About this Recording
8.223635 - SULLIVAN: Macbeth / King Arthur / Merry Wives of Windsor

Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900)
Macbeth • King Arthur • The Merry Wives of Windsor


Arthur Sullivan is so well remembered for his series of light operas, written with W.S. Gilbert for the Savoy Theatre, that a forty-year career of music for the church, the concert-hall, the operatic stage and the Shakespearian theatre have been overshadowed. Yet it was very much in these fields that his reputation rested in his own lifetime. This recording represents part of the rediscovery of his reputation which has been growing gradually over the last fifteen years. It includes the world première recordings of three sets of incidental music for stage plays, two of them Shakespearian.

It was with a suite of incidental music to The Tempest that Sullivan graduated from the Conservatory at Leipzig in 1861, and his English career began with the first performance of the same suite, enlarged, at the Crystal Palace in April 1862. He was then only nineteen years old. In 1863–64 he wrote five settings of Shakespeare lyrics, and worked a sumptuous setting of How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank from The Merchant of Venice into his First Cantata Kenilworth. A complete suite of incidental music to the same play followed in 1871 (Marco Polo 8.223461).

For the Christmas production at London’s Gaiety Theatre in 1874, the manager, John Hollingshead, engaged the veteran actor Samuel Phelps to play Falstaff in a rare revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hollingshead had the distinction of being the first to persuade Gilbert and Sullivan to work together—for the Gaiety’s Christmas piece Thespis, three years earlier in 1871. He therefore had no doubt about the right man, as both orchestrator and humorist, to provide musical accompaniment to the trouncing of Falstaff in the last act of the new revival. He further commissioned a set of words from Swinburne as an additional song for Anne Page, possibly as an inducement to Sullivan to join the project. It was to be, if not a traditional Christmas pantomime, certainly boisterous and immediately approachable.

Sullivan came to the task with appropriately light spirits. He left himself only three weeks to compose, and made his Swinburne setting “very simple and easy” for an actress with more presence than voice. He refused to provide an Overture “because I did not care to compete with the very pretty one by Nicolai”. Into the opening prelude, and the ensuing scene between Anne and the mock fairies, he imported two themes from his ballet L’Ile Enchantée (Covent Garden 1864, Marco Polo 8.223460). He deliberately avoided writing Mendelssohnian delicate “real” fairy music, as he was anxious to remind his audience that the spirits who trouble Falstaff are only flesh-and-blood imitations. Consequently the whole suite has a straightforward jollity which exactly catches the mood of the pantomime season.

Fourteen Christmasses later we are in a radically different world. The success of Henry Irving’s Macbeth, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre on 29th December 1888, was in great part due to the power and austerity of Sullivan’s score. His music invested the production with a drive and urgency based on his own deep understanding of Shakespeare, his own sense of drama and, here, uniquely in all his work, of tragedy.

Irving’s Lyceum was already famous for atmosphere and spectacle. In approaching Macbeth he determined to do away with the incidental music of Richard Leveridge, which had accompanied productions for generations. He split the final act into two to prolong tension, and deleted from the script all scenes in which Macbeth (Irving himself) or Lady Macbeth (Ellen Terry) did not appear. Sullivan took up the torch of grandeur and extravagance by providing not only a symphonic overture but preludes to four of the acts, substantial musical pieces within Acts 1, 3, 4 and 6, two choruses for the witches in Act 4 and pieces of old incidental music as padding between the acts. He also called for two unaccompanied harps to play under much of the dialogue.

Of all this music only the Overture was published. It admirably depicts the pessimism and nervous tension of the whole play. It skilfully weaves together successive ideas suggesting impending tragedy and a bleak landscape, a martial theme recurring throughout the first and last acts, a leitmotiv for King Duncan, a witches’ Sabbath (looking forward to Act 4) and an eerie tremolo for strings over which the flutes and first violins fly to depict Banquo’s ghost in Act 2. At the end of the run Sullivan slightly adapted some of the movements, shuffled their order, and for the Leeds Festival of 1889 produced the Concert Suite here recorded. Two brief passages in the final chorus, deleted by Sullivan in making up the Suite, have now been reinstated.

It was partly because of the success of their Macbeth that Henry Irving invited Sullivan to collaborate on another project. In January 1895 the Lyceum presented a blank-verse drama, King Arthur, by Joseph Comyns Carr, with star rôles for Irving and Ellen Terry as Arthur and Guinevere. It was an idea dear to the heart of Sullivan, who had toyed with thoughts of an Arthurian opera for many years. In each scene of the new play, however, he was required to supply not a continuous and developing flow of musical ideas but a mixture of orchestral melodrama, leitmotiv, and short phrases repeatable as necessary to allow the delivery of individual lines or actors’ exits to be musically underlined. In this sense the score was more like the constant undercurrent of music that might accompany a film or television drama than anything else in Sullivan’s output, and would for that reason be difficult and pointless to perform intact in the concert hall.

The most extensive musical items, however, took the form of choruses on or off-stage at moments of special interest, and here Carr’s lyrics found Sullivan on more comfortable ground. After Sullivan’s death his secretary, Wilfred Bendall, himself a minor composer, edited these choruses to produce the present suite. In so doing Bendall merely excised some orchestral repetitions intended to accompany spoken dialogue, so that what is now heard is in effect a compression of everything that occurred on-stage using this musical material. Only the May Song is performed exactly as it was at the Lyceum, while the final chorus runs together themes from two separate acts by inventing a passing key-change and a briefer change of time from 6/8 to 4/4.

Merlin and Arthur descend a rocky path, while Merlin tells of the existence of the sword Excalibur. Arthur is destined, with this weapon, to lay the foundation of England’s future greatness (Chorus of Lake Spirits). Arthur has previously seen a vision of the woman who is to be his queen; Merlin identifies her as Guinevere and foretells the turmoil that awaits them (Chorus of Unseen Spirits).

The scene changes to the Great Hall at Camelot. Elaine, in love with Lancelot, begs Guinevere to dissuade him from the quest for the Holy Grail. Preceded by a procession of priests and choristers, Arthur and his knights assemble before setting out on the quest (Chaunt of the Grail). Guinevere persuades Lancelot to remain at Camelot, and he joins the queen and her ladies as they go Maying (The May Song). Here they are observed by Arthur’s son Mordred, who conveys the news of their adultery to both Arthur and Elaine. In torment Elaine kills herself and her body is brought to Camelot for burial (Funeral March).

Guinevere is imprisoned by Mordred for her crime and summons a champion to fight with him on her behalf. Both are fatally wounded and Guinevere discovers her defender to be Arthur himself. As he dies in her arms, Merlin reappears and foretells the return of the king that yet shall be. His body is borne on a barge to the Isle of Avalon to await its re-awakening (Final Chorus).

© Selwyn Tillett

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