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In many ways a ‘missing link’ between Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, The Prodigal Son, one of just two oratorios by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was a staple in the choral repertory from its first performance at the Three Choirs Festival of 1869 until the First World War put an end to a world—musical or otherwise—where innocence was acceptable. A relatively early work, the oratorio tells the story—from the Gospel of Saint Luke—in a style that is at once endearing and dramatic.
Commissioned in anticipatory thanksgiving for the conclusion of hostilities, the Boer War Te Deum—Sullivan’s last completed work—had to wait two years for the outbreak of peace to allow its posthumous performance, and what a ‘crowd-pleaser’ it turned out to be: as Sullivan’s own hymn tune ‘Onward, Christian soldiers’ rang out, the columnist of The Daily Telegraph reported how the Te Deum was ‘brought up from exquisite tenderness to a pitch of dignity and strength’—praise indeed justified for a work which enthralls singer and listener alike.
While some may consider Sullivan ‘without the WSG’ on a level with a Chinese takeaway ‘without the MSG’, Hyperion’s pioneering recordings continue to go some way to prove the worth of his ‘solo’ compositions. Ronald Corp and his New London Orchestra have also recorded Sullivan’s epic secular cantata The Golden Legend to critical acclaim.
The enormous success of Handel in establishing oratorio as a substitute for opera had given the form a degree of prestige and authority in England that had no precise equivalent in Continental Europe. At the same time, native composers found themselves sunk under the achievements of Handel, making no concerted effort to continue the tradition that he had begun. Among Sullivan’s near-contemporaries, Michael Costa had written Eli (1855) and Naaman (1864); Sterndale Bennett The Woman of Samaria (1867); and the expatriate Hugo Pierson Hezekiah (1869). Unfortunately, none of these works had measured up to Handel, who had been joined in fame by Mendelssohn since the production of his St Paul (1836) and, in particular, Elijah (1846). A performance of the St Matthew Passion by Joseph Barnby’s choir in 1869 marked the beginning (in Great Britain at least) of what might be termed the public awareness of Bach’s greatness as an ‘oratorio’ composer.
In 1869, Sullivan was twenty-seven, and regarded on all sides as having both outstanding potential, and the moral duty to fulfil it. He had already written a hugely successful set of incidental music to The Tempest (1861), a secular cantata Kenilworth (1864), an unperformed opera The Sapphire Necklace (1864), a highly successful first comic opera Cox and Box (1866) and a well-regarded symphony (1866), amongst many other significant early works. But if he was to meet the expectations of musical England, it was incumbent upon him to write an oratorio, and so restore the national reputation in a field that had lain fallow for too long. Equally, it was an important step in Sullivan’s career to achieve a foothold in the great provincial festivals, which were fast becoming the lifeblood of English musical life, commissioning and performing important works by English as well as Continental composers.
When his commission from the Three Choirs Festival committee came for the 1869 meeting, Sullivan had to decide how to approach the Handel-Mendelssohn model that was laid down for every aspiring oratorio composer. His response was, first, to adhere broadly to the prescribed oratorio structure – choruses and contributions from soloists punctuated by brief recitatives. But he sought also to minimise some of the more ‘static’ and religiose elements of his models, and to develop the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son in its human and dramatic aspects, retaining only enough didactic meditation to sustain the ‘sacred’ character of the work. His intentions are set out explicitly in his Preface – one of the very few statements of artistic intention that he ever made:
It is a remarkable fact that the Parable of the Prodigal Son should never before have been chosen as the text for a sacred musical composition. The story is so natural and pathetic, and forms so complete a whole; its lesson is so thoroughly Christian; the characters, though few, are so perfectly contrasted, and the opportunity for the employment of ‘local colour’ is so obvious, that it is indeed astonishing to find the subject so long overlooked.
The only drawback is the shortness of the narrative, and the consequent necessity for filling it out with material drawn from elsewhere.
In the present case this has been done as sparingly as possible, and entirely from the Scriptures. In doing so, the Prodigal himself has been conceived, not as of a naturally brutish and depraved disposition – a view taken by many commentators with apparently little knowledge of human nature, and no recollection of their own youthful impulses; but rather as a buoyant restless youth, tired of the monotony of home, and anxious to see what lay beyond the narrow confines of his father’s farm, going forth in the confidence of his own simplicity and ardour, and led gradually into follies and sins which, at the outset, would have been as distasteful as they were strange to him.
The episode with which the parable concludes has no dramatic connection with the former and principal portion, and has therefore not been treated.
