Friday, 11 June 2010

The Melody Maker of the Savoy: A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan. Part 2

The second part of an interesting interview from 110 years ago from The Star Newspaper. It is an interesting and important piece of writing for Sullivan scholars.
“Are you a very rapid worker?" "Well, that depends. Sometimes I do three or four numbers in a day, and sometimes I take a fortnight over a single song. I commenced my new opera at Weybridge in July and worked steadily at it most of the autumn. Of course, I had a good break for the Leeds Festival. I did all the orchestration, by the way, in about thirteen days.”
“Which of your many Savoy songs gave you most trouble?" "I should say that ‘The Merryman and his Maid'[1] was one of the most difficult to deal with. I know it took me a fortnight, for I set and reset it over and over again. It was the ‘House that Jack built' -character about it which was so awkward. An additional phrase was added in each verse, as no doubt you recollect. There is a precedent for the style of that particular composition, for Gilbert got the idea of it from a song which he heard on board his yacht - a nautical ballad beginning – ‘I have a song to sing O, Sing me your song O!’
This went on increasing in length as each verse was sung, just as our 'Merryman' did. I have got it written out somewhere, and, if I can only find it, you shall see it." But a search through many bundles of MSS. fails to bring to light the model of Jack Point's quaint “singing farce."

"And what about the music of the new opera, Sir Arthur?" - "Well, I have made it as light and catching as possible. There is a good deal more work in it than there was in the Yeomen, for nearly all the numbers are rapid. You will hear very little slow music in it. Of course the result is that there are more pages in the score. Two minutes allegro means perhaps twenty pages, but with an andante movement you would only use about six. There is a quantity of concerted music in the piece — duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and so on. Still I have not altogether neglected the interests of the soloists. The tenor has quite a big song in the second act; Miss Ulmar [2]will have some short couplets; Barrington [3] has got a topical song; and Jessie Bond will, I think, be well suited. Denny [4] has two solos but they are both of them very slight in character. "You will like the Cachuca in the second act. It is composed exactly on the lines of the well-known dance which was so popular some years back - in fact, both rhythm and notes go very near the original." And the composer demonstrates this to me by humming the refrain. "In the first act I have tried to put a good deal of Italian colour into my music. You will notice this especially at the beginning of the opera, and in the duet for the two gondoliers. The second act will savour of Spain to a certain extent, though of course I have not made it up entirely of boleros and other Spanish measures." "And the finale of the first act?" - "Well, that portion of the opera is not quite so extended as usual, but I am very pleased with the way it comes out. I think Iolanthe contained the longest finale I ever wrote. Goodness knows how many pages of the score it covered."

“How does the amount of labour which you devote to one of your operas compare with the trouble which a concert work gives you?" "Well, really there is no comparison between the two cases. People generally think that I can rattle off one of these Savoy pieces without the least difficulty in a very short space of time. But that is far from being the truth. I can assure you that my comic operas - light and airy as they may seem - give me far more trouble and anxiety than a cantata like The Golden Legend. In this latter case, you see, I am quite irresponsible. I have no one to consider but my band and my singers. There is no stage business to worry about, and I can make sure of my effects, because I know just how all the component parts of my body of executants will be placed. It is all straightforward and simple. But when I do an opera for the Savoy it is very different. A quantity of the music has invariably to be rewritten - very often more than once. Either singers are not quite suited, or else I find that the situation, when it takes shape upon the stage, requires something different from what I had anticipated. For these reasons, too, I am only able to begin the orchestration when the rehearsals of the piece are well advanced. It is then that I find out for the first time what sort of accompaniment is wanted for each number. For instance, I might write a quintet with the lightest possible orchestral support. Perhaps Gilbert arranges his business so that the singers are well down the stage. In that case all goes well. But if he considers it necessary to post the five ladies and gentlemen at some distance from the conductor and band, I have to make my accompaniment far more prominent. Otherwise the singers would not hear the orchestra, and we should all be at sixes and sevens. In this opera, now, I have had to reset eight numbers. No, my Martyr of Antioch and Golden Legend, strange as it may seem, gave me far less mental anxiety than my Pinafore and Pirates. Naturally enough, I am getting thoroughly into the right groove for this work by force of long experience. Consequently, I know by now pretty well what the requirements of the theatre and the company are. But then we have reached double figures in our productions - the new opera will be our tenth - and so have had plenty of opportunities of learning our way about. But, if you will excuse me, I must go on with my work, and get this overture off my mind.”
"Good-bye, Sir Arthur; and please let us have the oboe solo!"[5]

‘The Melody Maker of the Savoy – ‘A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan’ The Star 25 January 1890 (with minor edits)
[1] The Yeoman of the Guard. Jack Point was the Merryman.
[2] Geraldine Ulmar (23 June 1862 – 13 August 1932) was an American singer and actress, now best remembered best known for her soprano roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan Savoy Operas.
[3] Rutland Barrington (15 January 1853 – 31 May 1922) was an English singer, actor, comedian, and Edwardian musical comedy star. He is now best remembered for his performance of baritone roles in the Gilbert & Sullivan Savoy Operas.
[4] W.H. Denny (22 October 1853 – 31 August 1915) was an English singer and actor who is now probably best remembered for his baritone roles in the Gilbert & Sullivan Savoy Operas.
[5] A solo for the oboe was duly provided for the Overture of The Gondoliers

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