Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Arthur Sullivan: A short appreciation and an anecdote

I found this little pen sketch in one of the many books dedicated to the life and work of Gilbert and Sullivan. It gives and impression of Sir Arthur that we need to bear in mind- that he had a sense of humour and was certainly not a stereotypical ‘stuffy’ Victorian. The anecdote may not be side-splittingly funny to today’s alternative tastes – but it is still a joy – if it did really happen!
Arthur Sullivan was a reincarnated Orpheus. Music was to him the breath of life, not the painful spasm of congested lungs. His disposition was so perpetually brimming over with sympathetic humour that he would take delight in discovering subjects for facetious music in most unmusical sounds; such, for instance, as the monotonous notes of the cuckoo, the bray of a donkey, the cry of an "old clo' " man, or the puff and pulsation of a heavy railway train rumbling its way up a steep incline. He preferred to laugh and learn lessons from a broken-keyed hurdy-gurdy, rather than rain anathemas on the poor Italian organ-grinder.
Sullivan's soul was so imbued with the joy of living that it might well be wondered how he could ever divert his thoughts to the musical setting of sacred subjects. In this respect, without question, he owed much to the associations of his boyhood. At the Chapel Royal his mind was, to use a vulgar phrase, ‘fed up ‘ with hymns and chants, anthems and ancient madrigals, which, morning, noon, and night, constituted the chief mental food of ‘the children’ of St. James's. Reference to the Chapel Royal reminds me, by the way, of a joke attributable to Sullivan. It is a story which one might well blush to relate; but, being of that kind, it is all the more likely to amuse.
During the Litany one of ‘the children’ standing next to Arthur in the choir substituted for the proper words of the Prayer-book the following very irreverent impromptu: 'That little girl coming up the aisle makes-my-mouth-water." To which Arthur responded: 'Hold your tongue or you'll be hung, that is the Bish-op's-daughter.'
Cellier, Francois and Bridgeman, Cunningham, Gilbert & Sullivan and their Operas (Boston, USA: Little, Brown and Company, 1914)

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