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,
Stoop to little things,
Stoop to human nature.
Never need to roam,
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,
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.