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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.
from notes by William Parry & David Eden © 2003