Wednesday, 23 November 2016

'How Sir Arthur Sullivan Writes An Opera'

A short feature from The Literary Digest, February 1898. I present this without commentary and have maintained the spelling of the original text. It is important to note that in 1898 all Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous Savoy Operas had been produced. There were only two more stage works in the offing: The Beauty Stone (1898) and The Rose of Persia (1899).  The Emerald Isle was incomplete at the composer’s death, but was finished by Edward German. The song, ‘The Absent Minded Beggar’ also dates from 1899. Readers familiar with Sullivan studies will realise that much of this article was taken directly from The Strand Magazine (December 1897)

The idea that an opera is conceived and born in a flash of inspiration and then recorded in another flash, is as far from the truth, according to Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, the English composer, as the notion of a coal-miner sitting down at the mouth of a mine expecting the coal to come bubbling up.
The very melodies in his work which appear most spontaneous are "the result of particularly hard work and of constant recasting."
In The Strand Magazine, [December 1897] Sir Arthur tells how his operas are made ready for public rendering, after he has "sketched out the creative portion":
"The original jottings are quite rough, and would probably mean very little to any one else, tho[ugh] they mean so much to me. After I have finished the opera in this way, the creative part of my work is completed; but then comes the orchestration, which, of course. is a very essential part of the whole matter, and entails very severe manual labor. The manual labor of writing music is certainly exceedingly great. Apart from getting into the swing of composition itself, it is often an hour before I get my hand steady and shape the notes properly and quickly. This is no new development. It has always been so, but then when I do begin I work very rapidly.
But, while speaking of the severe manual labor which is entailed in the writing of music, you must remember that a piece of music which will take only two minutes in actual performance—quick time—may necessitate four or five days' hard work in the mere manual labor of orchestration, apart from the original composition. The literary man can avoid manual labor in a number of ways, but you cannot dictate musical notation to a secretary. Every note must be written in your own hand—there is no other way of getting it done; and so you see every opera means four or five hundred folio pages of music, every crotchet and quaver of which has to be written out by the composer. Then, of course, your ideas are pages and pages ahead of your poor, hard-working fingers
"When the 'sketch' is completed, which means writing, rewriting, and alterations of every kind, the work is drawn out in so-called 'skeleton score'—that is, with all the vocal parts and rests for symphonies, etc., complete, but without a note of accompaniment or instrumental work of any kind; altho[ugh] I have all that in my mind.
"Then the voice parts' are written out by the copyist, and the rehearsals begin: the composer, or, in his absence, the accompanist of the theater, vamping an accompaniment. It is not until the music has been thoroughly learnt, and the rehearsals on the stage—with action, business, and so on—are well advanced, that I begin the work of orchestration.

"When that is finished the band parts are copied, two or three rehearsals of the orchestra are held, then orchestra and voices, without any stage business or action; and, finally, three or four full rehearsals of the complete work on the stage are enough to prepare the work for presentation to the public."

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