If you know anything of the composer, Arthur Sullivan, it will almost certainly be from his partnership with W.S. Gilbert. That series of 13 comedic, satirical operas the two men collaborated on still feature in the repertoire 150 years on. The Savoy operas’ combined commercial and artistic success has overshadowed the rest of Sullivan’s varied output for almost the same length of time.
Kenilworth – a masque of the days of Queen Elizabeth (first performed 1864)
As a student graduating from the Leipzig Conservatoire, his final work in 1861 was a suite of pieces for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This calling card did him well; a performance the following year in the Crystal Palace marked him out as a composer to watch. From this came his first commission, Kenilworth.
It’s appropriate that a piece about happenings at a Warwickshire castle was commissioned by the Birmingham Triennial Festival. This high-profile, charitable event raised money for Birmingham’s General Hospital throughout the nineteenth century by holding three days packed with musical performances. A significant number of these were of pieces specially written for the occasion, like Kenilworth.
The librettist, Henry Chorley, was no Gilbert. Here he is trying to recreate a scene from The Merchant of Venice:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here, let us sit and let the sound of music creep in our ears.
Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heav’n is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold!
Sullivan’s music was of much better quality. You may judge for yourself from this recording:
Overture in C ‘In Memoriam’ (first performed 1866)
With this piece, we move from a public commission to a highly personal composition; though one Sullivan did in fact use to fulfill an engagement at the Norwich Festival. Here’s part of a reminiscence from the composer, quoted in the preface to the reprinted full score:
In this year  I accepted an invitation to write an orchestral work for the Norwich Festival. As the time approached I worked hard but could do nothing which satisfied me, and was in despair. I said to my father, “I shall give up the Norwich work, …” [He] replied, “… Something will probably occur which will put new vigour and fresh thoughts into you. Don’t give it up.” Three days afterwards he died suddenly of aneurism, and on the evening of his funeral, I sat down to work again and eight days afterwards the Overture ‘In memoriam’ was completed.
The overture established itself as a piece to be used on solemn occasions during the latter part of the nineteenth century, but it is hardly ever heard now in concert programmes. Its later critical reception has been mixed. In his notes to a Chandos recording, Andrew Lamb makes this observation:
its pervading tone is not one of sadness so much as deep affection. It contains charming melodies, so much so that the work’s major shortcoming is perhaps that its plaintive main theme, heard first on the oboe, does not quite stand up to its grandiose climactic chorale treatment for full orchestra, complete with organ.
See what you think.
Festival Te Deum (first performed 1872)
In his pre-Savoy operas life, Sullivan needed to make ends meet financially. He did so by writing numerous hymn tunes, teaching for a time, and accepting commissions. He seems to have become the go-to composer when Victorian society needed a piece composing for any number of situations.
Take this Te Deum; it’s worth quoting the title page in full:
Festival Te Deum and Dominus Salvum Fac for soprano solo, chorus, orchestra, organ and military band composed for the festival held at the Crystal Palace, May 1, 1872 in celebration of the recovery of HRH The Prince of Wales.
The future Edward VII suffered from typoid fever, the same illness that had killed his father, Prince Albert. It was understandable that Edward’s recovery was a cause for celebrations. From the description in this contemporary review by The Times, it appears to be another gargantuan performance of the kind the Crystal Palace became famous for. The audience numbered twenty-six thousand.
On the arrival of the distinguished party who occupied the Royal box the National Anthem was performed by a chorus and orchestra upwards of 2,000 in number; and then followed the new “Te Deum Laudamus,” written by Mr. Arthur Seymour Sullivan expressly for the occasion of this “Thanksgiving” fête, and dedicated, by permission to Her Majesty the Queen.
Of this new work … we are glad to be able to speak in terms of unqualified praise. It is not only, in our opinion, the most finished composition for which we are indebted to his pen, but an honour to English art. It is written for soprano solo, chorus, orchestra, organ, and military band. … its [the band’s] effect, however, as introduced in the last chorus, is so bright and uncommon that it would be a pity to present the work without it.
Like a lot of Sullivan’s solo compositions, modern recordings of the Festival Te Deum are hard to come by. Here’s one movement performed in a much more chamber music setting than the original.