Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Melody Maker of the Savoy: A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan. Part 1

An interesting interview from 110 years ago from The Star Newspaper. This is the first part of a long article, but is well worth reproducing.

(From Our London Correspondent.) London, Dec. 6. The following interesting interview with Sir Arthur Sullivan, on his methods of work, will serve as a prologue to the article on the new opera at the Savoy, which I shall be sending you next week. The piece as yet remains unchristened, but will probably be called the The Gondoliers. A sketch of the play similar to the one I sent you recently appears in the current issue of the Pall Mall Budget in Gilbert’s own handwriting. 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[i] 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 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 handshake, "A few minutes," however, is an elastic phrase, and so I install 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 Princes’ 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[ii], 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 woodwind."
“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’.
‘The Melody Maker of the Savoy – ‘A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan’ The Star 25 January 1890 (with minor edits)

[i] Cerberus – According to Greek & Roman Mythology, A three-headed hound that guarded the Gates of Hell.
[ii] James Hamilton Siree Clarke (25 January 1840 – 9 July 1912), who better known as Hamilton Clarke, was an English conductor, composer and organist. Although Clarke was a composer in his own right he is now associated with Arthur Sullivan, for whom he arranged music and compiled overtures for some of the Savoy Operas, including Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.

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