sometimes I do three or four numbers in a day, and sometimes I take a fortnight over a single song. I commenced my new opera at Weybridge in July, and worked steadily at it most of the autumn. Of course I had a good break for the Leeds Festival. I did all the orchestration, by the way, in about thirteen days.'

'Which of your many Savoy songs gave you most trouble?' 'I should say that "The Merryman and his Maid" was one of the most difficult to deal with. I know it took me a fortnight, for I set and reset it over and over again. It was the "House that Jack built" character about it which was so awkward. An additional phrase was added in each verse, as no doubt you recollect. There is a precedent for the style of that particular composition, for Gilbert got the idea of it from a song which he heard on board his yacht a nautical ballad beginning I have a song to sing, O. Sing me your Song, O!

This went on increasing in length as each verse was sung, just as our "Merry-man" did. I have got it written out somewhere, and, if I can only find it, you shall see it.' But a search through many bundles of MSS, fails to bring to light the model of Jack Point's quaint 'singing farce'.

'And what about the music of the new opera, Sir Arthur?' 'Well, I have made it as light and catching as possible. There is a good deal more work in it than there was in the Yeomen, for nearly all the numbers are rapid. You will hear very little slow music in it. Of course the result is that there are more pages in the score. Two minutes' allegro means perhaps twenty pages, but with an andante movement you would only use about six. There is a quantity of concerted music in the piece duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and so on. Still I have not altogether neglected the interests of the soloists. The tenor has quite a big song in the second act; Miss Ulmar will have some short couplets; Barrington has got a topical song; and Jessie Bond will, I think, be well suited. Denny has two solos, but they are both of them very slight in character. You will like the Cachuca in the second act. It is composed exactly on the lines of the well-known dance which was so popular some years back in fact, both rhythm and notes go very near the original.' And the composer demonstrates this to me by humming the refrain. 'In the first act I have tried to put a good deal of Italian colour into my music. You will notice this especially at the beginning of the opera, and in the duet for the two gondoliers. The second act will savour of Spain to a certain extent, though of course I have not made it up entirely of boleros and other Spanish measures.'

'And the finale of the first act?' 'Well, that portion of the opera is not quite so extended as usual, but I am very pleased with the way it comes out. I think Iolanthe contained the longest finale I ever wrote. Goodness knows how many pages of the score it covered.'

'How does the amount of labour which you devote to one of your operas compare with the trouble which a concert work gives you?' 'Well, really there is no comparison between the two cases. People generally think that I can rattle off one of these Savoy pieces without the least difficulty in a very short space of time. But that is far from being the truth. I can assure you that my comic operas light and airy as they may seem give me far more trouble and anxiety than a cantata like the "The Golden Legend." In this latter case, you see, I am quite irresponsible. I have no one to consider but my band and my singers. There is no stage business to worry about, and I can make sure of my effects, because I know just how all the component parts of my body of executants will be placed. It is all straightforward and simple. But when I do an opera for the Savoy it is very different. A quantity of the music has invariably to be rewritten very often more than once. Either singers are not quite suited, or else I find that the situation, when it takes shape upon the stage, requires something different to what I had anticipated. For these reasons, too, I am only able to begin the orchestration when the rehearsals of the piece are well advanced. It is then that I find out for the first time what sort of accompaniment is wanted for each number. For instance, I might write a quintet with the lightest possible orchestral support. Perhaps Gilbert arranges his business so that the singers are well down the stage. In that case all goes well. But if he considers it necessary to post the five ladies and gentlemen at some distance from the conductor and band, I have to make my accompaniment far more prominent. Otherwise the singers would not hear the orchestra, and we should all be at sixes and sevens. In this opera, now, I have had to reset eight numbers. No, my "Martyr of Antioch" and "Golden Legend", strange as it may seem, gave me far less mental anxiety than my "Pinafore" and "Pirates". Naturally enough, I am getting thoroughly into the right groove for this work by force of long experience. Consequently, I know by now pretty well what the requirements of the theatre and the company are. But then we have reached double figures in our productions the new opera will be our tenth and so have had plenty of opportunities of learning our way about. But, if you will excuse me, I must go on with my work, and get this overture off my mind.''

'Goodbye Sir Arthur; and please let us have the oboe solo!'


"The Melody-Maker of the Savoy:  A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan."  Pall Mall Gazette, issue 7712, Thurs. Dec. 5, 1889.


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