Putting the same ideas another way, one might say that Sullivan had come to his task not as a musical theologian, but as a composer of opera, looking for human emotion and local (oriental) colour. He was not alone in this approach, but the departure was sufficiently unusual to attract comment:
English audiences have been made acquainted with the admixture of the narrative with the dramatic in Mendelssohn’s St Paul, in Professor Bennett’s Woman of Samaria, in Mr Sullivan’s Prodigal Son and in Herr Goldschmidt’s Ruth. In all of these the story is told, and the several personages concerned therein, whether individuals or a multitude, step as it were out of the picture, become animated, and appear in living presentation, speaking each his own words, and expressing his own feelings according to the interpretation of the composer. (The Musical Times, March 1870)
Sullivan’s commission was for half a festival programme – one hour rather than two – and into this short span, he has moulded a remarkably tight and well-focused narrative. Often let down by less than inspiring librettists for his serious choral and operatic works, but generally not confident enough to arrange his own texts, the composer unusually chose the words himself; and, as he noted, ‘filled out’ what there was of St Luke with appropriate extracts from other parts of the Bible. All four solo voices are represented, but the focus of the dramatic attention is, most appropriately, upon tenor and baritone, the Prodigal and his father. Whereas the soprano and mezzo soprano (or contralto) each has only one aria and an occasional recitative, tenor and baritone have a series of fine solos which successfully mark the development of the characters and the parable. The relationship between the two is beautifully conceived, considering the space available for dramatic development: it is hard to listen to their music – in particular to the bleak ‘How many hired servants?’, and to the joyous reconciliation scene – and not be moved by what we hear. Not least, since there is something almost autobiographical about the relationship between father and son: Sullivan so clearly empathised with the Prodigal, and had relatively recently lost the father whom he loved so deeply.
It is odd to note that, from an already short text in St Luke, Sullivan opted (as he noted in his Preface) to exclude the last section of the parable, in which the elder son questions his father’s mercy to the Prodigal. Apart from the constraints of length, and the potential demand for a fifth solo voice, perhaps Sullivan was content to leave this confrontation unset, for fear of upsetting the balance of the piece. The reconciliation between the two was to him (typically, given his famously gentle and tolerant nature) the focus of the oratorio and the wellspring of its humanity.
The Prodigal Son was performed under Sullivan’s own baton in Worcester Cathedral on Wednesday 8 September 1869, with the finest available team of soloists: Theresa Tietjens, Zelia Trebelli-Bettini, Sims Reeves and Charles Santley. Performances in London soon followed, and the work was repeated at Hereford the following year. It became a staple in the choral repertory until the events of the First World War brought about fundamental changes in British musical life. It deserved to survive rather longer: for while still very much in the world of Mendelssohn, Sullivan clearly tried, through the semi-operatic representation of his main characters, and through the use of vivid orchestral effects (most notably in the masterly chorus ‘Let us eat and drink’), to lift the oratorio into something more modern and dramatic. To this extent, The Prodigal Son is without question one of the most important staging-posts, with Sullivan’s The Martyr of Antioch (1880) and The Golden Legend (1886), on the way from Elijah to Gerontius.
‘There is little further to say further about Mr Sullivan’s important work,’ said The Pall Mall Gazette. ‘Much, however, might be said about its consequences. Mr Sullivan now occupies a very different position from that in which he stood before the production of his oratorio, and he is not likely to be unmindful of noblesse oblige.’ Comments to the same effect are to be found throughout the contemporary critical reaction to The Prodigal Son (as to many similar ‘big’ works by Sullivan, even the much later Golden Legend). What they meant was that, while Sullivan had been allowed into the ranks of ‘those who have achieved’, as The Musical Standard put it, he was also expected to achieve greatness as music critics understood it, rather than in terms of his own natural gifts and artistic inclinations.
Boer War Te Deum
As his subsequent career in the theatre shows, Sullivan progressively followed his own path, with the result that by the end of his life, he had been written out of the supposed English Musical Renaissance altogether. Thirty-one years, and a world of development and change – both for Sullivan and for British music – lay between the composition of The Prodigal Son and what has become known as the Boer War Te Deum. Not least, the twenty-five-year collaboration (1871 to 1896) with W S Gilbert lay firmly in the past. Its successes had made Sullivan famous and rich to an extent greater than anyone could possibly have imagined. The last few years of the 1890s had lacked the glittering successes of the past, but Sullivan’s star still shone. The now Sir Arthur was, in 1900, still Britain’s most famous and respected musician, much to the frustration of the academic proponents of the Renaissance, notably Stanford and Parry, who felt that he had betrayed the project through his triumph on the theatre stage.
