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Chapter 16

SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN died in 1900, and for years I had seen neither him nor Gilbert. Sullivan, I knew, had lost interest in me when I was no longer a satellite, but my friendship with Gilbert had always been strong and sincere, and it troubled me to feel that there was a shadow over it. The queer man had, as I said before, deeply resented my leaving the stage.

“Lewis,” I said to my husband during one of our periodical sojourns in London, “I should so much like to see Sir William Gilbert again. I think I must write and propose a visit.”

He agreed with me, and I wrote to Lady Gilbert, receiving a very kind note in reply asking me to come to lunch and spend the day with them. She sent the carriage to the station for me, and I found them both well, and as charming to me as ever.

After lunch, when we were walking in the garden together, and near the lake where soon afterwards he met his death, I said to Gilbert:

“Haven’t you ever forgiven me for getting married, Sir William?”

“Married,” he said, “are you married?”

That was so characteristic of him; anything he did not want to happen, or wish to believe, had no existence in his mind.

“Of course I’m married,” I retorted sharply. “You know I am. I’ve been married for fifteen years.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Let me see,” he said. “I never sent you a wedding present, did I? I must do that now.

“Soon after there arrived at Farndon a magnificent silver bowl which I still have, engraved with the names of all the operas I had appeared in, and my parts in them. With it came a note:

2 Jan. 1911
I am sending you a Birthday present, a Wedding present, and a New Year’s present. All Rolled into One!
  With every good wish,
    Affectionately yours,
      W. S. GILBERT.

Dear Sir William Gilbert, within three months of that day he was dead.

I am one of the last who knew him well, certainly the very last who worked with him and Sullivan to materialize the children of their brains. I hear them criticized, explained, accounted for – often wrongly, as I think. Who can understand them as I do, I who saw them together shaping out their ideas at rehearsal after rehearsal, and worked with them day after day and year after year, as I did? Gilbert has come in for much criticism lately that I think unjust; he was quick-tempered, often unreasonable, and he could not bear to be thwarted, but how anyone could call him unamiable I cannot understand. Those who do, I think, can never have known him personally. In all our association of twenty years I never saw him show temper, he controlled his irritations and impatiences as a gentleman should. He was always kindness itself to me; and, though it is true that he had a special liking for me, I don’t for a moment suppose that others less distinguished by his regard were differently treated.

I am sure it must have disappointed and pained Gilbert to experience the distinctions that were made between him and Sullivan. To begin with: Sullivan was knighted years before him; and that, so far as the honour was conferred on the composer of the operas, was certainly unfair. In my opinion Gilbert was the greater man, for he was the originator and inspirer. He always had a picture of the whole play clear in his mind before ever it came to rehearsal, he was indefatigable, no detail was too small for his attention; he knew exactly what he wanted, and laboured untiringly to make all of us, including Sir Arthur, conform to his idea. He rounded us up like the taskmaster he was, and there was no escape until he was satisfied. Perhaps this grim determination to impose his own conception was galling to Sullivan; but Gilbert was the worker, the driving force, and his energy carried all before it.

It was his idea that often gave birth to Sullivan’s music; he did not know one note from another himself, but always he could tell how a tune ought to go, the character, the rhythm of it. I’ve heard him myself, not once, but many times, saying:

“Look here, Sullivan, it ought to go like this – rum ti tum ti tum tum tum,” and the other, the musician, would catch up the idea and work on it. There is one particular instance that I well remember. Sullivan had great difficulty in fitting music to the unusual verse form of “I have a song to sing O,” in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” and one day when he and Sullivan were talking it over Gilbert said:

“But, my dear fellow, it should go on and on and on and on like the House that Jack built”, making motions with his hands and humming in his tuneless voice, until he got Sir Arthur to seize the idea. I saw and heard that myself.

It is a curious fact that Sullivan had much the same experience with Sir Henry Irving when writing the incidental music for “Macbeth,” as he did when setting Gilbert’s lyric, and at about the same time. Irving knew no more than Gilbert did of music, or could hum a tune correctly to save his life, yet he also had a very clear conception of what was needed to illustrate the action and meaning of the play. When Sullivan played over the first draft of his music to Irving, the great actor shook his head. “It’s beautiful music, my dear fellow, but it won’t do at all, I’m sorry to say.” “Can’t you give me an idea of what you do want?” Sullivan asked him, and with nods and waving of hands and tuneless humming Irving conveyed his meaning to the musician’s sensitive brain and heard it translated into melody.

Another great injustice, in fact an unpardonable slight on Gilbert, was the omission of his name from the programme of the Command Performance at Windsor.

To me it seems the most ungenerous and unjust action imaginable. What would the whole thing have been without Gilbert, how could “The Gondoliers,” with all its quaint inversions and good-natured fun poked at those in high places, ever have existed? Didn’t the Queen herself enjoy his jokes and sly digs at Royalty as much as she enjoyed Sullivan’s music, as I saw with my own eyes? And to think that the one who inspired all that merriment and melody should have been ignored! I cannot understand the mental processes of those who deliberately did it, or admire the spirit of those who permitted it to be done. Gilbert was too truly a gentleman to retaliate or openly resent, but there is no doubt at all that that slight, and others to which he was subjected, cut him deeply. It is always the man of finest breeding and most sensitive temperament who goes to the wall in such contests.

Sullivan owed his entrance into society and his knighthood to his great friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh, whose musical tastes are well known; but it is doubtful if the influence of those in high places was altogether beneficial to his art. His serious music gave him a wider range of interests than Gilbert; but in opera he never succeeded apart from Gilbert, and when the partnership was dissolved the two other members of it found they could not do without him. Gilbert had been the inspirer, the projector, the Idea that ran through all the concern. Nothing went well after he left; Sullivan’s operas, the great new theatre that was to be built and house a National Opera – all were failures. Together they were invincible, separately they were only the component parts of a frayed strand.

It could not last for ever, that ideal partnership; long before the end there were signs of friction, and no after patching-up was successful. They were both such strong and talented men that perhaps the wonder is that they worked together so long, and submitted to the inevitable give and take of partnership. Each one thought himself the one, and there was a continual jealousy of words against music as the operas were evolved; but neither was superior to the other or complete alone, though if either must be put first it should be Gilbert, the inspirer.

Am I partial? I don’t think so; they are both dead now and I shall join them soon; all these contentions and bitternesses are done with for us all, and I can look back on them calmly and without prejudice.

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