Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Arthur Sullivan: An Interview from 1894

I recently found this 'clipping' from the Otago Witness. Although it does not add any major facts to Sullivan's life and works, it does goes us a few anecdotes and an insight into his working methods. One important issue is the celebrity status of the composer, especially in the United States. Everyone wanted to interview him - and if an interview was not forthcoming, the journalists made up one anyway. Plus ca change!
It was while crossing the Channel to England that the, writer was introduced to the Knight of the "Lost chord." He is, as everybody knows, of small stature, with iron-grey whiskers, and a very knowing twinkle about his sharp eyes. He was, he informed us, about to indulge in a short spell of bard work in the heart of the country.
His usual plan is to take a small house in some out-of-the-way spot where he knows no one, and there to work away at; his operas like any galley slave for about 10 hours a day.
Lunch, Sir Arthur informed us, was a powerful interruption to hard work, so he accordingly dispenses with it on these occasions altogether. Starting at about 10 in the morning, he works till 4 without a break. Then he takes a couple of hour’s hard exercise, of which he usually devotes one hour to rowing and the other to walking.
After dining substantially, he starts work about 8 o'clock and keeps on right into the small hours of the morning. On being asked whether any of his most celebrated music had been the result of sudden inspiration, Sir Arthur remarked that he had produced most of it by sheer hard work or ‘plug.’
“It is just the same," he observed, "in composing music as in making boots; nothing is effected without assiduous toil. For instance”, he went on to say, 'The Lost Chord' gave me no end of trouble. I made several unsuccessful attempts to set it to music, and even gave up the task altogether, but being pressed to go on with it I managed it at last.” With regard to this celebrated piece, Sir Arthur remarked that it was one of the few things he had composed which was entirely independent of the words to which the music was set. He had seen a German audience go into wild enthusiasm over ‘The Lost Chord’ when sung to them in English, of which hardly any of them understood a word.
The conversation turning on Jenny Lind, Sir Arthur informed us that he had the highest possible opinion of her character, which he said was as free from mercenary motive as any he had ever known. “As to her singing," he went on, “she was the only woman I ever heard whose voice brought tears to my eyes." The subject of this sketch had, he told us, often been interviewed, but never so often or so persistently as in America.
"I could not stir out of my hotel," he remarked, "in any American town, but before I had turned the first corner I was buttonholed by some seedy-looking individual, who informed me that I should be laying the readers of the Philippopolis Advertiser under an eternal obligation if I would allow him a few moments conversation.
"The worst of it was," he went on to say, "unless I gave the fellow a few minutes' conversation, an account of an interview with me appeared just the same in the Philippopolis Advertiser, with a lot of disgraceful remarks put into my mouth which no gentleman would ever think of uttering, so I mostly gave in with as good a grace as I could.
"The most pertinacious reporter I ever remember," Sir Arthur continued, "was one I met in San Francisco. He came to my hotel one evening and requested the pleasure of an interview. I flatly refused, and went to bed. The next morning the fellow was waiting in the passage, where he must have spent the night. I slipped by him, on pretence of getting some breakfast, and stayed away all day. On going to bed that night I found him waiting patiently like a watch-dog for me, that I brushed by him and locked myself in my room. The next morning he was there just the same, and by this time, being touched by his persistency, I agreed to give him an interview on condition that he promised to prevent the issue of accounts of bogus interviews in the San Francisco papers. This he readily undertook to do, and I discovered that there must be honour 'even among journalists,' for he was as good as his word."
By this time the steamer had reached its destination, so we parted with Sir Arthur Sullivan, after a very agreeable voyage.

From the Otago Witness 27 September 1894 p.42 (National Library of New Zealand)
[With minor edits]

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