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The Cambridge Companion to Gilbert & Sullivan
Edited by David Eden and Meinhard Saremba
Contributors: Beckerman; Bradley; Dölvers; Eden; Fiss; Hulme; Knapp; Kuykendall; Leigh; Parry; Pitts; Polianovskaia; Saremba; Silerman; Taylor; Yates
Paperback £15 (ISBN 978 0 521 716598)
Hardback £40 (ISBN 978 0 521 888493)
Experience Classicsonline

This well-ordered volume is welcome for it takes fresh look at the Gilbert & Sullivan genre. It does this through a number of essays each with an individual slant on facets of the Savoy Operas. These articles provide an in-depth look at a particular aspect in microscopic detail. The writers propose assertions and back up their claims with substantial evidence and footnotes.

The book is more of a compendium for dipping into at random. It is made up of 5-12 page articles:

Part I Background: Savoy opera and its discontents; Identity crisis and the search for English opera; Resituating Gilbert & Sullivan; Popular misconceptions of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Part II Focus: The operas in context- stylistic elements; The librettos in context; Patter songs and the word-music relationship; Concepts of time in the Savoy operas -The Mikado and Haddon Hall; Motives and methods in Sullivan’s allusions; Characterisation and emotion in the Savoy operas.

Part III Reception: Topsy Turvy, the film; The amateur scene; Amateur and listener experiences of the Savoy operas in performance; Tracing Gilbert & Sullivan’s legacy in the American musical; the reception of productions and translations in Europe. 

Part IV Into The 21st Century: Scholarship, editions, productions and the future.

I like the clear order of this book, prefaced by short résumés on each of the 16 contributors, all of whom have a known pedigree in the field of theatre, music or literature. What comes across most convincingly is how many of the intellectual subtleties in the 14 extant Gilbert & Sullivan operas have been largely overlooked. It is astonishing to learn that previously only Gervase Hughes wrote a monograph of Sullivan’s music (1959). That said, Arthur Jacob and Percy Young each provide detailed assessments in their well-respected Sullivan biographies. Despite this, many of the skills of Gilbert & Sullivan have previously been glossed over.

What this volume does so convincingly is to provide the reader with a new assessment of the operas by examining them in detail within a helpful overall perspective. This serves to reveal the quality of the penmanship, separately, of both author and composer. At times, G&S worked independently of each other. Clay - who showed strengths in the music of Princess Toto - and Hood - who in Rose of Persia followed a Gilbertian ‘recipe for success’ - could offer material approaching the Gilbert and Sullivan marriage of quality. Even so, despite the best of intentions, they fell short of well-intentioned box office successes.

The Companion provides many fascinating gems of information:

The opening ‘Savoy Opera’ article by the Editor gives a clear overview of the background to G&S. It charts the rise and the route of increasing popularity at the Opera Comique and Savoy theatres. It then documents its Finale when the two artists went their separate ways. This usefully compacts the essence of G&S and sets the scene for the articles that follow.

In ‘The Search for English Opera’ we learn how the failure of Carte’s new English Opera House was primarily due to the flop of Messager’s La Basoche, which had to be hastily turned into Mirette yet failed to fill the theatre. Not only did these two operas have to close but they lost a considerable sum; a sum the theatre just could not support. I wonder then why the BBC chose to mount a broadcast of the unsuccessful La Basoche in the 1920s if its merits were few.

We examine myths about the author and composer in ‘We sing as One Individual’. To most of us, Gilbert was believed to be dictatorial and manipulated Sullivan. This is shown to be unfounded since instances are cited where Sullivan demands humanity in the characters or requires fresh lyrics. Without Sullivan’s input, many of Gilbert’s operas with other composers - Princess Toto, Fallen Fairies, for example - were not particularly successful.

Through ‘Resituating Gilbert & Sullivan’ we come to appreciate that Sullivan pursued a keen sense of musical humour. To the superficial Savoyard, the humour is believed to be embedded in the dialogue, but here we are reminded of the considerable amount of musical humour to be found in subtle musical jokes and parodies of other composers. Their styles are deliberately put in the wrong setting. We discover that Sullivan, the composer, is better likened to Auber and Lortzing rather than an ‘English Offenbach’.

