Arthur Sullivan, the serious composer

John AndrewsMon 28th January 2019

The Light of the World shows us some of Sullivan's most profound music

Recording a world premiere is always a challenge. Even more so when it is the work of a very famous composer whose reputation and popularity nevertheless lies in an entirely different genre.

It is a persistent fallacy that Arthur Sullivan ‘wanted to be’ a serious composer. He was a serious composer, and a very successful one at that. When he conducted the first performance of The Light of the World in 1873 in Birmingham, he was at the height of his powers and its premiere was followed quickly by performances in Nottingham, Manchester, London, Brighton, Hereford, Wolverhampton, Dundee and Bradford and as a consequence he became conductor of the Leeds Festival for 20 years. This masterpiece was not merely a success in his own lifetime; it aptly and amply demonstrates his brilliance as a serious dramatic composer and masterful orchestrator, and his unparalleled genius setting the English language.

Conducting Sullivan is always a pleasure, with shimmering and delicate textures needing to sound effortless, and multiple levels of emotional colour lurking beneath the text. The joy of conducting The Light of the World lies in its huge emotional range and in its sheer sense of drama. Breaking away from the traditional passion-narrative, Sullivan audaciously encompasses the whole life of Christ by concentrating on six short scenes, which take the listener on an incredibly intense emotional journey. Freely mixing Biblical texts, each scene is a beautifully crafted miniature drama. The innovative, and controversial, decision to directly portray 'the human aspect of the life of our Lord on Earth' makes for compelling theatre quite different from the traditional oratorio.

Each of the six scenes is self-contained with its own dramatic shape, but the cumulative effect is built up carefully. The first scene includes a bravura setting of the Magnificat for Mary. But more remarkable is the sudden and heart-breaking contrast with the lament 'In Rama was there a voice heard' as Rachel weeps for her murdered children. Acknowledging Purcell’s funeral music, agonised dissonances over a long A-flat pedal unleash raw, visceral emotion that was a revelation to me in terms of Sullivan’s output. Its power is quite overwhelming.

The second scene introduces the young Jesus in the temple. The chorus come to the fore as the arguments become increasingly frenzied. We know of Sullivan’s genius for building multi-part movements from the finals of the Savoy operas, but this has a completely different emotional arc, ending with Jesus desolate on the temple steps. The third scene changes emotional register again, dramatizing the raising of Lazarus, and for the first time we meet the Angel as a very human voice of consolation. Comfort in the face of mortality underpins this work, and I wanted to make these touching human qualities as intimate and real as possible. 

In the fourth section ‘the way to Jerusalem’ storm clouds gather, and in the fifth we witness Jesus’s trial and execution. Significantly, Sullivan pulls away from a depiction of the crucifixion itself. It was simply too awful, too graphic for him to represent in real human terms. Instead Jesus departs from view with the famous ‘Daughter’s of Jerusalem’ speech. The final scene is at the sepulchre where Mary Magdalene is mourning. Once again the Angel is a figure of comfort and consolation, proclaiming ‘The Lord is Risen’ in a transcendent aria great aria that Clara Butt made famous as a stand-alone concert piece. 

Sullivan went to great pains in his music to portray Jesus as fully human throughout, but at the same time imbued with divine authority. In performance we had to find the knife-edge balance between these two worlds. Sullivan took inspiration from Bach and enveloped Christ’s words in their own rich and dark sound world of cor anglais, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and lower strings, Jesus speaks with an unforced dignity, which nevertheless has a natural cadence - if not taken too slowly! 

Ultimately, the Light of the World proved just a little too large (six soloists, large orchestra), and a little too long (150 minutes) to hold sway in the 20th century against the more overt Romanticism of Elgar. And whilst palaeontologists adore ‘transitional fossils’, audiences seem curiously resistant to works that fall between periods that they are familiar with. But at every stage I have found this to be truly remarkable work; humane, emotional and dramatic, imbued with an unparalleled lyricism and harmonic panache, supported by delightful and delicate orchestration. My first encounter, just hearing it on the piano convinced me that it was a masterpiece, and it’s been an honour an a pleasure to bring it to life on disc.

Sullivan's The Light of the World is out now on Dutton, featuring Natalya Romaniw, Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately, Robert Murray, Ben McAteer, Neal Davies; Kinder Children's Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor John Andrews. Find out more here: duttonvocalion.co.uk

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