Arthur Sullivan had an appropriately early association with choral music. Initially a parish chorister (who wrote an anthem at the tender age of eight) his knowledge of choral music was extended when he joined the choir of the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace. He won a Mendelssohn scholarship to enter the Royal Academy of Music at the young age of 14. This allowed later study at Leipzig Conservatorium where he was exposed to the works of the German masters (Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Marschner, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Spohr). It comes as no surprise to find that his music often carries characteristics of Germanic romanticism.
Sullivan wrote three oratorios; The Prodigal Son (1869), followed by The Light of the World (1873) and The Golden Legend (1886). These works were all commissions for the country's main music festivals and would be regularly presented by national and provincial choirs up to the turn of the century and beyond. The Light of the World oratorio brought popularity and wider recognition but the lucrative distractions of operetta writing for D'Oyly Carte's Savoy theatre were to secure his attention.
Musical circles pestered for a new choral work. In 1885 when the success of the Mikado was assured he was given respite from an immediate need to write a sequel G&S opera. So he turned his attention to serious music and in the winter of 1885 accepted a commission to provide a major cantata for the Leeds Festival, to be performed the following October: this was to be The Golden Legend.
The title and plot of The Golden Legend is taken from Longfellow's dramatic poem, written 14 years earlier. The story is of a saintly peasant who, out of love, offers to sacrifice herself to redeem a dissolute prince: Prince Henry has a mysterious illness, which can only be cured if 'some maiden of her own accord offers her life for that of her lord'. Elsie, a villager, makes that offer and falls within the power of Lucifer, disguised first as a pilgrim and later as a doctor. Although the plot may appear dull, the theme is one of strong dramatic appeal in religious guise and this pleased the Victorians. Before composing commenced in the summer of 1886, much work had first to be undertaken in reducing the poem to a suitable shape for setting.
Sullivan was determined to match the success of Gounod's The Redemption (at the Three Choirs Festival) and he put considerable effort into the work, taking pains to get an ideal balance between the different vocal forces. Although the Leeds Festival was expecting a choral work, the cantata makes only moderate use of a choir. He even had to write out the choir's contribution to Scene 3 in 'It is the sea'.
Sullivan explains in his own words-
"The chorus I had written was really, I think, a fine piece of descriptive music - but it had to be sacrificed as the following number is what I rely upon to bring about a broad and impressive effect. So I cut out the chorus and gave it a sort of melancholy reverie to Prince Henry."
We can see that Sullivan took pains to get the right 'theatrical' feel to the work. Pieces of action were indicated in the libretto and bells (to represent a cathedral peal) were especially made for the Leeds performance and had to be matched to an unusually high pitch of the Leeds Town Hall organ.
The Prologue is striking: it opens with the peaceful chiming of bells until interrupted by wild forces from the strings and atmospheric part-singing from sopranos and altos. These intermingle with the brass to depict a spectacular storm as Lucifer tries to tear down the cross from a cathedral spire. Here, one is strongly aware of a Wagnerian style, and it will come as no surprise to know that Sullivan was an admirer of this German composer. The writing is certainly advanced for the period and one wonders how the Victorian audience would have reacted to this opening. Like much in The Legend the work is as masterfully composed as his Macbeth and The Tempest.
An organ interlude leads into a stirring and majestic hymn to indicate the opposing strength of the religious good. There are two hymns in The Legend and to us they may seem somewhat out of place. Yet to the Victorians these hymn tunes would be regarded as 'modern' and seem totally in keeping. When Lucifer reappears as a travelling physician he is given a fugue of jollity to sing to.
Symphonic interludes are used to good effect to set the mood for each scene. The interlude to 'It is the Sea' contains a haunting flute passage magnificently contrasted against the rumblings of a turbulent sea with stormy foreboding. To me, this passage is as memorable as Britten's Sea Interludes.
The Allegretto moderato, 'Onward and onward' sweeps along with its catchy tune and rhythm before breaking into a romantic duet, 'Sweet is the air' which is later interrupted by chanting pilgrims. Corp skilfully catches the mood of the sections with appropriate orchestral dynamics.
The recitatives are meaningful and the words set in a way equal to anything from Mendelssohn or Elgar, but then Sullivan had had a lot of experience with his stage works. In Scene 5 one is aware of woodwind phrasing which is reminiscent of Iolanthe and generally one is aware of some of the drifting woodwind effects he will later use in his grand opera, Ivanhoe.
One Golden Legend performance which may be known to the reader is the Leeds Centenary broadcast by the BBC Philharmonic in October 1986, with soloists, Sheila Armstrong and Robert Tear, and conducted by Charles Mackerras. Although Sir Charles was instrumental in bringing about the performance (a work he had always wanted to conduct) the performance was far from ideal. The choice of Armstrong and Tear was wrong: their voices were over-mature for the youthful parts they were supposed to be playing and in places fragmentation, or pedantic pace, did poor justice to Sullivan's music. It is perhaps just as well that a CD recording of the performance never appeared since the quality of Sullivan's score would have been judged from it. But all this can only be said in hindsight after hearing the inspirational wizardry of Corp's interpretation in this recording, into which he breathes life and vigour.
We have to be grateful to Hyperion, the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society of Great Britain and the D'Oyly Carte Trust for bringing this long neglected music to our ears. The awkward length of 94 minutes meant that the recording needed to overflow to a second disc. This, Hyperion has kindly offered 'free' rather than necessitate a heavier outlay to provide additional filling material.
The booklet is substantial and carries excellent notes on Sullivan and the work. Full lyrics are provided in English, including translations of the pilgrims' Latin versicles.
Hyperion is to be congratulated, along with TER and Marco Polo, in bringing the public's attention to interesting works of forgotten composers. Recent enquiries in some record shops have shown that sales of The Golden Legend in its opening months have been strong, so it is hoped that this early success will trigger the recording of other British rarities. With this new Hyperion recording we have a good benchmark standard of how such works should be performed. The fresh-sounding and youthful Watson and Wilde sparkle in their roles of Prince Henry and Elsie, and Black gives the ideally raspy quality needed for the evil Lucifer. The reading by Ronald Corp is magnificent: the scenes flow superbly and the score comes across meaningfully. The New London Chorus and Orchestra are responsive to the needs of the cantata and tackle the work with energy and enthusiasm: the recording balance between soloists and orchestra is ideal, allowing some delicate string phrases to reach our ears. This set is a gem.