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by Dan Rothermel
The Grand Duke, Sullivan's last work with Gilbert, is perhaps the most traditionally undervalued of all his operas. A barrier of prejudice has surrounded the score since the time of its premiere when the work failed to capture the public's imagination, whether because of problems with the libretto or simply because light opera as it was then known at the Savoy Theatre was becoming, temporarily, passe. The glamorous new musical comedy, typified by the scores of Sidney Jones, Leslie Stuart, Lionel Monckton, Paul Rubens and others, was rapidly supplanting comic opera in popularity with the great general public. During the first half of this century The Grand Duke received very few amateur performances, here or in England. This fact combined with the lack of recordings until comparatively recently has tended to bolster a totally unwarranted
The first musical scholar worth his salt to write an entire book on Sullivan's operas was Thomas F. Dunhill, a distinguished composer in his own right and a most perceptive commentator on the unique qualities of Sullivan's genius. And yet, we read in Dunhill's 1928 classic, Sullivan's Comic Operas, that "in justice to Sullivan's memory as well as Gilbert's, it is to be hoped that [The Grand Duke] will never be heard again." Though he had appreciative things to say about the Herald's song, the Greek chorus that opens Act II and Lisa's ensuing ariette, Dunhill rated the opera well below Haddon Hall and The Rose of Persia, operas composed by Sullivan to non-Gilbert libretti. One must bear in mind, however, that Dunhill had access to nothing but the vocal score which, as with the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas, is notoriously misleading as to the subtler aspects of Sullivan's intentions.
In 1937 the Blue Hill Troupe, the Gilbert and Sullivan company most comparable to Savoy in New York, presented the second production of The Grand Duke in the United States. (The first had been given by students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, 1901; The Savoy Company's production in 1938 was the third.) The conductor of that production, Edmond W. Rickett, working intimately with the score and, in fact, arranging the entire opera for small orchestra, gave the work an entirely different valuation:
That the music... should be so little known is greatly to be regretted, for Sullivan shows no falling off, either in form or spirit. Indeed, while his melodies have all their old sparkle and vigour, his harmonies have in many instances taken on a new warmth and richness; and there is not only a freedom of modulation not found in any earlier work, but also a far more intricate and scholarly development of the musical phrase. With all this, the never-failing Sullivan humour bubbles and sparkles from every page of the score, adding its exhilarating quality to the wit of the lines... Also, it is worthy of note that in those few places where the librettist has provided opportunity for the serious musician, we have some of the composer's loveliest melodies, perhaps surpassing any music of this kind to be found in the earlier operas. Here, and indeed throughout, we have Sullivan at his best. The Grand Duke musically is the enchanting swan song of a great composer of light opera, and as such, should not be allowed to lapse into oblivion.
This handsome appreciation, which has generally escaped notice, is to be found in Let's Do Some Gilbert and Sullivan, a "practical production handbook" which Rickett co-authored in 1940 with Blue Hill Troupe stage director, Benjamin T. Hoogland. Incidentally, this useful book also takes due note of the Savoy Company's early productions of the lesser known operas.
Twenty years later, Gervase Hughes, another amply equipped scholar and composer, attempted to assess the full range of Sullivan's achievement in The Music of Arthur Sullivan. Hughes gives exaggerated praise to the overture, calling it "a better composition than any single number from the opera." It is a charming curtain-raiser and, contradicting Hughes' own conclusion, definitely Sullivan's own work -- he left a number of overtures (e.g. The Mikado) to musical assistants -- but it is purely conventional potpourri. There are items in the score which, for one reason or another, are more notable.
Hughes quotes for example the chorus' imitative entrances in No. 5 ("Why, gracious pow'rs," etc.) as a particularly weak example of counterpoint. Now this looks on paper very square and ineffective but, like the so-called "false counterpoint" of Handel at which the pundits used to turn up their noses, it certainly works in the theater, and the thrilling change from 2/4 to 6/8 time at the end gives the chorus an exciting exit.
As with Berlioz, another master who did not compose at the piano but thought instinctively in terms of the instrument that would ultimately play the passage, it is very dangerous to assess Sullivan's music merely by studying it in piano reduction. For this reason the first recording of The Grand Duke in the original instrumentation came as a revelation. When Savoy presented the opera back in 1938 the original instrumentation was not even available from the D'Oyly Carte Company and the music director, the late but well-remembered John Thoms orchestrated the entire opera, as he had done for the production of Utopia Limited in 1936. In the absence of any other available version for small orchestra, the Thoms orchestration was also used when the Gilbert and Sullivan Players presented the opera at Plays and Players Theatre in 1975, its only Philadelphia performances between Savoy's 1938 and 1982 productions. The 1982 production was the first in Philadelphia in the original orchestration. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company presented a concert version of the opera as part of the festivities surrounding its centenary season of 1975 and a full-length recording was made at that time making the work at last accessible on both sides of the Atlantic in the composer's scoring. This performance has recently been released in the compact disc format and is, once again, widely available.
In this, his last work with Gilbert but not his last for the Savoy Theatre, we find Sullivan in fine form, eager to vary his approach and experimenting in a number of distinct ways. The somewhat racier Parisian idiom of Offenbach and Lecocq is adopted in the opening chorus, the Act II galop and the Roulette Song. The galop, a dazzling little piece, also recalls our own Victor Herbert in his more Gallic, as opposed to Gaelic, moods, while Ernest's rousing theatrical manager song suggests that Sullivan was not entirely deaf to the siren song of musical comedy, although it boasts a rhythmic elan that Leslie Stuart alone among his younger contemporaries could claim. The dance at the end of the Baroness-Grand Duke duet is a palpable habanera, with a fascinating cross-rhythmic collision between 2/4 and 6/8.
The beginning of the overture and the entrance of the Grand Duke, from which it is derived, is an obvious Wagnerian parody, wryly suggesting a facetious reference to the opening of Der Fliegende Holländer. On the other hand, the Viennese waltz that follows the sparkling opening chorus is a genuine pastiche of Suppé, Millöcker and the Austrian operetta school, not a direct parody, although it ultimately lacks the suavity of Johann Strauss. The Greek chorus that opens Act II has a breadth and expansiveness that has long been admired, while Julia's lengthy scena in the same act is a genuine "aria with cabaletta" in the tradition of Italian opera. The somewhat wistful madrigal, "Strange the views some people hold" (No. 7) comes in for special praise from present day Sullivan scholar, Percy M. Young, who also comments on the charms of the Viennese duet and chorus mentioned above and on the evocative orchestration of the Grand Duke's "Broken-down Critter" song.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sullivan also explores some new harmonic paths, particularly in enharmonic modulation. (This is also a fascinating aspect of his otherwise rather conventional serious opera, Ivanhoe, 1891.) For example there are slight changes of harmonization in repetition, with which he might not have bothered in the more freewheeling Pinafore days, and little dabs of harmonic colour throughout that give it a type of interest almost totally lacking it its immediate Gilbertian predecessor, Utopia Limited. The texture of chamber music is here and there adopted but I find myself in agreement with Gervase Hughes that the exquisite passage in the Act I finale beginning "Oh, listen to me, dear," though perfectly appropriate, is very much a return to Sullivan's youthful 1860's style, even to its melodic contour and ornamentation.
But despite the intense interest of these technical aspects, from the standpoint of the more general theatrical audience it is the quality of Sullivan's melodies by which his operas stand or fall. In this all important aspect, The Grand Duke, triumphantly stands. Those who experience this ebullient score for the first time in the present production are in a truly enviable position.
For those specifically interest in the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan, the author recommends the following studies:
Page Created 29 August, 2011