Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
A History and a Comment
by H. M. Walbrook



The appeal of the melodies in these operas is as universal as that of anything in Art. We have all heard of the gentleman who was so hopelessly unmusical that be could not distinguish between a symphony and a boiler explosion. Even that unfortunate soul would have had the feeling, while "Take a pair of sparkling eyes" was being nicely sung to him, that something rather charming was taking place. All, too, can laugh at the "Never? Well, hardly ever!" in H.M.S. Pinafore, and especially at its significance as it reappears in the finale; and most people can enjoy hearing a State official solemnly declaring that an Archbishop should not play leapfrog with all and sundry, as by so doing he runs the risk of being ordered by a person of lesser rank than his own to "tuck in his tuppenny.

Analytic folk who have seen the operas over and over again find the pleasure of attending them greatly heightened by studying their neighbours. It is not so easy nowadays to do this as it used to be. The modern practice of darkening the theatre as the curtain rises makes it difficult. However, the glow from the stage is still sufficient to reveal along a row of neighbouring countenances the spread of a smile as the dialogue takes a droll turn or of an expression of seriousness as a pathetic melody develops. And woe betide the person who talks or hums during the music! The story used to be told by Sullivan himself how one night he dropped into the Savoy daring a performance of The Yeomen of the Guard, and stood at the back of the crowded and hushed Dress Circle. The quartette "Strange adventure” was being sung, and presently the composer, quite unconsciously, started quietly humming its melody. Almost immediately a gentleman turned and, glaring angrily, hissed the words at him, "Excuse me, sir, but I have come to this theatre to hear Sullivan's music, not yours!" After that, needless to say the abashed composer held his peace, but he came away happy in the possession of a priceless compliment and a capital story.

Sullivan's music is the Heart of the operas, Gilbert's libretti are the Brain. Gilbert's words are nearly always witty and well turned, but for the most part they are detached from humanity. His characters are scarcely ever real men and women. They are creations of his own, whimsical, preposterous, remote. Often when he is being quite serious he will suddenly let fall a phrase which kills sincerity. When Ralph's friends in H.M.S. Pinafore are bemoaning the sentence just passed on him, how do they express themselves

He'll hear no tone
Of the maiden he loves so well!
No telephone
Communicates with his cell!

Then comes Sullivan with his pathetic music, and we listen to the absurd words as sadly and solemnly as though they were charged with all the sorrow of the world!

It has been pointed out a thousand times how marvellously Sullivan fits his music to Gilbert's words ; but it has not been pointed out how often he does so by making the spirit of his music the exact antithesis to the words. When Gilbert writes of Poetry as a "divine emollient," Sullivan sets the words to a phrase worthy of Handel or Mozart. When Gilbert makes one of his ladies bemoan her growing corpulence, Sullivan sets the words to a melody so beautiful that the most tender lyric of a Heine might be sung to it. When Gilbert makes a lieutenant of the Dragoon Guards in full uniform, give voice to the following:

Our soldiers very seldom cry,
And yet — I need not tell you why —
A teardrop dews each martial eye!

Sullivan sets it and its subsequent ludicrous command "Weep, weep, all weep!" to a melody as charged with genuine tears as anything can be. In short, Gilbert over and over again gives us mock feeling, and Sullivan charges it with real feeling. In the one a Brain is at work, in the other a Heart.

There is one phase of Gilbert's wit which has distressed many of his admirers, but which after all is only part of the emotional detachment of his work — his fondness for jokes at the expense of middle-age and old-age. Nobody has written more delightful lyrics on young love and beautiful maidens. Take such a song as that on the English Girl In Utopia Limited:

Her soul is sweet as the ocean air,
For prudery knows no haven there;
To find mock-modesty please apply
To the conscious blush and the downcast eye!
Rich in the things contentment brings,
In every pure enjoyment wealthy,
Blithe as a beautiful bird she sings,
For body and mind are hale and healthy.
Her eyes they thrill with right goodwill —
Her heart is light as a floating feather —
As pure and bright as the mountain rill
That leaps and laughs in the Highland heather!
Go, search the world and search the sea,
Then come you home and sing with me,
There's no such gold and no such pearl
As a bright and beautiful English girl!

If ever Gilbert meant anything seriously, he meant every word of that. But when the vision of girlhood has become middle-aged or old, he can crack his jokes at its pathetic physical decay until we almost turn our heads aside from a wit that has allowed itself so dreary a decline.

This curious streak of what, for want of a better phrase we can only call remoteness from life, ran through all Gilbert's work, not for the opera stage only but also for that of the ordinary theatre. The patches of real, honest, homely, sincere feeling in it are few and far between. Hence the comparative failure of his serious dramas. The best of his long plays is a farce in which the sweet little heroine and her gallant sweetheart derive their prospects of a nice little income from laying obstacles on a railway line and wrecking trains. It was evidently far easier for him to write along that groove of queerness than along the groove of ordinary human feeling. Charity, pitifulness, understanding — these qualities appear but little in any of his work, just as they appeared but little in the quips with which he was wont to embellish his conversation, and which would be passed round from person to person and laughed at for their shrewdness.

A well-known actor once played the part of an Irishman and gave it what he intended as an Irish accent. When the curtain had fallen his friends who had been "in front" went behind to swell the chorus of compliment and congratulation. Among them went the tall figure of Sir W. S. Gilbert. "Excellent, excellent!" was his greeting, "but why on earth did you make him talk like that?" "Well, you see," came the confident reply, "he is an Irishman, so you see I thought he'd talk with a brogue." "Then why didn't you give him one?" said Gilbert, as he turned away.

