Monday, 27 December 2010

Arthur Sullivan and Charles Dickens in Paris

Over the Christmas season I always read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It is a work that has been produced as a play and a film many times. In fact, it has been recreated as an opera by a number of composers, including one by Thea Musgrave. Vaughan Williams used the story as a part of his seasonal masque On Christmas Night. However, I have always felt that Arthur Sullivan would have made an effective musical setting of this work. Until recently I did not know that Sullivan and Dickens were good friends, so it was interesting to read this passage in B.W. Findon's character sketch of the composer about a night in Paris...

“In the summer of 1865 [Arthur Sullivan] paid his first visit to Paris, and in one of his letters from Paris he writes: "I am to play 'The Tempest' [1] (with Rossini) on Friday. . .’
We called upon Dickens, and then all dined together (the Lehmanns [2], Dickens, and selves) at the Cafe Brebant, and then went on to the Opera Comique to see David's new opera, 'Lalla Rookh’. [3] It is very pretty, but rather monotonous.

The particular purpose of our visit was to hear Madame Viardot [4] in Gluck's 'Orfeo'. She was intensely emotional, and her performance was certainly one of the greatest things I have ever seen on the stage. Chorley, [5] Dickens, and I went together, and I remember that we were so much moved by the performance, and it was of so affecting a character that the tears streamed down our faces. We vainly tried to restrain ourselves.

I went about a good deal with Dickens. He rushed about tremendously all the time, and I was often with him. His French was not particularly good. It was quite an Englishman's French, but he managed to make himself understood, and interviewed everybody. Of course he was much my senior, but I have never met anyone whom I have liked better. There was one negative quality which I always appreciated. There was not the least suspicion of the poseur about him. His electric vitality was extreme, but it was inspiring and not overpowering. He always gave one the impression of being immensely interested in everything, listening with the most charming attention and keenness to all one might say, however youthful and inexperienced one's opinion might be. He was a delightful companion, but never obtruded himself upon one. In fact, he was the best of good company.

[1] Sullivan wrote the incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest between 1861 and 1862. In fact it is the first work that the composer allocated an opus number. It was used in October 1864 in a production of the play at Prince's Theatre in Manchester.
[2] Probably refers to Wilhelm August Rudolf Lehmann (1819 -1905) who was a German-English painter and author and his wife.
[3] Félicien-César David 1810-1876 Lalla-Roukh, an opéra comique, from a libretto by H. Lucas M. Carré, after the Irish poet Thomas Moore, first given by the Opéra-Comique de Paris on 12 May 1862 and published the following year.
[4] Madame Pauline Viardot 1821-1910, French mezzo-soprano, composer and pedagogue.
[5] Henry Fothergill Chorley 1808-1872, art, music and literary critic and friend of Charles Dickens and Arthur Sullivan.


No comments: