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"…and when the music comes from not only one of Britain's finest composers but also one of the most powerful songwriters of all time, the result is as magical and as memorable as anything in Shakespeare's enchanted masterpiece – and perhaps the greatest musical score produced by any English composer before Sullivan."

Lindsay Kemp on Purcell's Fairy Queen. Proms 2005.

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After his death Sullivan’s reputation suffered a serious and rapid decline, as did the incidence of performance of many of his works. The reasons for this are many, and changes in public taste were a factor (especially after World War I), but most significant was the sustained attack on him by the musical intellectuals who by then controlled the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. As early as 1894, C.H.H. Parry (1848–1918) became Principal of the Royal College and a contemporary student tells us it was thereafter barely considered decent to mention Sullivan’s name in the building. The chief music critic of The Times, J.A. Fuller-Maitland (1856–1936), never missed an opportunity to attack Sullivan (usually anonymously), and wrote a notoriously damning obituary of him the Cornhill Magazine of March 1901. Ernest Walker (1870–1949) dismissed Sullivan out of hand in his 1907 book A History of Music in England, which became the standard textbook for at least two generations of students. As a result of all this activity almost anyone who studied music in the first half of the twentieth century was taught as a “given” that Sullivan was a composer of no worth. They then took that attitude out into the world in which they made their way as working professional musicians.


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Sullivan’s reputation reached its nadir at the end of the 1940s. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, still the only professional body permitted to perform his most popular works, the comic operas, was giving tired, mediocre performances of eight or nine of them, while only a few of his other works - the Overture di Ballo, a handful of hymns and three or four of his songs - were performed anything like frequently.


The tide began to turn with the expiry of the copyright in Sullivan’s published works at the end of 1950. Early in 1951 a rising young Australian conductor, Charles Mackerras, arranged music from twelve of Sullivan’s operas (and a snippet from the Overture di Ballo) into the ballet score Pineapple Poll. This was an immediate success and, as well as making the name of the young Mackerras, gave audiences and critics a new look at Sullivan’s best-known music without the disadvantages inherent in D’Oyly Carte productions. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the issue of a number of new recordings of the main G &S canon and these, coupled with a flurry of professional productions following the expiry of the Gilbert copyright at the end of 1961, gave Sullivan’s music a higher and more positive profile than it had had for many years.


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A major step forward was the issue in 1968 of Sir Charles Groves’ recording of Sullivan’s Symphony and three years later Dr. Percy Young published the first biography of the composer written to modern standards of scholarship. The centenary of Trial by Jury in 1975 led to first recordings of several operas and orchestral works. In 1984 Professor Arthur Jacobs published his monumental and definitive biography of Sullivan, Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician, which at last blew away the lies and half-truths that had found their way into print during the previous ninety years. Two years later Sir Charles Mackerras and David Mackie reconstructed Sullivan’s lost ’cello concerto. By the time of the 150th anniversary of Sullivan’s birth in 1992 there were real signs that performances of his works were increasing in frequency, a trend which has continued into the present century. For example, The Rose of Persia has had two professional revivals and a complete recording since 1999 and it is rare for a year to go by without at least one performance somewhere in the UK of the Festival Te Deum of 1872.


The advent of compact discs from the late 1980s gave a huge impetus to the recording industry, with many of Sullivan’s major choral, orchestral and theatre works receiving complete high-quality professional performances for the first time alongside much-needed fresh recordings of the most familiar operas. Many of these recordings proved popular with the public and critics alike, and their achievement of good sales has made it easier to persuade companies to undertake new and more ambitious projects, often sponsored by the Sullivan Society.


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At the same time it has become increasingly acceptable for Sullivan and his works to be the subject of serious scholarship. This has manifested itself in books and articles, but particularly in the large number of scholarly scores of his works which have been published in the last twenty years, largely but not exclusively by enterprising independent publishers. Since his centenary in 2000 the incidence of recordings has continued to increase, culminating most recently (February 2010) with the issue of the first complete, fully professional recording of the composer’s most ambitious work, Ivanhoe.


Much remains to be done, but Arthur Sullivan’s public and academic reputation is now well on the mend. The Sir Arthur Sullivan Society has been in the forefront of the last thirty years’ progress and will continue to do all in its power to increase public knowledge and understanding of one of this country’s greatest ever musicians.


© Stephen Turnbull 2010