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The Prodigal Son

author of text
various books of the Bible

One of the many popular misapprehensions concerning Arthur Sullivan is that he devoted years of his life to the composition of oratorio. In fact, Sullivan wrote precisely two oratorios, the first of which, The Prodigal Son, occupied him for three weeks in 1869; the second, the vast The Light of the World, cost him a month of intense effort in 1873. On its production at the Three Choirs Festival of 1869, The Prodigal Son was reviewed by The Musical Times as a sacred cantata rather than as an oratorio proper. The difference between the two helps to explain what Sullivan was trying to achieve in the context of the English music of his time.

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.

from notes by William Parry & David Eden © 2003


Sullivan: The Prodigal Son


No 01: Introduction
No 02. Chorus: There is joy in the presence of the angels of God
Track 2 on CDA67423 [4'50]
No 03. Solo: A certain man had two sons (tenor)
Track 3 on CDA67423 [3'26]
No 04. Recitative and aria: My son, attend to my words (baritone)
Track 4 on CDA67423 [3'12]
No 05. Recitative: And the younger son gathered all together (soprano)
Track 5 on CDA67423 [0'31]
No 06. Solo and chorus: Let us eat and drink 'The Revel' (tenor/chorus)
Track 6 on CDA67423 [3'30]
No 07. Recitative and chorus: Woe unto them (mezzo-soprano/chorus)
Track 7 on CDA67423 [1'39]
No 08. Solo: Love not the world (mezzo-soprano)
Track 8 on CDA67423 [3'07]
No 09. Recitative: And when he had spent all (soprano)
Track 9 on CDA67423 [1'46]
No 10. Aria: O that thou hadst harkened (soprano)
Track 10 on CDA67423 [2'59]
No 11. Solo: How many hired servants? (tenor)
Track 11 on CDA67423 [3'40]
No 12. Chorus: There is joy … The sacrifices of God
Track 12 on CDA67423 [2'47]
No 13. Recitative and duet: And he arose (soprano/tenor & baritone)
Track 13 on CDA67423 [2'38]
No 14. Recitative and aria: Bring forth the best robe (baritone)
Track 14 on CDA67423 [3'41]
No 15. Chorus: O that men would praise the Lord
Track 15 on CDA67423 [7'45]
No 16. Recitative and aria: No chastening for the present (tenor)
Track 16 on CDA67423 [3'27]
No 17. Quartet: The Lord is nigh
Track 17 on CDA67423 [3'00]
No 18. Chorus: Thou, O Lord art our Father
Track 18 on CDA67423 [3'35]

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