Sullivan, Sir Arthur Seymour

1842-1900

 

One of the foremost British composers of his day, who occupied a unique place in the history of music. He had the distinction of having founded and brought to perfection the school of high-class comic opera in England. Before his time the place of this form of entertainment had been filled by the French burlesque operas of Offenbach and his followers; but these had grown very coarse and trashy, and Sullivan's clean, clever music quickly supplanted the imported product.

 

From his childhood Sullivan had unusual educational opportunities. His father was an Irish military bandmaster, and principal teacher of clarinet at Kueller Hall, the military music school of Great Britain. Arthur Sullivan was born in London, and from his infancy was surrounded by a musical atmosphere. He was a regular attendant at the rehearsals of his father's band, and by the time he was eight years old was able to play almost all the brass wind-instruments in the military band. The thorough knowledge of the powers and limitations of each instrument that he gained in this way was of infinite help to him later in his work of orchestration and conducting. Although his thoughts were already concentrated on music, his father decided to delay his musical education, and sent him to a private school at Bayswater, where he remained until he was almost twelve years old. He then persuaded his family to let him seek admission to the school of th.$ Chapel Royal, and was accepted in 1854. He remained here about three years, gaining much from the thorough training of the admirable Mr. Helmore, master of the children. During that time he composed many anthems and churchpieces. The Mendelssohn Scholarship was opened to competition, and after consulting Mr. Helmore, Sullivan entered. Toward the end of the contest it was known that the winning lay between Sullivan and Joseph Barnby, his oldest competitor, and a severe examination was necessary to determine the award. As a result of this extra examination the scholarship was given to Sullivan. For a year he remained in the Chapel Royal school, and then entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied piano under Sterndale Bennett and Arthur O'Leary, and composition and harmony under John Goss.

 

In the autumn of 1858 Sullivan went to Leipsic to enter the Conservatory. Here his masters were Plaidy and Moscheles in piano, Julius Reitz in composition, Hauptmann in counterpoint, and Ferdinand David in orchestral playing and conducting. Aside from the famous masters under whom he studied, his educational advantages were broad, as the city of Leipsic was a musical center, and he became familiar with the music of Schumann, Schubert and Wagner, music at that time practically unknown in England, and met many famous living musicians. Among his compositions at this time were his overture in E major to Moore's Lalla Rookh, entitled The Light of the Harem, and his incidental music to the Tempest, which was performed with great success in Leipsic in April of 1861. A few days later the young musician returned to London.

 

With the first performance of his Tempest music at a Crystal Palace concert, in April, 1862, Arthur Sullivan's reputation among Englishmen was securely established. Casting aside teaching he turned his attention to composition, writing six Shakespearean songs, a processional march and trio in E flat, and the song, Bride from the North. On a visit to Paris about this time his attention was strongly  attracted to dramatic music by hearing Gluck's Orfeo. He determined to write for the stage, and in order to gain more knowledge of he technical requirements applied to Michel Costa for permission to attend rehearsals at Covent Garden. Costa offered him instead the position of organist to the Opera and while he was filling this position asked him to write the ballet, L'ile Enchantee. As he gained his knowledge of churchmusic at first hand in the Chapel Royal school, he now gained his knowledge of the theatre at first hand at Covent Garden Opera. He also held the post of organist at St. Michael's Church in Chester Square, until 1867; but in spite of these active duties he found time for much composition. He wrote his symphony in E, and worked on an opera, entitled The Sapphire Necklace, of which only the overture remains. His next important undertaking was the cantata, Kenilworth, written for the Birmingham Festival of 1864. In 1866 appeared Cox and Box, his first dramatic piece, written for amateurs, but afterward put upon the regular stage. During the same year In Memoriam, commemorating the sudden death of his father, was played at the  Norwich Festival. A concerto for violoncello and orchestra, and the overture, Marmion, followed in 1867, and in the autumn of that year Sullivan went to Vienna with Sir George Grove in search of the famous Schubert manuscript. During this trip he was invited to conduct his overture, In Memoriam, at a Gewandhaus concert in Leipsic. His next important works were the oratorio, The Prodigal Son; his overture, di Ballo; the cantata, On Shore and Sea; and a Thanksgiving Te Deum.