I liked the overview of amateur operatics in Britain and some amusing anecdotes provided in ‘Amateur Tenors and Choruses in Public’. This essay includes an interesting breakdown of the number of G&S productions that took place in the decades from 1961-2001 (NODA statistics). Interestingly, 996 productions in 1961 - when the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company was still promoting the operas - to 942 productions in 2001. This serve to prove that at least some eight years ago the Savoy operas remained as popular as ever.

A fascinating article for musicians is ‘The Operas in Detail’, where a lively discussion of Harmony, Counterpoint and Instrumentation is provided. This survey is related to an Appendix showing the breakdown of instrumental configuration for each of Sullivan’s orchestral scores.

In ‘Topsy Turvy’, Film director Mike Leigh is honest, direct and accurate in his bright appraisal of common opinion. He homes in succinctly on the quality of the genre, revealing how unfair snobbery has managed to gain a foothold in certain camps. He goes on to explain the background to the making of his film Topsy Turvy - a fascinating story in itself. However, I found the breakdown of the film’s scenes a bit out of place as many readers would not wish to study the film content in this setting.

In ‘Characterisation and Emotion’, we are rightly reminded that Sullivan replaced a trend of treating choruses like ‘wallpaper’, by introducing double-choruses and making them an integral part of the plot like the Sailors in Pinafore, the Police in Pirates or the Peers in Iolanthe. His choruses play an important role in finales and skilfully match the mood of the music to dramatic changes in the scene. This is evident in the Act I finale of Patience. Examples of Sullivan’s skill in composition are provided in detail. One of these relates to a rising fourth and a falling third suggesting the movement of waves and imagery of the sea to complement Gilbert’s emotional lyrics.

I found ‘Tracing the Gilbert & Sullivan legacy in the American musical’ somewhat detached. Emphasis on an association of the Savoy genre/English satire with Sondheim was too narrow and was in places contrived. Surely Savoy opera characteristics in American musicals would first have been handed down through Herbert/Suppe and later through Kern/Porter/Berlin/Rodgers (if links have been noticed) before Sondheim? Research in this respect could have provided really interesting material. If one doesn’t know Sondheim those accurate comparisons will be unhelpful.

There is interest for the would-be researcher since the volume contains appendices. These include a summary of German productions between 1914 and 2009. There’s also good information on the source of scores (which are accurate and which are not), where the autographs are held and what has happened to ‘lost’ numbers. It would have been helpful to have had works other than Gilbert & Sullivan included in the Index. I would wish to dip into the Companion over a period of time and this would have added to the pleasure and the utility.

I was surprised to find that in defending Sullivan so well, none of the authors make reference to strong negative criticism of him spread by two composers, Parry (in written comment) and Stanford (in verbal criticism). One can only assume that they were envious of Sullivan’s unbridled success in the theatre, society and royal circles. An organist, Ernest Walker in particular (c.1905), went out of his way to smear Sullivan and all that he stood for in a book written soon after the composer’s death. He did not justify his claim in any detail yet this did much to poison the minds of the musical establishment against Sullivan for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. A main reason why Sullivan had been so disgracefully sidelined by much of the media in his centenary year (2000) can only be put down to a lasting effect of this. Sadly, in ignorance, they closed their minds to a genre of English heritage that is so well documented and respected by groups and operatic societies worldwide. To be told of the availability of commercial DVDs of excellent Australian productions confirms the positive views that the contributors of this Companion take. Maybe every Performing Arts degree course should include mention of 19th Century British operatic composers such as Sullivan, Barnett, Balfe, Wallace, Thomas and Loder. They were all well trained and intellectually competent at providing theatrical pleasures that have spanned well over 150 years.

The present volume is primarily intended for those enthusiasts who think they have read and know everything about Gilbert & Sullivan, yet clearly have not.

Raymond J Walker 




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