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Forsaking choirs for choruses

22 November 2013

Tension between the sacred and secular marked Sullivan's life, says Ronald Corp

Life-long influence?: The book reviewed left considers the spirituality of Arthur Sullivan, seen above, c.1855, as a chorister in the Chapel Royal

Life-long influence?: The book reviewed left considers the spirituality of Arthur Sullivan, seen above, c.1855, as a chorister in the Chapel Royal

Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers: The sacred music of Arthur Sullivan
Ian Bradley
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT544 )

A GERMAN music critic once remarked that Britain in the 19th century was a "land without music". How wrong he was on most counts.

Did he not know of the flourishing choral societies facilitated by the advent of cheap music published principally by Novello & Co.; or of the rise of the large choral festivals in Leeds, Birmingham, and elsewhere? Did he not know of the efforts of Hullah and the Oxford Movement to improve church music; or the government initiative to make singing compulsory in all schools?

Did he not consider the concert halls (including the Royal Albert Hall), the flourishing orchestras, and the emerging music conservatories; and did he not know that the country was a magnet to a host of visiting musicians who enjoyed great acclaim in these isles?

This book is very good at providing the context in which 19th- century musicians worked, and is a very good rebuff to the German critic.

But - and it's a big but - it could be argued that Britain did not produce the equivalent of a Mendelssohn, Schumann, or Brahms during the Victorian era. I am sure Ian Bradley, however, would want to place Sullivan in this company.

His book looks specifically (and for the first time) at Sullivan's sacred music, but nods frequently at the other works, including those that propelled Sullivan on to the musical map. These begin in 1862 with The Tempest (somehow omitted from the index), which was composed when he was only 20.

Of course, the "problem" with Sullivan was that he was soon seduced into composing comic operas with W. S. Gilbert; and there have always been those who thought he should have concentrated more on his serious music. Sullivan himself was mortified when Ethel Smyth said that she considered The Mikado to be his masterpiece.

Bradley has already produced a book on Victorian hymns, and is steeped in music of this kind from the period. This present book analyses Sullivan's sacred music in all its guises, not just the hymns (which get a whole chapter to themselves), but also the anthems, sacred ballads, and part-songs, the oratorios and cantatas (The Golden Legend is included because of its religious "atmosphere").

Bradley tries to persuade us that Sullivan was essentially a religious man. I am not sure that signing letters "God bless" really confirms that proposition; nor running off to conduct his own oratorios while in the midst of writing for d'Oyly Carte. But Bradley make a strong case; he even cites Sullivan's re- orchestration of a Handel oratorio as evidence of religious leanings inculcated in him when he was a chorister in the Chapel Royal.

I rather think Sullivan was simply doing a job of work for the money. Sadly, it seems that it was money that motivated Sullivan, hence his neglect of the sacred in favour of the glow of the footlights. He also had a thirst for gambling, and mixing with the royal set.

Bradley is a Vice-President of the Sullivan Society, as am I; so let me make it clear that I am an ardent advocate of Sullivan and his music. I warmly welcome this book, and hail it as a fine achievement. Sullivan is a great composer, but he continues to be misunderstood, fundamentally because of the tension in his life and work between the sacred and the secular.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an Assistant Priest at St Alban's, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.

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