Getting sucked in by G&S

It may have become apparent through recent entries in this blog that the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are gradually taking up more space in my consciousness, having been creeping in stealthily (with cat-like tread, perhaps) before I had a chance to notice them.  I’d never really paid their work much attention before now.  What never?  Well, hardly ever.  I had assumed that it would all be outdated, silly, pointless and trite.  And it seems that I am wrong.  My growing appreciation for their tunes and lyrics is most intriguing.

It appears that the vast majority of the Gilbert and Sullivan ouevre is indeed just as silly as everyone expects it to be.  And yet there is a point to much of this silliness, and it is generally a satirical one.  Sometimes, W.S. Gilbert just came up with daft ideas and situations, but more often he was using them to poke fun at something daft in real life.  The political satire of The Mikado and Iolanthe is disturbingly relevant today, and the ludicrous sense of duty that runs through all the characters in Pirates is still deliciously funny, and makes the plot make some kind of psychological sense.  No really, it does.  The wild coincidences are sometimes just lazy writing, but sometimes poke fun at the established patterns of melodrama or other theatrical genres, taking them to extremes.

And Sir Arthur Sullivan’s work is magnificent, though it is generally overshadowed by the flashy wit of his collaborator’s lyrics.  Perhaps only in the overtures do you get a true sense of his musicianship, which sometimes manages to burst free in the more tender moments as well – the tune of ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes’ from The Gondoliers, for instance, is absolutely gorgeous.  And the songs are so satisfying to sing, leaving you on a high.  It makes me regret that I had never had a chance to sing any G&S before this year.  The ensemble numbers are particularly joyous to sing.  Often silly, but they make the music fill you up completely, make you really live the number.  The Cachuca, again from The Gondoliers, leaves us not only out of breath from the sheer effort of fitting in all the syllables at a thousand miles an hour while leaving room for the long final notes, but also giddy with excitement.  It makes me feel like a carefree schoolboy let loose on cherryade at a party.

I don’t believe that their operas will ever muscle their way into any list of my favourite things, but my appreciation for them has shot up over the last few months.  Never assume that something is bad – have a look or a listen for yourself, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

  1. I think a lot of people have painful memories of G&S being absolutely murdered by AmDram groups who think that operetta is an easy option. I’m actually a G&S fan DESPITE of that – Sullivan’s music is marvellous.

  2. I had always rather liked G&S, privately, in secret, for fear of being mocked. I was always particularly taken with the way the music was so careful to show-case the words – it’s almost impossible to have bad comic timing singing a Sullivan tune. Gilbert may well be a very funny chap solo, but he is funnier with Sullivan. Then the movie ‘Topsy-Turvey’ came out and suddenly it became respectable to be fond of G&S. Hah.

    Mind you, it was a great movie.

    • Scott
    • September 12th, 2006

    I have been a savoyard since before my teenage years, a many long year ago. My brother and I would sing the songs as he played them on the piano and I went on to have the opportunity to perform in some of them during my college days. I also take great delight when I hear a newcaster toss off a gilbertian phrase or catch a snipet during some TV program.

    I must object to your assertion that one only get’s a sense of Sullivan’s musicianship in the overtures. His wit is harder to spot but it is there. He seems to have taken great delight to satirize Mendelsohn’s “Midsummer Nights Dream” in his music for Iolanthe and likewise the music of Handel in “Princess Ida” among others.

  3. His music is great throughout, but I’m sure I’m not alone in being far too distracted by the lyrics to really appreciate it during many of the songs. I have been very surprised to discover how different each of the works is, as I’d assumed they would all sound much of a muchness, with the tunes being interchangeable. Certainly each chorus grouping has its own style which changes appropriately for each opera. I certainly didn’t intend to cast doubt on his musical abilities, but rather to comment on how they tend to live in Gilbert’s shadow, which is a real shame.

    Much the same can be said of Cole Porter – that we tend to forget his musicality because we focus on the wit of his words.

  4. I love G&S, have ever since we memorized the Mikado as a family. I can still sing much of it. We had a battered book of all the “great” numbers from most of the operettas and we used to sing the heck out of them.

    But my true appreciation for G&S came later on, when I was a professional musician, a violist forsooth. I played in the pit for many a production of all sorts of musicals and operettas, came to despise Rodgers and Hammerstein because of their dull and boring treatment of the players of the inner voices. One of the great things about G&S is that it was NEVER boring to play in the orchestra. I love the lyrics too, but often we were too busy to really get to pay attention to them. Anyway, I believe that the true test of a musical is whether the orchestra likes it. If you are at a performance and the pit is still laughing at the jokes, you can bet it is actually a funny show.

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