Sullivan: The Masque at KenilworthMusic for Royal and National Occasions

Alison Roddy, soprano
Leigh Woolf, mezzo-soprano
Stephen Brown, tenor
Leon Berger, baritone

Oxford Company of Musicians
Oxford Pro Musica Singers
Kidlington Concert Brass
John Oxlade, organ
Michael Smedley, conductor

Recorded at St. Barnabas, Oxford
26/27 February 1999

For those who are interested in Sullivan's larger career as a composer, the last few years have been a golden age for recordings. The Sir Arthur Sullivan Society has done it again, with this new CD featuring little-heard music that Sullivan composed for a variety of royal and national occasions. At 78½ minutes, the disc is as generously timed as one could ask for.

The central work on the CD is The Masque at Kenilworth. Sullivan and his critic-friend Henry F. Chorley collaborated on an opera, The Sapphire Necklace, that they had hoped (in vain) would be produced at Covent Garden. Perhaps as a consolation prize, Covent Garden's musical director, Michael Costa, arranged for Sullivan to get a commission for the 1864 Birmingham Festival, of which this piece (also with a Chorley libretto) was the result.

The Masque at Kenilworth is based on Queen Elizabeth's visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575. She had settled the castle on one Robert Dudley in 1563, and she visited him there several times. On the occasion of this, her final visit, she stayed three weeks, during which he entertained her with pageants and banquets that cost some £1000 per day.

Such a minor event in the country's history is a slender reed on which to build a work for massed chorus and orchestra, but Sullivan's gift for setting programmatic music does shine through in spots. Chorley's trivial libretto was rightly detested, and the piece seems to have had only two performances before virtually disappearing. The piece is pleasant throughout, but Sullivan would do much better later.

Sullivan collaborated with Chorley again only once more, when Chorley supplied the text for two part-songs published in 1868 as a part of a collection of seven. One of these, "The Long Day Closes," is the only piece on this CD that has entered the popular repertory. Its presence here is a bonus, as it is the only work on the disc that was not composed for a royal or national occasion. The superb performance delivered by the Oxford Pro Musica Singers more than justifies its inclusion.

Sullivan was frequently asked to contribute music for major occasions in the country's civic life, including his 1886 "Ode on the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition" and 1887 "Ode for the occasion of laying the foundation stone of the Imperial Institute." Neither one has been performed in public since the initial performance.

For a while, I struggled to divine the logic behind the ordering of the items on this CD. They are certainly NOT in date order (1886, 1864, 1887, 1868, 1900). I finally decided that they are in order of increasing merit, and first on the list is the Colonial and Indian Exhibition ode. Even Selwyn Tillett, author of the liner notes, is able to find little good to say about it. Sullivan was hard at work on The Golden Legend at this point, and Tillett assumes that he viewed this assignment (a virtual command from the Prince of Wales) as an irritating diversion. Such was his haste in composing it, that he wrote the harp onto the first page of the score, then proceeded to write no music for that instrument.

It is a pity that the Imperial Institute Ode, composed just a year later, must remain obscure. But obscure, I'm afraid, it is destined to be. The jingoistic text by Lewis Morris almost makes one wince:

Our England at the call of Fate
Left her lone islets in the sea,
Donned her Imperial robe and state,
Took the sole sceptre of the Free!
'Mid clang of arms her Empire rose,
Embattled rolls her story down,
By shattered fleet, and flaming town,
Victorious over all her foes,
Soldier and sailor side by side,
Her strong sons bravely dared and died!

Sullivan achieves some lively tone-painting on the words "shattered fleet, and flaming town," but the images of empire-building by strength of clanging arms, making Britain "sole sceptre of the Free," ring hollow today.

Sullivan scores again in his ethereal setting of:

No more we seek our realm's increase
By savage war, but white-winged peace.

Even these two lines are no renunciation of empire-building, only a renunciation of its achievement through the use of force.

Sullivan's score and the orchestral parts for this Ode are lost, but Roger Harris has composed a reconstruction that sounds every bit as much like Sullivan as the other pieces on the disc. Enjoyable as this recording may be, a place in the repertory is all but impossible to imagine.

In 1900, Sullivan accepted a discrete invitation to compose a Te Deum celebrating victory in the Boer War, which had not yet been achieved, but which was seen to be imminent. Close call that, for Sullivan completed it a bare three months before his death. It received its first performance posthumously, in 1902.

The work's proper title is "Te Deum Laudamus — A Thanksgiving for Victory." Some sources call it the "Boer War Te Deum." It is the last item on the disc, and the only selection that could justly be called a neglected masterpiece. (Remember what I said before about "order of increasing merit.")

Two things immediately elevate this work over the others. First, the text is scriptural. This thematic choice separates the piece from the patriotic event that occasioned it. It is a work for all time. Second, Sullivan's setting is masterful — as Tillet puts it, "a final . . . display of personal Christian commitment, at the end of what Sullivan must have known would be his last completed work." I hear many an echo of the style of Berlioz in the piece.

Some critics will sniffle over the work's central conceit, a climax built on Sullivan's most popular hymn tune, "St. Gertrude" ("Onward, Christian Soldiers"), entoned triumphantly in the brass as the double-chorus sings "Vouchsafe, O Lord...." But, this is not just a routine recycling job. As the orchestra plays the "St. Gertrude" tune, the chorus sings an entirely different subject, an example of Sullivan's well known talent for weaving disparate themes together.

On a second listening, I realized that Sullivan gives us tiny hints of "St. Gertrude" from the first few bars, but it is very subtle—not likely to be noticed at first. It keeps coming back, but only subliminally, until the brilliant climax of the work's final section. It is not a cheap thrill tacked on the end, but a device he wove into the fabric of the 15-minute score.

Yet, the subject of the work is pious, and there is no hint of the militant proselytizing that offend some in "Onward, Christian Soldiers," nor of the self-justifying praise of British imperialism heard in some of the other works included in this compilation. Sullivan's "Te Deum Laudamus" would be welcome today in any venue where sacred works are performed.

The accumulated forces listed at the top of this review give stellar performances. Congratulations to the Sullivan Society, not only for bringing these little-heard works to light, but also for securing performances featuring artists of the calibre Sullivan intended and expected when he wrote them.

Issue History
1999 Symposium CD 1247