Saturday, 9 April 2011

Five things I never knew about Iolanthe



Yes, the all-male Iolanthe at Wilton's Music Hall has given me another bad dose of the Gilbert and Sullivan virus, as compulsive in its way as Wagnermania. One thing I'm especially delighted about is the coincidence with a renewed friendship. The man who inspired and enthused scores of us eager-to-learn youngsters in Banstead 'village' all those years ago, as choirmaster of All Saints Church and Savoyard extraordinaire, David Harding, is still going strong down on the Kent coast. My fellow chorene and subsequently university friend-for-life, Mary Amorosino née New, put us back in touch.

So now I learn he's putting on G&S with all the trimmings - which include a second Sentry's Song, performed in concert by the Deal Savoyards last week. The words were handed shortly before the 1882 premiere by Gilbert to Sullivan, who never set them. So DAH, as we used to call him, did, and orchestrated it to boot, using the vibrant three-against-four pounding theme of the great overture as the introduction:


That's thing no. 1. Thing no. 2 is probably more surprising, and to me the words are more interesting. As Lesley Baily puts it in his marvellously presented Gilbert and Sullivan Book, 'what really upset some of the critics [at the first performance] was that at one point in the opera Gilbert went beyond his quipping at Lords and Commons and became class-conscious.'


In short, Strephon, having entered parliament, actually got a song to air his tender social conscience. The bill he wants to introduce is prefaced with the invocation to

Fold your flapping wings,
Soaring legislature!
Stoop to little things,
Stoop to human nature.
Never need to roam,
Members patriotic:
Let's begin at home;
Crime is no exotic.


In the first verse, he tells us that a 'tipsy lout' is a 'mark of scorn; I might be another/If I had been born of a tipsy mother'. The second gives rise to the discarded number's being dubbed in the business the 'Fagin for a Father Song'. The connection to Dickens is one of several surprising historical links. Twelve years after the death of our second Shakespeare, a third pays homage:

Take a wretched thief
Through the city sneaking,
Pocket handkerchief
Ever, ever seeking:
What is he but I
Robbed of all my chances -
Picking pockets by
Force of circumstances?
I might be as bad -
As unlucky, rather,
If I'd only had
Fagin for a father!


Hardly strong stuff by today's standards, but the 1880s press complained that 'advocacy and denunciation of this sort are all very well in melodrama...but they jar upon the ear and taste alike when brought to bear upon us through the medium of a song sung by a half-fairy in a professedly comic opera'.

So it wasn't just Sullivan who had trouble being taken seriously. Sadly, they succumbed to pressure and cut it. What does DAH - who's orchestrated the number, transposed it up from A minor to C minor to make it easier for the average Strephon - think? He gives me permission to quote a typically erudite e-mail: 'It's not a masterpiece, and usually only gets polite applause. Gilbert's words are excellent and bitingly satirical, but Sullivan didn't seem to bother much about giving it a memorable tune. Perhaps he didn't like it either. So it doesn't compare with the brilliance of the music elsewhere in the opera.'


I suppose the third 'thing' should be the 'missing' number for Lord Mountararat, 'De Belville was the Crichton of his age', about a talented poet and painter who remains penniless and unrecognised until the death of a distant cousin makes him a millionaire and everyone suddenly thinks he should be made a peer. DAH thinks 'the result would make a good concert item, and I've put it on my work pile to try and set it some time soon'.

BUT I appreciate that non-Savoyards may be losing the will to live and read on, so let's have some kinda pretty pictures. Thing three is Gilbert's houses. Clearly despite the social conscience he loved to live high on the hog. At the time of beginning Iolanthe he was living in 24 The Boltons, now - possibly then - one of London's top addresses. No. 24 is on the less attractively foliaged side


so here's the east crescent, irresistible in a very London-in-the-spring way with its magnolias, cherry trees and camellias.


