About this Recording
8.223461 - SULLIVAN: Merchant of Venice / Henry VIII / Sapphire Necklace

Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900)
Merchant of Venice • Henry VIII • Sapphire Necklace


Sir Arthur Sullivan is famous all over the world as the composer who joined with the librettist W.S. Gilbert to create the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Between 1871 and 1896 Sullivan and Gilbert wrote fourteen operas, of which the best known internationally are The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889). Many of these works were first produced at the Savoy Theatre, London—hence they are also called the“Savoy Operas”.
Sullivan was born in London on 13 May 1842, the son of a military musician. He displayed musical gifts at an early age, and in 1854 became a chorister at the Chapel Royal. Awarded the first Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1856, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Leipzig Conservatoire. He returned to England from Germany in 1862, bringing with him a suite of music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The performance of the Tempest music at the Crystal Palace, London, created a sensation but did nothing to provide the young composer with an income. Faced with the need to earn a living, Sullivan turned to the production of songs and hymns, which in the time of Queen Victoria could be very profitable. He also accepted commissions from the theatres for incidental music, and from the provincial music festivals for choral and orchestral works. In this way—and quite apart from his collaboration with Gilbert—he composed a considerable body of music. However his achievements in other directions have been overshadowed by the success of the Savoy Operas and by the hostility of English music critics. As a result some of his works have scarcely been performed since his death, which took place in London on 22 November 1900.


One of the warmest of Sullivan’s admirers was the music critic Henry Chorley (1808-1872). Almost as soon as the composer returned from his studies in Leipzig in 1862 he and Chorley began to collaborate on an opera, apparently with the intention that it should be performed at Covent Garden. The opera, The Sapphire Necklace, was completed in four acts but never performed, perhaps because Chorley was not a good librettist but more likely because the times were then, as always, unpropitious for English opera. The opera was still in existence in 1880 when Sullivan repurchased it from the publishers Metzler, but it has subsequently disappeared. Two vocal numbers were published as separate items, and the overture was published in a military band arrangement by Charles Godfrey Jr. However no orchestral material for the overture is known to survive. For the purposes of the present recording Godfrey’s arrangement has been orchestrated in Sullivan’s style by Roderick Spencer. In making his military band version Godfrey may possibly have condensed Sullivan’s original structure. Charles Dickens, an early friend of Sullivan, declared himself “perfectly enchanted” with the minuet theme which opens the overture, even going so far as to declare that it was in itself sufficient to make the opera successful.

HENRY VIII – Incidental Music (1877)

In 1877 the Theatre Royal, Manchester, was under the management of Charles Calvert, who in 1871 had commissioned Sullivan to write The Merchant of Venice music for the Prince’s Theatre. Wishing to revive Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Calvert again asked Sullivan to provide incidental music. As he frequently did, Sullivan delayed work until the last possible moment, even causing the date of production to be postponed from 27th to 29th August 1877. The music, confined to the fifth act, became extremely popular, especially with brass and military bands. The text of the song “Youth will needs have dalliance” is not by Shakespeare. It is found among the Royal manuscripts in the British Library, associated with a musical setting by King Henry VIII himself. However the traditional assumption that the King wrote both words and music of the song cannot be proved. Percy M. Young has called Sullivan’s setting“as charming as any insouciant and amorous song by Campion or Rosseter or Morley”.

MERCHANT OF VENICE – Incidental Music (1871)

Sullivan’s sites of incidental music for Shakespeare’s plays take rank among his most attractive compositions. The Merchant of Venice suite was written for a production (19 September 1871) at the Prince’s Theatre, Manchester. All of the music is concentrated on a single scene—a lavish masque during which Jessica and Lorenzo make good their elopement. The following description was written by Sullivan’s friend George Grove (editor of Grove’s Dictionary of Music) when the suite was performed at the Crystal Palace on 28 October 1871.

“At the commencement of the scene, when the music begins, the stage is empty and night is approaching. The distant cry of the gondoliers echoing along the canals, and the voices of the masquers as they approach nearer and nearer are all depicted in the music. A lover serenades his mistress, the masquers gradually throng the ground, and the revelry begins. The dances are first a bourrée, the old-fashioned heavy measure:- next a grotesque dance for Pierrots and Harlequins:- and thirdly a general dance in modern waltz rhythm. Night has settled down on the scene when Jessica makes her escape; after this the fun waxes furious, and midst the glare of torches, the glitter of coloured lanterns, and the shouts and songs of the revellers, the curtain descends”.

David Eden

Close the window