About this Recording
8.223677 - SULLIVAN: Victoria and Merrie England
English 

Arthur Sullivan (1842 -1900) Victoria and Merrie England

Arthur Sullivan (1842 -1900)

Victoria and Merrie England

 

Scene I - Ancient Britain

An oak forest, night - Britannia asleep - Britain's Guardian Spirit - Sacred March of the Druids - Rites of the Mistletoe - Britannia awakes.

 

Scenes II & III - May Day in Queen Elizabeth's Time

Village green - young heir comes of age. Procession of mummers and revellers - Historical Quadrille of Britons, Romans, Saxons and Normans - Morris Dance - Mazurka, Knights of the Sword and Rose Maidens - Flirtation, Robin Hood and Maid Marian - Friar Tuck and the Dragon -Two Hobby Horses - General Dance- Pas seul, May Queen - Maypole Dance.

 

Scenes IV & V - The Legend of Herne the Hunter

Windsor Forest, night - Storm - Dance of Hunters - Waltz of Wood Nymphs. Procession of the Yule Log - Galop - Fight of hunters and peasants - Dance of Hunters and Nymphs.

 

Scene VI - Christmas Revels in the Time of Charles II

Castle Hall; servants, players and guests - Lord and Lady of the Manor - Procession of the Boar's Head and Roast Beef - Entrance of peasants and vassals - Comic Pas de Quatre (Fugue) - Drunken Jester's Dance - Blind Man's Buff - Entrance of Father Christmas - Kissing Dance under the Mistletoe.

 

Scene VII - Coronation of Queen Victoria

Westminster Abbey, 28 June 1838 - Imperial March.

 

Scene VIII - 1897 - Britain's Glory

Entrance of English, Irish and Scottish Troops - The Union - Artists' Volunteers - Colonial Troops - Military Manoeuvres - Sailors' Hornpipe - Pas Redouble - Entrance of Britannia -The Albert Memorial - God Save the Queen!

 

As well as being the popular composer of light operas for the Savoy Theatre, Arthur Sullivan (1842 -1900) was regularly a kind of 'Composer Laureate', producing suitable music on occasions of royal or national importance. For such opportunities he had probably to thank his friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh and other junior members' of the royal family. He wrote songs and marches to welcome Princess Alexandra of Denmark as bride of the Prince of Wales in 1863, and a huge Festival Te Deum in thanksgiving for her husband's recovery from typhoid in 1872. He set the words of Tennyson's Ode tor the Opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886, and a further Ode to which the queen laid the foundation stone of the Imperial Institute in 1887. When the completed Institute was opened in 1893, he supplied also an Imperial March to go with it. His last completed work was a further Te Deum, sung at the service of thanksgiving for victory in the Boer War at St Paul's Cathedral in 1902.

 

Sullivan was thus the natural choice of composer to set to music the Jubilee Hymn, written by the bishop of Wakefield to celebrate the queen's Diamond Jubilee in May 1897. Perhaps more surprisingly he had also been commissioned by Alfred Maul, manager of the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, to write a ballet with which that theatre would celebrate sixty glorious years. It was to depict a combination of national and royal strands in the life of Great Britain through the centuries, and to bring to life scenes which had existed, if not in historical fact, at least in popular prints and the loyal imagination.

 

Victoria and Merrie England, as the ballet was to be called, was a spectacle which had many parallels with all the stereotypes of Victorian historical illustration. The queen herself, as her reign progressed, had become equated with Elizabeth las a kind of focus for romantic chivalry, and thus the characteristics of the eight scenes of the ballet, odd as they appear to us, were in fact highly appropriate in 1897.

 

The ballet opened at the Alhambra Theatre on 25th May, 1897, in a setting which had housed much of the development of British ballet in the past ten years. The theatre's permanent choreographer, Carlo Coppi, had a dancing school on the premises and provided normally two full-length self-contained ballets every evening. In the long interval between these a music-hall programme ensured light relief and financial stability.

 

The ballets seen at the Alhambra, however, had little to do with the mainstream of classical ballet as it is understood today. Neither Swan Lake nor Sylvia was seen in London complete until the Dyagilev tour of 1911-12; The Sleeping Beauty had to wait until 1921. Cut off from the classical source, Alhambra ballet had developed in a unique direction of its own.

 

Always in a single act, the ballets were really mime-dramas, containing a large number of individual scenes and 'speciality' dances, with several grand tableaux (fights, shipwrecks and other visually startling dramatic effects). The rapid pace of the action did not allow time for the expansion of more lyrical moments, so that few ballets contained anything in the way of the romantic pas-de-deux or long solo.

 

Of the two nightly productions, one was normally an expressly comic adventure, while the other had less plot but a good deal of patriotic sentiment and music. It also provided a good excuse for the girls of the corps de ballet to parade in the bare essentials of military dress while revealing a substantial acreage of leg. In writing Victoria and Merrie England Coppi and Sullivan conformed very closely to this established type; the military manoeuvres of the last scene in particular cannot have failed to live up to expectations.

 

Victoria and Merrie England remained on the Alhambra's programme for six months, during which time the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family visited the theatre no less than nineteen times. Royal approval for the lighter side of theatrical life, and for 'Variety' in particular, was suddenly and irrevocably established. The first Royal Command Performance of 1912 was the natural outcome of this process, which Coppi and Sullivan had unwittingly begun.

 

Any further performances of Victoria itself seemed unlikely until very recently. The autograph score and most of the orchestral material had simply disappeared.

 

Sullivan's secretary Wilfred Bendall arranged the whole ballet for publication as a piano solo; Sullivan himself had arranged its first five scenes, heavily cut, into three suites for concert use, and Bendall had transcribed these three suites for piano duet - but only the first Suite still exists in its orchestral form. The third Suite was partially recorded as long ago as 1907 in a further transcription for military band, from which some hints at the original orchestration could be gathered. For the scene depicting the Queen's coronation Sullivan had re-used his Imperial March of 1893, but this was originally written for huge forces, compared with the smaller resources of a theatre. The final scene ends with a transcription of the National Anthem (although in a desperately uncomfortable key for singing) which is harmonically close to the arrangement by Sir Michael Costa, universally used throughout the later nineteenth century. Costa's own scoring survives.

 

With these exceptions it might have been thought impossible to reconstruct the whole ballet. However in recent years three pieces of research have shed light on its original orchestration. Correspondence between Sullivan and Bendall as their arranging progressed revealed many details of scoring and counterpoint. Letters also proved that for much of scenes 3, 4 and 5 Sullivan re-used material from his earlier ballet L'Ile Enchantee (Covent Garden 1864). This led researchers from the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society to re-discover that earlier piece and to produce new orchestral parts which could be easily transferred into Victoria (L'Ile Enchantee can be heard, on Marco Polo 8.223460). Finally a survey of contemporary press reports of the first production of Victoria produced many more details of the instrumentation of particular pieces.

 

Armed with all this information a very substantial task of editing and reconstruction has been carried out by Roderick Spencer on behalf of the Sullivan Society to produce the present world premiere recording. Scenes 1, 2 and 4 are largely Sullivan's own orchestration; scenes 3, 5 and 7 include Sullivan's own work and incorporate hints from other sources; much of the scoring of scene 8 is suggested in notes in the piano reduction, or can be assembled from elsewhere. Only the instrumentation of scene 6 is completely editorial.

 

@ Selwyn Tillett  


Close the window