Remember the line 'no telephone communicates with his cell' in Act 2 of Pinafore? Well, in 1882 Gilbert had a telephone to communicate for the first time with Kensington Home No. 1. No. 2 had just been commissioned: the huge mansion in Harrington Gardens with four bedrooms and central heating.


There's no blue plaque at the Boltons; but the grander establishment has one.


Thing No. 4, while we're on the subject of mod cons: electrickery at the Savoy! They saved the best 'til last, as Durward Lely remembered - the 'very charming effect...made by the fairies at a given cue switching on the electric light on their foreheads, the battery being a small one carried on their backs, concealed by their flowing tresses.' Due credits for the different elec-tricks were given in the programme.


Thing No. 5, a darker coda: sombre circumstances for Arthur Sullivan. Just before arriving at the theatre to conduct the first performance, he learnt that through a stockbroker's bankruptcy he had lost all his savings (he recovered). Worse, in early 1882 he had returned from Egypt to Fulham to find that his mother had died. I ought to check the synchonicity, but I can't help feeling that the wonderfully desolate oboe solo which depicts Iolanthe rising from the stream - and which I saw somewhere plausibly compared to the doleful shepherd's piping in Act 3 of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - is some kind of requiem. Anyway, Mrs. Sullivan was buried in Brompton Cemetery. One of the Friends pointed me in the direction of the grave, but I couldn't find it. Certainly it's somewhere near these three evocative angels, a good point at which to stop.

15 comments:

Willym said...

I know I've been absent on the field of comments lately but I still read everything you write - but then you know that! And once again you've sent me searching for something that I have on a shelf and had forgotten about: Topsy Turvy - that fascinating film on the creation of The Mikado and the lives of the people around it.

David said...

Indeed, Will, I bought a DVD of it the other week, haven't seen it since it came out, and wanted to watch it with the kids I took to see The Mikado, so still waiting (the actor with whom I shared the pre-performance talk is in it, plays Pish-Tush).

I do think - forgive me if I've written this before - that Topsy-Turvy has the best re-creation of 'putting on a show' with all the backstage business that I've ever seen. And the actress who plays Leonora Braham has such a haunting, other-worldly quality.

toubab said...

Good morning dearest.
How lovely London is looking!
And I will soon be there. You will have to enlighten me about Gilbert and Sullivan, a new world to discover! It has always seemed to me so terribly English jolly hockeysticks- do you think a Swede could take to it? xxxS

David Damant said...

I have always thought that the Sentry, a wonderful character for the stage ( reported as tending to cause a buzz of pleasure in the audience), should have another number - especially as he appears only in the second act - as does the Mikado, though the Mikado does not lack a presence throughout, once he appears.

On electricity, it might be added that the physical atmosphere of the theatre was vastly inproved by the switch from gas, which caused a heated and rather unpleasant atmosphere.

David said...

Well, Sophie dahlink, if as I found out earlier this week the Norwegians can worship at the shrines of Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, why can't a Swede take to G&S? Remember that the Mikado toured the world in Hungarian, Czech and German, to name but three. And you furriners will find our modern foibles still carved in works written over a century ago.

Besides, anyone (says he loftily)who can take to Dickens and Shakespeare should worship Gilbert as a master of the English language. And Sullivan was such a master melodist, and rather an imaginative orchestrator too. Though I do find problems when I stray too far from Savoy territory.

DD, it does seem to me one of Private Willis's strengths that once past his soliloquy he becomes a silent object of the Fairy Queen's admiration. Given a choice between his extra number in Act 2 and Strephon's, I'd always pick the latter.

David Damant said...

As regards Gilbert's living high on the hog, in the nineteenth century the land to the west of London was progressively covered, as Macauley noted, with "streets and squares and railway stations" [he was wrong about railway stations, as he was about most things]. The houses were for the vastly expanding and reasonably well off middle class and to live in the areas now available only to millionaires was not then exceptional. Also in recent decades house prices have accelerated from traditionally low levels, far more than most assets. Of course Gilbert had a considerable income, though it is Sullivan who is usually mentioned as appreciating and indeed needing the money

David said...

