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Arthur Sullivan: A life of divine emollient, by Ian Bradley

18 June 2021

Ronald Corp considers a spiritual biography of Sir Arthur Sullivan

THE dust jacket declares that Sullivan is the “best loved and most widely performed British composer in history”. That may well be true, but his reputation is a topsy-turvy one. Sullivan thought that his greatest and most lasting work would be his serious music and was mortified when Dame Ethel Smyth countered that his masterpiece was surely The Mikado. She had a point. The operettas that he wrote with Gilbert have ensured Sullivan’s lasting fame, whereas his sacred music has been disparaged by musical commentators since the time of his death.

Sullivan died on St Cecilia’s Day in 1900, and Queen Victoria the following year. Musical life in Britain was changing. Parry had been hailed as the harbinger of an English Musical Renaissance, and he and Stanford, both academic men of great importance, did much to tarnish Sullivan’s reputation. The arrival on the scene of Elgar (The Dream of Gerontius had its first outing in 1900) also helped to seal Sullivan’s reputation as a composer of rather old-fashioned sacred music. After the First World War, Sullivan’s serious works were hardly ever performed.

In his day, his cantata The Golden Legend was second only in popularity to Handel’s Messiah, and his song “The Lost Chord”, written as his brother lay dying, was a tremendous “hit”. The reputation of these two works may have faded, but a number of his hymn tunes have proved enduring, and his part-song “The Long Day Closes” is still held in affection by choirs.

Ian Bradley, Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews, makes the point that the recent recording of the large-scale oratorio The Light of the World, which Sullivan composed in 1873, has turned out not to be the boring monolith that everyone thought it was, but a moving account of Christ’s life, focusing particularly on the human aspect and Christ’s “attributes as Preacher, Healer and Prophet”. It is surely time to re-assess Sullivan’s serious music.

AlamyArthur Sullivan in a Vanity Fair caricature by Ape

The present book is part of OUP’s Spiritual Lives series, which relates the biographies of prominent men and women whose eminence is not primarily based on their specifically religious contribution. Bradley sets out to trace the religious aspect of Sullivan’s life from his first composition, which he wrote when he was eight (“By the Waters of Babylon”), through his time as a boy treble in the Chapel Royal, which he joined at the age of 12, impressing his interviewers with his knowledge of the catechism, and his years at the Royal Academy of Music and then in Leipzig as the first winner of a Mendelssohn scholarship. There, he would not attend the Gewandhaus concerts because they fell on a Sunday.

Back in England, his first success (incidental music to The Tempest, 1862) was followed by a stream of serious works, as well as the operettas. Bradley wonders whether Sullivan identified with the protagonist of his first oratorio, The Prodigal Son (1869). Was Sullivan, like the prodigal, being seduced by money and society? He was certainly no saint, living a life of wine, women, and gambling.

He never married, preferring to have various affairs, most notably with the married Mrs Ronalds, and we know from his diaries what he got up to with her; and he spent much time at casinos in London and Monte Carlo. He earned vast sums, but also gave much away, particularly to family members. In fact, it seems that family and his faith were the most important things to him. Bradley concludes that Sullivan had a simple faith, a faith that sustained him throughout his life and enabled him to meet his death without fear.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.


Arthur Sullivan: A life of divine emollient
Ian Bradley
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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