Saturday 21 April 2018

Classical: Tale behind the most beloved comic operas

Irish ancestry: Composer Arthur Sullivan who worked with William Gilbert to produce many hit operas
Irish ancestry: Composer Arthur Sullivan who worked with William Gilbert to produce many hit operas

George Hamilton

In the musical space occupied in the modern era by names such as Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Victorian age produced an unparalleled pairing, universally recognised still as Gilbert and Sullivan. Contemporaries in England of Elgar and Parry, of Fauré and Massenet in France, as well as Greig, Dvorak, and Puccini, G&S carved a niche for themselves collaborating with an impresario by the name of Richard D'Oyly Carte.

He opened the Savoy Theatre on the Strand in London to stage their operatic creations, and he made so much money he was able to build London's first luxury hotel - also called The Savoy - right next door.

The man who wrote the music was Arthur Sullivan, whose roots were in the Kingdom of Kerry. His grandfather, Thomas, was a horseman of some ability, and it was that talent - indirectly - that led to Arthur ending up in England.

We're back in the early 1800s, and Thomas Sullivan has just ridden the winner of a significant steeplechase. Among the patrons at the establishment chosen for the celebrations is a recruiting sergeant for the British army.

The jockey - in a moment of intoxicated exuberance - accepts the King's shilling, and next thing he's off, fighting against Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsular War, and ending up as part of the platoon guarding the fallen Emperor in exile on the remote south Atlantic island of St Helena.

Thomas by this stage had a son of the same name who entered military service and rose to become a bandmaster at the officer-training centre at Sandhurst.

Thomas Junior's son Arthur was born in London in 1842. A stellar student, he earned a prestigious scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and also attended the conservatory in Leipzig.

By his mid-20s, he'd produced a significant body of work - incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest, a concerto for cello, ballet, and a full orchestral piece inspired by a ride in a jaunting car on a holiday in Ireland. The only symphony he wrote is known as Arthur Sullivan's Irish Symphony.

All of this placed Sullivan at the heart of the European mainstream in terms of style. But he was also exploring avenues that led to music much more like Offenbach than Beethoven.

Jacques Offenbach had been packing out his music hall, the Bouffes-Parisiens, with light operas that majored on parody and satire.

Sullivan went down the same path with one of his own - Cox and Box - based on a farce about two lodgers, one of whom worked regular hours while the other worked nights, unwittingly sharing the same room.

William Schwenck Gilbert entered the equation some years later. He was a playwright who was engaged to collaborate with Sullivan on a Christmas show, Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old, "an entirely original grotesque opera" as it was billed.

Though it was a success, and ran until the following March, it was a one-off. It wasn't until some years later when D'Oyly Carte was looking for something to open an Offenbach production he was putting on that he came up with the idea of asking Gilbert and Sullivan to produce something new.

Their one-acter, Trial by Jury, was an instant hit. D'Oyly Carte was on to a winner. HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance soon followed. The rest, as they say is history.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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