As well as being a popular composer of light operas for the Savoy Theatre, Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) could be considered as a sort of 'Composer Laureate', writing the ideal music on occasions of royal or national importance. For such opportunities he had probably to thank his friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh and other junior members of the royal family.
He wrote songs and marches to welcome Princess Alexandra of Denmark as bride of the Prince of Wales in 1863, and a huge festive Te Deum in thanksgiving for her husband's recovery from typhoid in 1872. He set the words of Tennyson's Ode for the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, and a further Ode to which the Queen laid the foundation stone of the Imperial Institute in 1887. When this building was inaugurated in 1893 he also composed an Imperial March to go with it.
His last completed work was another Te Deum, sung at the Service of Thanksgiving for victory in the Boer War at St Paul's Cathedral in 1902, two years after his demise. Sullivan was the natural choice to set to music the Jubilee Hymn written by the Bishop of Wakefield to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in May 1897.
Unexpectedly, Alfred Maul, manager of the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, commissioned Sullivan to write a ballet with which that theatre would celebrate Queen Victoria's sixty glorious years. The work was intended to depict a combination of national and royal strands in the life of Great Britain through the centuries, and to bring to life scenes which had existed, if not in historical fact, at least in popular prints and the loyal imagination.
Victoria and Merrie England, as the ballet was called, was a spectacle which had many parallels with all the stereotypes of Victorian historical illustration. The Queen herself, as her reign progressed, had become equated with Elizabeth I as a kind of focus for romantic chivalry, and thus, the characteristic of the eight scenes, odd as they might seem today, were in fact highly appropriate in 1897.
Listen — Sullivan: Introduction - Britannia Asleep (Victoria and Merrie England, Scene I)
(track 1, 0:45-1:43) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :
The ballet opened on 25 May 1897 to choreography by Carlo Coppi, the Alhambra's permanent choreographer, and success was immediate. Indeed, the piece ran for six months, during which time the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family visited the theatre no less than nineteen times.
Listen — Sullivan: Procession of Mummers and Revellers
(Victoria and Merrie England, Scenes II and III)
(track 5, 0:00-0:45) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :
When Victoria died in 1901, the euphoria started to wane however, and despite the first Royal Command Performance of 1912, things did not improve. To make matters worse, the autograph score and most of the orchestral material simply disappeared, thus hindering any further performances until very recently. However, in the last three decades three pieces of research have shed light on its original orchestration, and correspondence between Sullivan and Wilfred Bendall, the composer's secretary who arranged the ballet for publication as a piano solo, revealed many details of scoring and counterpoint as their arranging progressed. Armed with all this information, a huge editorial and reconstruction task has been undertaken by Roderick Spencer on behalf of the Sullivan Society to produce the present world premiere recording, where, of the eight scenes, only the instrumentation of Scene VI is completely edited.
Listen — Sullivan: Procession of the Boar's Head and Roast Beef
(Victoria and Merrie England, Scene VI)
(track 22, 1:05-2:04) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :
The others are largely Sullivan's own orchestration or assembled from other sources of the time. I think that listing the titles accorded to each scene would not be amiss, so here they are:
Scene I: Ancient Britain
Scenes II and III: May Day in Queen Elizabeth's Time
Scenes IV and V: The Legend of Herne the Hunter
Scene VI: Christmas Revels in the Time of Charles II
Scene VII: Coronation of Queen Victoria
Scene VIII: Britain's Glory
Listen — Sullivan: English, Irish, Scottish and Colonial Troups - Military Manoeuvres
(Victoria and Merrie England, Scene VIII)
(track 29, 4:27-5:16) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :
The music is wonderfully atmospheric, exquisitely melodic and often grand and patriotic, even if the composer sometimes falls on tunes that he had previously written for the ballet L'Île Enchantée and from the surviving ballet music of the long lost operetta Thespis and the Imperial March.
Andrew Penny is an enthusiastic advocate of the piece, and his vibrant and energetic conducting brings to the fore all of Sullivan's deft orchestral palette. The RTÉ Sinfonietta responds brilliantly with playing of the highest order full of dash and swagger.
This re-issue of a Marco Polo disc recorded in 1993 remains as fresh as ever, and sound quality is without reproach - a colourful advert for English ballet that should not be missed.
Copyright © 27 December 2021