April 2008

On each of us thy learning shed

Tuesday 1st April 2008




David Mackie,
that great expert in Sullivan's music,
will enthrall us once again talking about Sullivan's music,
especially his contrapuntal melodies;
between orchestra and singers as well as
the double choruses.



Review by Chris Browne

For the April meeting the Society was entertained and instructed by the Sullivan expert David Mackie.

How the music for the Savoy Operas is created may not be of especial interest to many lovers of the music, but David's presentational skills drew us all in through his enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject.

A basic outline was given to demonstrate essential elements of musical composition : melody, harmony and counterpoint (punctus contra punctum "note against note"). This groundwork was necessary as the main focus of the talk was to explore Sullivan's double-choruses. The provenance of this device was traced back to the works of Bach and Mendelssohn no less.

Examples were played on the (unmoveable) grand piano :Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (this is the title of a transcription by the English pianist Myra Hess (1890-1965) of the chorale that ends each part of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147) and Mendelssohn's St. Paul oratorio. Mendelssohn, was working in Leipzig as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1835 (Bach was Cantor of Thomasschule, adjacent to the Thomaskirche - St. Thomas's Lutheran Church - 1723-1750).

Mendelssohn, an enthusiast for the by now unfashionable Bach, concentrated on developing the musical life of Leipzig and in 1843 founded the Leipzig Conservatory. This was where Sullivan studied from 1858-1861 having won the Royal Academy of Music Mendelssohn scholarship in 1856 (where he started his studies).

An early example of the use of counterpoint (or double-chorus technique) was demonstrated in the finale of Sullivan's Festival Te Deum (Crystal Palace, 1872) where the tune St. Anne (1708 by William Croft) was pitted against a jaunty military march.This perfectly captured the joy at the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). The critic for the Musical Times expressed himself in italics such was the surprise at Sullivan's daring originality.

Having been closely connected with Sullivan's music as repetiteur and assistant conductor with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company (1976-1982) David has a particular insight into the unstoppable flair exercised by Sullivan's talent. Rarely was an opportunity missed to add an element of surprise to enrich the score. Sullivan thought orchestrally, and the operas are full of delightful examples of orchestral brilliance (e.g. Climbing Over Rocky Mountain from Thespis and Pirates). David warmed to his subject with a canter through as many examples of double-choruses in the operas that were possible to fit into the normal time-span of the Society's monthly meetings!

A thorough investigation in the second half of the evening examined in detail the clever interweaving and adaptation of musical themes from The Sorcerer (e.g. as developed in the Act I duet for Lady Sangazure and Sir Marmaduke) . In all here was enough material for a whole day of fascinating study. A monograph by David would be a marvellous addition to the library of any lover of G&S. Even more fascinating would be David's completion of the Lord Chancellor's fugue from Iolanthe (a passing comment from David which I'd like to hold him to!).

An evening such as this means you invariably come away from the meeting richer than when you arrived. For example, I had no idea that Gounod's Ave Maria was applied to Bach's First Prelude. This is an example used to show how two tunes can be amalgamated, even by different composers (in the same way Sullivan uses St.Anne against which to set his March).

So finally one is left knowing so much more of Sullivan's techniques. What isn't clear is why his music always sounds so spontaneous, and works so well in the Theatre. His robust musical training must have given him the foundation on which to establish and develop his fount of musical talents.

Many thanks to David for giving us special compositional insights that perhaps help to explain the perennial and enduring success of the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan, and the Savoy Operas.


Christopher Irvin Browne BA(Hons)

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