Notes from the piano stool
David Owen Norris
The air seems to be full of Arthur Sullivan. Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera, The Mikado at Southampton University. And our double CD of songs is out – singers Mary Bevan, Ben Johnson and Ashley Riches and me. It’s the result of years of taking Sullivan’s songs seriously, with my Sullivan Song Day for Gresham College back in 2011 as a notable landmark. We’ve included the Tennyson song-cycle The Window, the brain-child of musicologist Sir George Grove, who persuaded Tennyson to write it, Sullivan to compose it and John Everett Millais to illustrate it. The surprisingly unmusical Tennyson hummed and hawed for so long that Millais withdrew, but the persistent Sullivan published his cycle in 1871, and even produced a revised edition of it in 1900, the year of his death.
It was thought that Millais’s initial interest had left no trace in his work, so imagine my delight on a visit to the Yale Art Gallery to find myself confronted by a Millais (of 1871) that encapsulates the whole argument of the song-cycle. I’d write ‘spoiler alert’, but I don’t think I need to: a young lady holding an opened letter and a photograph stares dubiously into the middle distance. The title is Yes or No? and that’s our cover image. We haven’t included Sullivan’s The Lost Chord, by the way; we’re saving that for an encore, great masterpiece that it is. (The actual lost chord, I like to think, is the Mixolydian modal progression – the E flat chord in the key of F – that Sullivan conceived thanks to his training at the Chapel Royal under Thomas Helmore, the great reviver of plainsong in England.)
It’s surprising how one can still stumble over new information about familiar celebrities like Millais or Sullivan. But an even tastier titbit leapt out at me as I turned the pages of Percy Pitt’s Music Masterpieces (c.1926) in an Oxfam shop, and read a tale of how Sullivan once rushed into the rehearsal of a Mikado revival, seized the score, and scribbled something in it. ‘I’ve wanted to do that for years,’ he said. It was the famous bassoon squiggle in the ‘Three Little Maids’ trio. It’s unimaginable that once it wasn’t there. When I told the story to the conductor of the Southampton Mikado, he exclaimed ‘So that’s why it’s not in the parts!’ He’d had to add it from the vocal score. It’s taken over a century to reach that particular set of parts.
I should ask the Royal Academy of Music if I can leaf through the autograph score of ‘Three Little Maids’ on permanent display in the museum there. Of course, it may not have been the copy that Sullivan scribbled in, but in the days before photocopying…
David Owen Norris is a pianist, composer and Radio 3 presenter
Arthur Sullivan once rushed into a rehearsal of The Mikado, seized the score and scribbled something in it