At the time of The Prodigal Son, Sullivan was contributing significantly to church music, as indeed he continued to do more or less continually between 1864 and 1883, in the form of anthems and hymns, many of which had become central to the church repertory. From the early 1880s onwards, he moved away from liturgical composition, mainly due to his preoccupation with the theatre. This did not affect his place as an important church musician – his works remained a mainstay of church and cathedral choirs well into the twentieth century. Occasional offers to tempt the composer out of his silence in these later years largely failed.
But one offer did arise, which proved too tempting to decline. It was to come from the organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir George Clement Martin. Martin had become organist on the departure of Sir John Stainer in 1888, and he had made sure that the popularity of Sullivan in the metropolis’ great cathedral continued throughout the last years of the nineteenth century. Not naturally a modernist, Martin, like his counterpart at Westminster Abbey, Sir Frederick Bridge, continued to favour Sullivan, and counted him a personal friend. Even so, it must have been with some surprise that Sullivan recorded in his diary on 26 May 1900 (almost exactly six months before his death): ‘Sir George Martin and Colonel Arthur Collins came to see me, former invited me on behalf of Dean and Chapter to write a Te Deum for Grand Peace Service when war is over. Consented to try and see what I could do’.
The war in question was of course the Boer War. It had been declared on 11 October 1899, and was to prove to be the bitterest, the costliest, the most controversial and the most humiliating campaign that Britain fought between 1815 and 1914.
Unusually for Sullivan, he set to the task of composition very quickly. Some commentators have asked whether this unusual haste resulted from Sullivan’s own forebodings (his health was increasingly poor by mid-1900) that his end was near: this indeed may have been the case. But it is more likely that Sullivan, along with many others, assumed that the war would reach its close more quickly than was in fact the case. The premonitions of an early conclusion during mid-1900 were dashed.
The course of composition was by no means easy. It was first delayed by Sullivan’s visit to Germany in June 1900, which should have been a joyous confirmation of his success and fame in that country – which above all others was the mark against which the Renaissance Men judged a career. But the background of the war, and Germany’s attitude to it, led Sullivan to a most uncharacteristic indiscretion in giving public voice to a private interview that he had had with the Kaiser. However, on his return to England, he set to work on the Te Deum – thus delaying substantial work on the first drafts of his new Irish opera for the Savoy, The Emerald Isle, and so risking the wrath of the D’Oyly Cartes. But, working quickly as always (his health still a few months before its final break-up), he was able to note by mid-July that his work was essentially complete, even confiding to his diary that he found the construction of the last movement ‘really satisfactory’.
The Boer War Te Deum was to be Sullivan’s last completed work. Safely in the hands of Sir George Martin, only the end of the war would allow its first performance. But both Sullivan himself and Queen Victoria would be dead eighteen months before the war was officially concluded by the Peace of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902. Martin had already found himself acting as one of the distinguished pallbearers who carried Sullivan to his illustrious resting-place in St Paul’s crypt, after his death on 22 November 1900.
The world at large learnt first of the existence of the Te Deum via a letter to The Times written just a few days after Sullivan’s death, on 29 November 1900:
Some time ago, with the sanction of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral, I approached the late Sir Arthur Sullivan on the subject of a Thanksgiving Te Deum suitable for performance in St Paul’s and other churches in the event of a successful termination of the war in South Africa. I am glad to say that he took the matter up warmly, and as I well know, he worked devotedly and conscientiously on this composition.
A little more than a month ago (he was very ill then) he played this short work to me on the piano, and we discussed with great minuteness the exact strength he required as to instruments, chorus &c. I am happy to say that he has left in my hands the score, which is finished to the smallest detail. This was his last completed work.
Thus the lad who received most of his early musical education in the Church, and who afterwards won such phenomenal popularity, not only where the English language is spoken, but in other countries, devoted his last effort to his Queen, to his Church, and to his country. I am yours very truly, George C Martin.
Martin’s words are ample testimony to the respect and affection that he felt for Sullivan. He saw well the symbolism of the composer’s last work – coming as it did fifty years after his earliest anthems for the Church, which, in the form of the Chapel Royal, had been the foundation of his musical life.
The first performance of the work took place on Sunday 8 June 1902, a week after the signing of the treaty. Somewhat astonishingly, this was not to be quite the full premiere that could have been expected. It seems that, in haste to have the Service in the timeframe set by the King, the Cathedral was unable to secure the services of a string orchestra for the occasion. Thus it was that the Sullivan’s Boer War Te Deum was born using the full military brass and organ for which it was written – but not the strings. One is left to wonder whether such an indignity would have been tolerated had the composer still been alive. However, it is testimony to the work’s power that the Press still reviewed it very warmly. The Daily Telegraph reported thus:
Then the Service reached its central episode with the Te Deum sung to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music, deprived, through the absence of strings, of its full orchestral beauty, but wrought up from exquisite tenderness to a pitch of dignity and strength.
