Notes from the pi­ano stool

David Owen Nor­ris

BBC Music Magazine - - THE FULL SCORE -

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

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