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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Arthur Sullivan and the Royal Society of Musicians
by David Mackie
Published by the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain
2006 ISBN 0-9509481-3-6
available direct from the RSMGB, 10 Stratford Place, London W1C 1BA
£9.95 + £1.35 (UK) £3.50 (overseas)

It is a common myth that the Internet holds all the information we will ever need. What is often forgotten is that Internet information had to come from research and often previously published material. Consequently, we owe it to those researchers amongst us who surprise us with their searching, uncovering and revelation.

David Mackie has been delving amongst the darkly held archives of the Royal Society of Musicians for over five years and in this book comes up with some interesting findings. This benevolent society was formed by musicians who have enjoyed profitable careers to provide aid to those in musical life who had fallen on hard times.

Nothing is detailed in the numerous biographies on Arthur Sullivan as to his connection with the Society. He rarely spoke about it and none of his letters to the Society have surfaced until now. We here have a new window through which to gaze at this important figure. As the first Principal of the National Training School for Music (now the RCM), he would have had firsthand knowledge of the hardships experienced by students. Likewise, as a person from humble beginnings, he would have remembered how he had personally benefited from the benevolence handed to him in his early days when he won the Mendelssohn scholarship and went to Leipzig. All is recorded in the Society archives. It consequently comes as no surprise to find that he often headed their subscription lists for handouts provided by the Society. Previously we only knew of his visit to relatives in America to help them out of a poverty trap.

Mr Mackie’s monograph brings to light speeches given by musicians and composers who spoke at one of the Society’s Annual Dinners. At first glance this may not seem a particularly interesting subject, but I am sure that if one were to suggest that such an occasion was recorded, it would bring much curiosity from those wishing to glean insight into the speakers’ personalities and those interested in what they had to say within this closed organisation. Second best to a non-existent recording is to be able to read their scripts, rather than just reports of their addresses. It allows us some insight into the speaker’s feelings about more everyday matters and thus provides a valuable new dimension.

Sir Arthur’s address, as President, is long and reveals his opinions and inner emotions relating to those less fortunate than himself. I was impressed by his powers of communication, use of English and the way he expressed himself. He respectfully drew attention to other composers and musicians present: Macfarren and Grove. They in turn rise to respond to his compliments. Here again we gain insight into their personalities and the respect they equally hold for their President. Some of their addresses are scripted whilst others are reported in full. W.S. Gilbert was also present and he also spoke. Luckily, he wrote up his speech notes after the event and sent them to the Society for filing.

The book also provides facsimile representation of a number of letters (with translations) relating to Sir Arthur. They concern events relating to the Society and show how its members went about their business. New to surface is correspondence asking Sullivan as a soprano chorister to sing a glee at a Society function. A request for the music to be placed early in the programme is made so that Sullivan can be home by 9.00 pm. An interesting adjunct is the inclusion of an appeal for composer Michael Balfe’s son (also M W Balfe) who, after his father’s death, had fallen on hard times. The Society itself also provided aid to help Balfe junior who had set himself up as a gas engineer.

Raymond Walker

 

 



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