Sullivan can have known little of the eventual bitterness and length of the war when he sat down to compose his Te Deum in that last sad summer of 1900. But something of that bitterness, even in the war’s earlier phases, and the shock that it represented to a proud Empire, seems to have come out in the way that Sullivan set the piece. For it is in its unforced dignity, solemnity and grandeur, and in its return to the theme of praising God, that the piece captures the singer and listener – not in any jingoistic flag-waving. The Te Deum is, indeed, an intensely personal, devotional, and unusually symbolic work. In form, if not in length, it harks back to his very first Te Deum, from his Morning Service in D of 1866; not just in the fact that it is through-composed rather than broken into sections, but in certain individual similarities of harmony and design. At the same time, it owes a tremendous debt to that rather more famous Festival Te Deum which was written for the Crystal Palace in 1872 on the occasion of the then Prince of Wales’ recovery from typhoid fever.
Clearly, one of the first striking things about the 1900 Te Deum is its use of the tune St Gertrude, Sullivan’s own world-famous tune for the words ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ by Sabine Baring-Gould. (Martin had been clever enough to prepare his congregation for the quotation by placing the hymn itself at the entrance into the cathedral of the King, Queen and clergy.) Sullivan’s earlier Festival Te Deum makes similar use of a famous hymn tune, quoted at the beginning, and then treated extensively at the end – in that case, St Ann (‘O God, our Help in ages past’). While this was a national hymn written by another hand, St Gertrude was almost a national hymn, but written by the man many regarded as his nation’s composer laureate. Sullivan’s personalisation of the work through use of this quotation (far more so than in any other that he wrote in his forty-year career) is striking. It is hard to know whether he was making a proud and deliberate statement to all his critics with an unusually effusive self-quotation; or whether the martial nature of the hymn, and its evocation of ‘the Church militant’, spoke powerfully of his understanding of the war and Britain’s role in it.
In the Festival Te Deum of 1872 Sullivan set the liturgical words jauntily against the metre, but to the tune of St Ann (and in counterpoint to an even more jaunty march for military band). But the use of St Gertrude in 1900 is more subtle: the chorus never, in fact, sing the tune of St Gertrude: instead, the tune is set in magnificent contrast to a grand recapitulation of the work’s opening theme (almost a double chorus, Sullivan’s trademark, as many contemporaries noted). Whereas in 1872 it is a nationalistic ‘Domine Salvam Fac Reginam’ which concludes the work, in 1900 Sullivan returns proudly and stirringly to the opening words of praise to God.
But it is the general mood of the piece which strikes us. Even the simplest comparison with Sullivan’s other ‘national’ pieces (in particular the Festival Te Deum, and the Imperial Odes of 1886 and 1887) shows this last work to be something rather special. Aside from commenting on the work’s structure and prevailingly diatonic harmony, reviewers kept returning to the mood of the piece – describing it as ‘grave’, ‘restrained’, ‘majestic’ and ‘reverent’, exactly capturing the essence of the piece. Furthermore, reviewers were right to highlight several key passages which stand out – in particular the haunting C minor funeral march of ‘When Thou tookest upon Thee’; the unusual eight-part writing of ‘O Lord, save Thy people’; and the grand conclusion, conceived in Sullivan’s most brilliant maestoso style. They admirably demonstrate that Sullivan’s inspiration, right at the end of his career, was well and truly intact.
It is impossible to know whether Sullivan genuinely felt this to be his last work; but it is absolutely clear that he put some of his best music into it, and that he responded emotionally to the occasion. It seems that he set out to create a big work, scored for large orchestra, overwhelming to hear and to sing. It was to be a work that, through self-quotation and its technical mastery, would be symbolic of him, and of what he felt for his country and for his church. In doing so, he left, in his last completed work, something of which he was quite right to be proud. The fact of the piece’s commission shows the faith still held, by some at least, in Sullivan’s powers as a ‘serious’ composer, even at the end.
One would hesitate to call Sullivan a traditional Anglican by the standards of his age. He lived an unconventional life, much of which was probably an open secret to those in his world. This seemed to trouble none but a few judgemental critics. Most of his colleagues knew and loved the man. Perhaps they understood that somehow Sullivan never lost his sense of belonging to that church of which he had been a part since his earliest years.
William Parry & David Eden © 2003