Book of the month

Barry A. Orford ponders talent and genius in the music of Arthur Sullivan, as explored in a new study of the composer’s religiously inspired works


The Sacred Music of Arthur Sullivan
Ian Bradley
SCM Press, 256pp, pbk
978 0334044215, £25
Sullivan’s sacred music? Yes, his output ranged beyond the famous Savoy Operas, and in recent years there has been a refreshing increase of interest in his work without W.S. Gilbert. This informative and thought provoking book invites us to study the composer when he was wearing a more solemn, even reverent aspect. Dr Bradley provides a lively and well-researched account of Sullivan’s religiously inspired works. A black mark, then, against SCM Press for dumping the valuable footnotes at the back of the book, requiring the interested reader to engage in an irritating to-and-fro to check references.

From his own day to this, Arthur Sullivan has provoked discomfort among the high-minded votaries of ‘serious music’, and Dr Bradley rightly censures the snobbery which the British musical establishment tends to reserve for this composer, presumably because he wrote operas which are tuneful, skilful and popular. This patronising attitude becomes ludicrous when we consider that Offenbach and Johann Strauss II – neither of them Sullivan’s equal in musicianship – are treated as national treasures in their respective countries.

On matters historical Dr Bradley does particularly well. He supplies a valuable account of the revival of choral singing, sacred and secular, in Victorian Britain, leading to the emergence of large scale musical festivals. The Leeds Festival was a notable example, and Sullivan was for some years its chief conductor, directing an adventurous choice of music old and new.
Where Sullivan himself is concerned, Dr Bradley demolishes the superficial view that he was worldly and not religious, writing hymns and anthems solely for money. They did help to pay his bills, of course, but he was not alone in turning to this ready source of income.

Did these pieces mean more to him than cash? Dr Bradley offers interesting reflections on Sullivan’s religious beliefs. Those appear to have been that ‘benevolent Deism’, little concerned with dogma and external observance but laced with vaguely Christian expectations of good behaviour, which makes such an appeal to the English. I say this not to question the genuineness of the composer’s faith but to show its nature and its limitations.

When the author turns to Sullivan’s religious music I confess I find him less persuasive. He works hard to make us treat this part of the composer’s output with respect, but sometimes his enthusiasm outruns his judgement. In
his later pages, for example, he looks for Church influences and signs of personal religious conviction even in the operas (including Sullivan’s ‘big’ opera, Ivanhoe), but it feels like trying to make bricks without straw. When Dr Bradley seeks a sense of the ‘spiritual’ in Sullivan’s theatre music then the word is as meaningless as it is when people call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’. I share his admiration for Sullivan, but I remain of the opinion that most of the sacred music would deserve little attention without Sullivan’s name attached to it.

There are exceptions, of course. Four of Sullivan’s hymns have achieved immortality. Or should that be three and two halves? Noel (‘It came upon the midnight clear’) is partly arrangement, partly original composition, and Dr Bradley makes a fascinating case for Sullivan having had at least a hand in St Clement (‘The day thou gavest’). St Gertrude (‘Onward, Christian soldiers’) is indestructible, and when taken at the brisk speed desired by the composer becomes electrifying. Golden Sheaves (‘To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise’) adds delight to any hymn book, while Lux Eoi (‘Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to heaven and voices raise’) is one of the finest hymn tunes written in the Victorian era. Looking at some of Sullivan’s other hymn tunes, though, for the most part I am happy to let them rest in peace.

Among Sullivan’s anthems I would rescue Lead, Kindly Light, The Strain Upraise of Joy and Praise, and possibly one or two others. Of his larger works The Golden Legend deserves an occasional airing both for its musical rewards and, as Dr Bradley says, for an appreciation of its boldness of conception. The Boer War Te Deum, Sullivan’s last completed work and recently recorded, has real merit. I long to hear it in the acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral for which it was designed, and performed by the forces Sullivan specified.

A perceptive critic remarked that Sullivan was ‘a curious and rather tantalizing mixture of talent and genius’. Despite Dr Bradley’s strong advocacy in this valuable book, I believe that even the best of Sullivan’s religiously inspired music is the product of his exceptional talent. The Savoy Operas, however, are the work of a musical genius. Commenting on Sullivan and his academic musical teachers, Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘they trained him to make Europe yawn; and he took advantage of their teaching to make London and New York laugh and whistle’. Let us thank God that he did. Through his operas Arthur Sullivan made the world a happier place, an achievement which surpassed anything he did in his sacred works. ND

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