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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Saturday December 23 2006

Alex Singleton and I have just fixed to do our Gilbert and Sullivan chat on Thursday 28th.  So, fingers crossed for that.  Meanwhile, the decision to have fixed topics and a generally more disciplined approach to our ongoing classical music chat project continues to work wonderfully, at any rate for me, even before a recording button has been so much as pressed.  There’s nothing like the chance to show off and the prospect of making a fool of myself to get me doing my homework.

I continue to read Hesketh Pearson Gilbert and Sullivan with extreme pleasure (see also this earlier posting here), and there follows another snippet from that delightful book.  Something I did not know until now was that the premier of The Pirates of Penzance was given in New York, in December 1879.  Gilbert and Sullivan both went there to do their own ‘official’ production of their first big hit, HMS Pinafore, in order to cash in on American enthusiasm for that piece, but American reluctance to bother with copyright law.  And having gone there to do Pinafore, they stayed to do their next collaboration, not at all coincidentally given a title which included the word Pirates.

During recent years, American orchestras have been pricing themselves out of the classical music recording business, and even American classical repertoire has been recorded by cheaper European orchestras, rather then by the ensembles for whom it was originally written.  Well, it seems that this American tendency towards orchestral bolshiness is not new.  Here is Pearson’s account (pp. 90-91 of my 1954 Penguin paperback edition) of the difficulties that Sullivan had with the orchestra of the Fifth Avenue Theatre, where The Pirates had its first performance.

Just before the opening night he had trouble with the band, the members of which voted that The Pirates came under the heading of Grand Opera, which entitled them to higher rates of pay.  The position was not improved by the manager of the theatre, who told them that they should be content with the high honour of being conducted by England’s greatest composer, for it occurred to them that they should be paid more for the high honour as well as for the Grand Opera, and they raised both points when threatening to down instruments. Sullivan adroitly turned the tables on them.  He disclaimed the greatness that had been thrust upon him and said that he felt the honour of conducting such a brilliant orchestra. He even hinted that his work was not worthy of them and that if they felt so too, he should wire at once to England for a less sensitive orchestra.  They agreed to abase themselves on the same terms as before.

That’s pure Sullivan.  On the surface all obligingness and ingratiation, but underneath it a determination to get the job done, albeit with much nerve-wracking and exhaustion- and illness-inducing procrastination and deadline stretching, and to profit from it as much as possible.

Pearson’s account continues:

On the night of 30th December, after the final dress-rehearsal, Sullivan returned to his hotel and began work on the overture, finishing at five o’clock on the morning of the 31st, and rehearsing it six hours later.  He was not well enough to eat that day, so went to bed in the afternoon and tried to sleep.  Still feeling wretchedly ill and worn out with fatigue, for he could not sleep, he rose, dressed slowly, and wandered off to a club, where he had twelve oysters, and a glass of champagne.  More dead than alive, he went on to the theatre, took his place in the orchestra, lifted his baton, and The Pirates of Penzance swept New York off its feet.

A composer-conductor’s lot is not a happy one, or not the way Sullivan did it.  But when the first performance of a new Gilbert and Sullivan opera began, Sullivan’s agony tended to end, with Doctor Music chasing away his miseries, at least while the show lasted.

But for Gilbert, who took care of everything on the stage, the worst part of his ordeal would then begin.  He would pace about outside, doing all manner of weird and irrelevant things, returning only at the end of the show to learn how it had gone, and to join with Sullivan in accepting the applause, which was generally tumultuous.

Or, you can call it passive-aggressive.

Posted by Tat on 23 December 2006

I love G&S;. They should make a Disney Movie with Johnny Depp singing the pirate king.

Posted by Alice Bachini-Smith on 24 December 2006
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