"It's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances"

Last entry in Sullivan's diary

The Sydney Daily Telegraph. Saturday November 24th. 1900

Death of Sir Arthur Sullivan

LONDON, Thursday Afternoon - The death is announced of Sir Arthur Sullivan, the eminent musical composer, aged 58 years.

ENGLAND's GREATEST COMPOSER - Details of his career

There are many, many thousands who have enjoyed Sir Arthur Sullivan's music in the church, the concert-room, the theatre and the home, who will be genuinely shocked at the news of his death, which has taken place in the zenith of his powers, and in the prime of his life. It would not be possible to find among modern English musicians a more representative composer than Sir Arthur Sullivan. He had no real rival in the past history of national music since Purcell. The sentiment of his genius, so perfectly natural, was akin to that of the mass of the English-Speaking people. The latest exemplification of this was his setting of "The Absent-minded Beggar", "A trifling task", some people will say. But other writers would inevitably have made too big a thing of the music; would have obscured the words; above all, would have sacrificed the mesozoic lilt which enabled vast audiences to take it up at once. Neither was Sullivan wanting as a musician in this. In reality he scored his accompaniment so that the underlying seriousness of the verses appeal rang out with such a force that no song ever served its purpose with such electric effect. It was a penchant for work of this class that Sir Arthur Sullivan's biographers with small exception have deployed. In effect Sullivan has waged through his weeks a long and silent warfare, warfare not only against the half-censorious attitude of the musical elect, but against the covert apprehension of those who like "light" music, but are afraid of being considered in the wrong camp.

But, after all, this only represents the few. For the masses his name is indissolubly associated with a remarkable chain of operas. They speak for themselves, and require no criticism now. It is not too much to say that Sullivan's genius provided the greatest amount of delight to the opera loving public that any composer can lay claim to. He must have been in the midst of operatic work when called away. For his Irish opera, founded on the Rebellion of '98, is in preparation at the Savoy, and he was contemplating a serious opera as his next work. The libretto was to have been by M. Armand Silvestre, and the proposal was that the opera should be produced at Monte Carlo for the season 1901-2. It has ben said by a musical writer of large experience that as regards music the English history of the nineteenth century does not record the name of a man whose lifework is more worthy of honor, study, and admiration than the name of Sir Arthur Sullivan, whose useful activity it may be expected will extend considerably far into the twentieth century; and it is a debatable point whether the universal history of music can point to any musical personality since the days of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whose influence is likely to be stronger and more lasting.

More interesting is the story of Sullivan's life, as is ever the tale of genius, with its struggles, adventures, public appreciation, and triumphs. It has lately been written with a large revelation of the personality of the man. His industry and activity were immense. He was intimately connected with nearly all prominent musicians since the time of Rossini, and emperors, kings, princes, nobles, statesmen, painters, poets, writers, critics, singers, players, actors, all figure in his personal reminiscences. His first essay in composition was an anthem, written when he was a small boy at the Chapel Royal, an effort that was performed with the approval of Sir George Smart. The celebrated conductor died in 1867, at the age of 91. Sullivan was then in his 25th year, so that the aged musician lived to see a large fulfilment of the promise he so largely discerned. For 11 years before Sullivan had won the first Mendelssohn scholarship, and in the intervening period had won his spurs on the Continent and at home. The "Tempest" music was given in 1861 , and acclaimed by the German newspapers as being a truely remarkable work for a boy of 18. His father told him it would be cut to pieces by the knowing ones when it was heard in London, but he was wrong; the work was given at the Crystal Palace on April 5, 1862, with such marked success, that the next morning Master Sullivan woke to find himself famous. From that time dates his public career as a composer, conductor, and performer. Sir Michael Costa made him organist at the Royal Italian Opera, and at his autocrat's request he wrote a ballet, entitled "L'lle Enchantie". He commenced his organ duties at St. Michael's, Chester-square, where his wonderful extempore playing is still remembered. Although he was always adverse to teaching, after a great deal of pressure had been put upon him he accepted the post of Principal of the national Training School of Music, South Kenningston, and there he worked for six years, with Sir John Stainer as his second in command. Sullivan commenced his career as a conductor at the ballads concerts in 1866, then came the Covent Garden Promenade Concerts, the Glasgow Choral Union orchestral concerts, the Leeds Festival, and that blue riband of the craft, the Philharmonic Society. During all this time he was frequently conducting at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere; he directed his second oratorio, "The Light of the World", at the Birmingham Festival in 1873. Other works of this class by Sir Arthur Sullivan, known to Sydney concert-goers, are "The Martyr of Antioch", and "The Golden Legend", written for the Leeds Festival of 1886, the most popular choral work since the production of Mendelssohn's "Elijah".


Sullivan's wonderful facility in composition has often been quoted. He must have been immensely aided by his knowledge of orchestral instruments, and a remarkably sensitive ear. He was able to play every orchestral instrument, except the double reeds; he could read anything at sight, play from a formidable score, had the faculty of absolute pitch, and could distinguish all chords, even hideous combinations of sounds struck at the top or bottom of the piano. The revelation of his method of work has been frankly set out and explained. Contrary to the popular supposition, Sullivan found composition for the most part the outcome of hard study, nothing speculative or spasmodic about it, happy thoughts only occuring after hard work and persistence. He insisted upon rhythm before everything. But "how it is done" Sir Arthur speaks for himself -
"I decide on the rhythm before I come to the question of melody. The notes come after. My first aim is to get as much originality as possible out of the rhythm, and then I approach the question of melody afterwards. The melody may always come before the metre with other composers, but it is not so with me. After I finished the opera in this way, the creative part of my work is completed; but then comes the orchestration, which, of course, is a very essential part of the whole matter, and entails very severe manual labor. You must remember that apiece of music which will only take two minutes in actual performance - quick time - may necessitate four or five days' hard work in the mere manual labor of orchestration, apart from the original composition. So you see every opera means four or five hundred pages of music, every crotchet and quaver of which has to be written out by the composer. Then, of course, your ideas are pages and pages ahead of your poor, hardworking fingers! When the 'sketch' is completed, which means writing, re-writing, and alterations of every kind, the work is drawn out by the copyists, and the rehearsals begin. The band's part copied, two or three rehearsals of the orchestra are held, then orchestra and voices, without any stage business or action; and finally, three or four full rehearsals of the work on the stage are enough to prepare the opera for presentation to the public."


In a review of the music of the 19th century, Sullivan will occupy a most prominent position. His merits have been very interestingly summed up lately by a writer in the "Musical Standard", "I make no doubt," says Mr. M.G. Mazzacato, "that when, in proper course of time, Sir Arthur Sullivan's life and works have become known on the Continent, he will, by unanimous consent, be classed amongst the epoch-making composers, the select few whose genius and strength of will empowered them to find and to found a national school of music; that is, to endow their countrymen with the undefinable but yet positive means of evoking in a man's soul by the magic of sound whose delicate nuances of feelings which are characteristic of the emotional power of each different race.

Check out the history of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company