Arthur Sullivan: Incidental Music – Macbeth; King Arthur; The Merry Wives of Windsor. © 2022 Naxos Rights US Inc

CD Spotlight

Exhilarating from Start to Finish

GERALD FENECH listens to suites of incidental music by Arthur Sullivan

'Andrew Penny is an enthusiastic advocate of this composer, and his lively and beautifully shaped interpretations are a treat to the ear.'


Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in London on 13 May 1842, the second son of Thomas and Mary Clementine née Coghlan. The boy evinced prodigious musical talent when still very young, and his father, who was a theatre musician who later became an army bandmaster, saw to it that his son would set out on a career in music. Indeed, when just eight years old Arthur could play every instrument in the military band.

In 1855 the budding composer took his first steps in composition with the publication of a sacred song, O Israel. In the summer of 1856 Sullivan won the competition for the first Mendelssohn Scholarship, thus opening the way to continue his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. From 1858 till early 1861 the composer was a member of the Leipzig Conservatory, at that time considered the finest musical school in the world. Sullivan left Leipzig after a successful performance of his final examination piece, the incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest. In April 1862 The Tempest was performed at one of the celebrated Crystal Palace Saturday concerts, and it took London by storm. Even Charles Dickens was bowled over by the piece. Indeed, Sullivan became famous overnight. Fame, however, does not pay the bills and for the next thirteen years he continued to take whatever work came along, apart from composing almost uninterruptedly in many genres, especially symphonic and vocal pieces. During this period he also wrote a substantial number of songs and hymns, the royalties from which provided him with a steady income. After all, it was not only doom and gloom.

The years 1875-1889 were, maybe, the golden years of Sullivan's career. It was during this period that he partnered W S Gilbert, and this collaboration produced the most famous stage-works in English musical history. Who has not heard or seen H M S Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Patience (1881), The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889), apart from the others that are performed not that often but are still alive? Sullivan was knighted in 1883 and, although he lived another eleven years, after The Gondoliers his compositional muse began to fade. He wrote seven operas during this last decade, but only Ivanhoe (1891) and The Rose of Persia (1899) were a success. Today even these two stage-works have fallen into neglect.

His last completed work is a setting of the Te Deum, commissioned by the Dean of St Paul's to commemorate the expected British victory in the Boer War of 1900. In the autumn of that same year, Sullivan's health, which had never been good, started to decline very rapidly. On 22 November 1900, the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, Sullivan died aged fifty-eight. He left a great corpus of works, but his name will always be linked with the 'Savoy Operas' as they are popularly known. A pity really, as his orchestral works in particular deserve more exposure.

The music on this disc is a prime example of Sullivan's natural ability to compose brilliantly for orchestral forces. The music for The Merry Wives of Windsor was composed in 1874, on a request from manager John Hollingshead for the Christmas production of Shakespeare's play at London's Gaiety Theatre. Sullivan embraced the task with light spirits, although he only left himself three weeks to finish the music. Not to imitate Nicolai's delightful piece he refused to compose an overture, and even avoided writing Mendelssohnian delicate 'real' fairy music, as he was anxious to remind his audience that the spirits who trouble Falstaff are only flesh-and-blood imitations. Consequently, the suite has a straightforward jollity which exactly catches the mood of the pantomime season for which it was intended.

Listen — Sullivan: Fie on sinful fantasy! (The Merry Wives of Windsor - incidental music)
(8.555210 track 17, 0:00-0:40) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :

The success of Henry Irving's Macbeth, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre on 29 December 1888, was in great part due to the power and austerity of Sullivan's score. His music invested the production with a drive and urgency based on his own understanding of Shakespeare, his own sense of drama and here, uniquely in all his work, of tragedy. The Suite on this recording is only a small portion of the complete work, but the music selected gives a clear enough picture of Sullivan's gift to create a sound world depicting the exact atmosphere of foreboding and impending bloodshed. Indeed, the 'Macbeth' Suite is full of sublime melodic writing, ravishing orchestration and a dark dramatic energy.

Listen — Sullivan: Come away! Come away! (Macbeth - incidental music)
(8.555210 track 7, 0:00-0:33) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :

It is partly because of the success of Macbeth that Henry Irving invited Sullivan to collaborate again on another project, this time on a blank-verse drama, King Arthur by Joseph C Carr, which was eventually mounted in January 1895 at the Lyceum. It was an idea dear to the heart of the composer, who had toyed with the idea of an Arthurian opera for many years. The drawback was, however, that in each scene Sullivan was required to supply not a continuous and developing flow of musical ideas, but a mixture of orchestral melodrama, leitmotiv and short phrases repeatable as necessary as each situation developed. The result was that the only extensive musical items were the choruses on or off-stage at moments of special interest. The only positive outcome of all this was that Carr's lyrics found Sullivan on more agreeable ground. After the composer's death, his secretary Wilfred Bendall edited these choruses to produce the present suite. The piece is vintage Sullivan as the composer excelled in choral writing, and the music here is highly evocative and captures the quasi-magical elements of the story.

Listen — Sullivan: Sleep! oh, sleep! (King Arthur - incidental music)
(8.555210 track 12, 2:45-3:35) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :

Andrew Penny is an enthusiastic advocate of this composer, and his lively and beautifully shaped interpretations are a treat to the ear. All praise to Naxos for re-issuing this delectable programme, whose sparkle has not diminished by the passing of time. (It was recorded by Marco Polo in November 1993.) Exhilarating from start to finish.

Copyright © 6 March 2022 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta









 << Home              Next review >>