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When Henry Irving decided to put the Arthurian legends on the stage, he commissioned J. R. Comyns Carr (1849-1916) to dramatize them. Carr, a half-Irish barrister, was also a dramatist of some experience as well as being the art critic of the Pall Mall Gazette. Sullivan composed the incidental music whilst Burne-Jones designed the scenery, costumes and armour for the production.

The subject of King Arthur had interested Sullivan since the 1870s when the idea of an opera on that theme had been floated. The libretto was to have been by Lionel H. Lewin, but Lewin died before anything came of the idea beyond a song, Guinevere!, published in 1872.

Not all the music was new. For introductions and entractes, Sullivan re-used some of his existing music. An abbreviated version of the Marmion overture (1867) served as a prelude to the Prologue of the play, the Imperial March (1893) was performed before Act I, movements from The Tempest (1861) before Acts II and IV and part of his symphony (1866) introduced Act III. The most significant new pieces of music took the form of choruses: the Choruses of Lake Spirits and Unseen Spirits, the Chaunt of the Holy Grail, the May Song and the Funeral March and Final Chorus. In addition Sullivan provided orchestral melodrama to underscore the dialogue as well as music to cover entrances and exits. Sullivan thought the production sufficiently important to conduct on the opening night at the Lyceum Theatre on 12 January 1895, although this fact was not mentioned in the programme.

In his will, Sullivan left the manuscript was left to Wilfred Bendall (1850-1920) who had been his secretary and musical assistant since 1896. None of the music was published in any form during Sullivan's lifetime, but a pianoforte score, arranged by Bendall for concert performance, appeared in 1903. In his preface to that score, Bendall explains that in the last years of his life Sullivan still entertained the idea of writing a grand opera on an Arthurian theme using some of the music and had asked Carr to provide a libretto.

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