And yet beneath this queer, unsympathetic outside lay the kindest heart. He could help a struggling artist generously and without letting a soul know of it except the person he had aided. His queerness — the sardonic touch in him that made him more respected than loved by a host of people — was by no means the whole man or the greater part of him. And perhaps even in his work we would not have wished him different — not, at any rate, so far as the very much greater part of it is concerned.

In common with many poets, from Shakespeare to Tennyson, he had a capital head for business. It is the wildest of fallacies that a poet is, among other things, a man who cannot look after the practical side of life. Gilbert was, perhaps, lucky in making a slip on the business side early in his literary career. He sold for a comparatively small sum one of his early dramatic works, which afterwards proved a success by which other people made all the profit. That experience taught him a wisdom which every author should possess. He kept his eye on the future as well as on the present, with the important result, among others, that, during a long literary career, he was able to work at ease.

Sullivan was short, and the physical contrast between the two men as they stood side by side and hand-in-hand on the stage at the end of a Savoy premiére was always the supreme piquancy of the evening. He was loved by all who knew him, and his personality was one of quite extraordinary charm, all of which appears in the fine portrait of him by Millais in the National Portrait Gallery. Few men of his day possessed an equal measure of social fascination. His letters were as vivid as his talk or his music. In everything be did be aimed high. As with Gilbert, so with him. If a thing was worth doing at all, it was worth doing well. Writing to his old friend, Mrs. Frederick Lehmann, in 1866, telling her of the death of his father, he concluded with the following sentence: "Perhaps he can look upon me and see all I do; and please God I will try and never do anything that will make him turn away his head and regret that he left me alone here." In the judgment of all who knew him, he kept that vow.

We have a pleasant picture of him at work in the Reminiscences of Mr. J. Comyns Carr. In 1895 Mr. Carr spent six weeks with him at the composer's villa at Beaulieu, on the Riviera, not far from Monte Carlo. Sullivan at this time was working on an opera (the ill-fated The Beauty Stone), for which Mr. Carr was busy on the libretto, and we read how it was his habit to lie in bed late, do little in the afternoon, play a game or two of bézique after dinner, and then, about eleven o'clock, withdraw into a little glass conservatory that overlooked the Mediterranean, and begin his "musical day." There he would remain till four or five in the morning, working through the quiet hours, composing and scoring, only rarely leaving his table to go to the piano and try over a few notes of the melody he had under treatment.

His pen work when scoring for the orchestra was of surprising neatness and delicacy, reminding scholars of Mendelssohn's. Some replicas of it produced in the Pall Mall Gazette have already been referred to. His modus operandi was first to fix the musical rhythm demanded by the words and metre of the lyric. Having taken a great deal of trouble with this object, reading and repeating the verses over and over again, he generally found that the desired melody came to him without any difficulty.

In this connection it will interest a reader to consider for a little while the lyric, "Kind sir, you cannot have the heart," of Giannetta's song in the first Act of The Gondoliers. If one puts the now familiar melody from one's mind and simply considers the incidence of the poet's emphasis; if having done this he will then consider the melody and see how very unexpectedly the emphasis falls, he will be in the way to realise the thoroughness with which Sullivan saturated himself with his words before he began setting them to music. Similarly it will be interesting to compare the poet's emphasis in the lines

Heighdy! Heighdy!
Misery me, lackadaydee!
His pains were o'er, and he sighed no more,
For he lived in the love of a ladye!

and then to note the so different emphasis put upon them by the musician. But perhaps the most striking illustration of all is the treatment of the line, "Into Parliament you shall go" in Iolanthe, which under Sullivan's hand became the melodious and most diverting

Into Parliament, Parliament, Parliament,
P—A—R—liament you shall go,
Into Parliament you shall go! —

a verbal turn which does not appear in the libretto but falls so amusingly on the ear in the performance.

Thus we have the two men, so contrasted, each so accomplished in his own department, each so perfectly the complement of the other; Gilbert with his wit evoking peals of laughter, Sullivan with his melodies warming the heart and often moving the listener almost to tears; Gilbert, with his dialogue sparkling with the most curious and far-sought concetti and vagaries of expression, and leaving it almost void of any recognisable human interest, Sullivan pouring forth his stream of highly poetical and emotional tune and tone colour. Little wonder that when they parted neither was able to find a really satisfying collaborator elsewhere. Sullivan tried several, including writers so distinguished as Arthur W. Pinero, Sydney Grundy, J. Comyns Carr, and Basil Hood — but none that proved a Gilbert. One of two things always happened. Either the new author tried to reproduce the style of Gilbert and inevitably failed, or he boldly set Gilbert's methods at defiance, and tried to impose a style of his own on the public. In each case the public showed its resentment.

Neither was Gilbert much luckier in his search for a musical collaborator in the place of Sullivan. In one case he was fortunate: Mr. Alfred Cellier set the book of "The Mountebanks" to charming music not unworthy, in humour and melody, of comparison even with that of Sullivan. When, however, after the death of Sullivan, and not long before his own tragic end, he was asked whether he would ever write another opera, he could only sadly make reply: "I should like to very much, but what is the use of Gilbert without a Sullivan?"


Page created 14 March 1999