Ah yes - the shabby gentility of what Henry James in The Spoils of Poynton calls 'the western wastes' - my own adopted term to describe where we live. Thankfully London is no longer his other famous description, 'the great grey Babylon'.

simoncat said...

Hello David,
It was wonderful to see your blog mentioning David Harding (DAH) he was my choir master at St Marks Surbiton even before he moveded to Banstead, I was thinking of him on Friday whilst attending the wedding of my wifes mother remembering all the little tips he used to instill into us when singing hymns with words that do not appear to fit the music, hence my search for him and finding your blog. so good to hear he is still alive and kicking. If you are in communication with him, please remember me to him Simon Harris, I was certainly not one of his star choiristers but did enjoy it. best Simon

Anonymous said...

I remember a music teacher called DAH from Banstead. Taught at my school. Liked getting in cupboards with boys.

David said...

Alas, I fear that side of things may have caught up with him at last. Grim if serious but I guess still innocent of charges until proven guilty. The former choristers of All Saints have had a lot of serious thinking to do over what was or wasn't OK of what we knew (not a lot, we thought).

Anonymous said...

David, smoke and fire are words that spring to mind. Some of us had the "benefit" or being pupils of his as well as being in the choir at All Saints. You are correct though in the sense of what was the perceived "normality" at the time. As you say lots of soul searching to be done and also being able to live with a totally clear conscience. As they say the truth will out and part of that just may be affirmation of what each of us might have been aware of at the time from our own knowledge/interaction. I note previous comments you have made on your blog regarding your Alma Mater/DAH so perhaps something to be considered/slept on?

David said...

You speak partly in riddles, Anon. I'm not suggesting that you divulge your identity, but it would be helpful to have some chapter and verse from you.

I have modified my own thoughts in a batch of group emails between former members of the choir - one of whom only lurked and then went straight to the police with the correspondence, not that any of us has anything to be ashamed of. One correspondent writing in terms of clear moral outrage did make me question why on earth l should have had to live with murky knowledge over decades even if I never heard of anything that could lead to a prison sentence. DAH should never have put any of the choirboys in that position.

Mulling it over reaponsibly is helped by dialogue, so I'd be happy to hear more from you. If you send another message and ask me not to put it up, I won't. If you want to exchange thoughts by strictly private email, that's fine too.

Anonymous said...

So to clarify the riddles. The presumption of "innocent until proven guilty" was, I believe, first enshrined in the Magna Carter. It holds true today, and should be preserved for future generations. It is therefore not up to us to pre-judge the outcome of a more formal process but this process does rely on relevant evidence being forthcoming. Therefore, given the passage of time, it should not surprise us that articles are printed in the press and on the back of this people may step forward with information. It is not up to us to determine the relevance of that information or otherwise. However,as individuals, if we believe in truth, decency and honesty, then just maybe, if we have information, from around the period in question then we may wish to search our own consciences/beliefs and decide whether we should come forward to the police with that information. I would imagine that they will decide the relevance, even if only background information, and on the back of this it will either support the presumption of innocence or otherwise. If we are not prepared to step up to the plate, and be counted, then clearly we do not believe in fairness and justice. Hopefully a little clearer with less riddles.

David said...

Yes, we search our own conscience and decide accordingly. Not for anyone else to decide that or to take the moral high ground, enlightening though that can be.

In this case it has been decided for the group of former choir members by the one who, without saying a word to any of us, went to the police with the information, namely the entire correspondence and our email addresses. Which meant that I acted accordingly by writing to the police officer in question stating my firm belief that nothing untoward happened, that I personally never felt threatened as a choirboy and did not know of any others who did, and have left her to act on that as she wishes. Unfortunately nuance is antipathetic to the law, and only the facts remain.

That said, I still have no idea what the 17 charges are. Do you?

Anonymous said...

No idea at all.