By Laura Stanfield Prichard
English ballad opera, Italian opera, and French-style operetta thrived in England before the revolutions of the 1770s-90s, but in 1843, Parliament clamped down on popular entertainment. The new Theatres Act specified that saloons, gardens, and cafés providing music could only be licensed if run as “theatres:” the Lord Chamberlain could vet and prevent any new plays threatening “the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace.” Promoters began to raise funds to establish new venues, and by the end of the century, London boasted several new houses dedicated to English comic opera.
Early romantic Parisian composers Hervé (1825-1892) and Adolphe Adam (composer of Giselle, 1803-1856) created the first operettas with spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative. The French government, which sponsored all grand opera, limited independent operettas to one act with no more than three characters. Jacques Offenbach’s dozens of successes of the 1850s established the operetta form as a viable financial endeavor, and the “three-singer limit” was lifted in 1858.
High British comedies of the same period required newly composed musical scores with recitatives instead of spoken dialogue; they were billed as comedy operas, comic operas, and light operas. Michael Balfe’s wildly popular opera The Bohemian Girl (1845) told of nobility raised by gypsies, and its English arias spawned popular hits like “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” still heard in recitals today. Light-hearted stories were buoyed by melodies that could appeal to popular taste, combining the best of several contrasting types of music theater.
In this heady climate, Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) began a career as a composer of both “serious” music (he had trained in the Chapel Royal, the Royal Academy of Music, and in Leipzig on a Mendelssohn scholarship) and of “light” music (his father was a theatre musician who became an army bandmaster). Sullivan was the conductor of the Leeds Festival for almost twenty years, a recital accompanist for the Royal family (knighted in 1883), and “incomparably the greatest English musician of the age” according to his colleague William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911).
Sullivan became famous overnight after a successful 1862 performance of his incidental music for The Tempest in the Crystal Palace. Over the next decade, he published his only song cycle (The Window, to texts by Tennyson), a cello concerto and symphony, several dramatic cantatas, and popular hymn tunes such as St. Gertrude (adopted as Onward, Christian Soldiers by the Salvation Army). Large-scale works of this period include huge commissions for the Crystal Palace (Festival Te Deum, 1872), the Three Choirs Festival (an 1869 three-act oratorio, The Prodigal Son), and the 1873 Birmingham Festival (The Light of the World).
Sullivan met his longtime collaborator, W. S. Gilbert, in 1870 and was commissioned to write the Victorian burlesque-style comic opera Thespis with him for the Gaiety Theatre the following year. Sullivan didn’t write most of his overtures; assistants assembled many of them from the best tunes of the opera, in the manner made popular by Offenbach. Eugen D’Albert (1864-1932), who was at the time a pupil of Sullivan’s, assembled the overture for Patience: he would ultimately emigrate to Germany, where he studied with Liszt and built a career as a concert pianist and prolific composer.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote twelve comic operas together from 1874-1888, mostly for Richard D’Oyly Carte, the manager of the Royalty Theatre. D’Oyly Carte built the first London theater lit by electricity (the Savoy) and commissioned a series of hits (sometimes starring Sullivan’s brother Fred), establishing “Gilbert & Sullivan” as a formidable team.
After careers as a lawyer and government clerk, W. S. Gilbert displayed his mastery of poetic meter and gift for comic lyrics in hundreds of publications. He wrote and illustrated light verse for Fun magazine, Victorian burlesques (think Saturday Night Live skits made into full evenings), and over seventy plays and libretti. For his collaborations with Sullivan, often called the Savoy operas, Gilbert meticulously supervised each new production. Every detail, from facial expressions, hand gestures, and choreography to style of delivery were notated and protected by a strict and lucrative licensing system. The venture was so successful that it spawned two touring companies and endured until 1982.
Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride, was the sixth collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan. It followed the wild, international success of HMS Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879), both of which satirized the conventions of Verdi operas.
After opening on April 23, 1881 at London’s Opera Comique, it ran for 578 performances, transferring to D’Oyly Carte’s new Savoy theatre on October 10 of the same year. The first two months of the Savoy run were lit by gaslight, but on December 28th, D’Oyly Carte appeared onstage just before the overture, wrapped a glowing light bulb in muslin, then dramatically shattered it to prove that there was no chance of a fire. He then left the stage, the gas was extinguished, and the modern age of theatrical electricity was ushered in. Oscar Wilde left for American on the S.S. Arizona later that week.
Patience was partly inspired by two illustrated comic poems Gilbert had published in the magazine Fun in the 1860s. Gilbert contributed these under the pen name Bab (thus referring to them as his Bab Ballads). They satirized two brothers courting the same girl (Johnny and Freddy) and parish church life (The Rival Curates).
The Rival Curates presents an assistant to a parish priest who has purified himself from dancing, “wild croquet,” and other worldly distractions. After restricting his diet to curds and whey and contemplating wildflowers, he is told: “Your mind is not as blank” as another local curate. “He plays the airy flute/ and looks depressed and blighted./ Doves ‘round about him toot, / And lambkins dance delighted.” The first threatens the second with assassination, giving him “one more chance” if he will change to a life of “croquet, smoke, and dance.” The second gladly transforms into an Aesthete, remarking, “For years I’ve longed for some/ Excuse for this revulsion:/ Now that excuse has come —/ I do it on compulsion!!!”
Johnny and Freddy criticized the lengths young aesthetes might go to in order to appeal to a young lady, and it is partly written from the perspective of a curate, who ultimately wins the hand of the lady:
“Oh my,” said he, with solemn frown,
“I tremble for each dancing frater [meaning brother, pronounced frayter],
Like unregenerated clown
And harlequin at some the-ayter.”
When Gilbert first sketched out the plot for Patience, he worried that focusing on a rivalry between two curates would not be in good taste, writing to Sullivan, “I mistrust the clerical element,” and was concerned that a satire focusing on Aestheticism would make the costuming challenging (and expensive?). Instead of making fun of class distinction (as is typical of the Savoy operas), Gilbert focused his plot on fads, fan culture, and blind devotion to figureheads.
By 1880, the original curates of Gilbert’s Bab Ballads became poets: a “rivalry between two aesthetic fanatics.” The “aesthetic craze” of the 1870s-80s was fine fodder for comedy, as prolific authors and painters such as James Whistler, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde attracted fans throughout Europe and America. Gilbert, Oscar Wilde, and James Whistler, who both worked closely with D’Oyly Carte, felt great antipathy toward each other. D’Oyly Carte organized Oscar Wilde’s American tour during the premiere of Patience, and Patience’s characters satirize aesthetic manners of dress, speech, and behavior. The music and language of Patience is typical of its time: in the same year, Brahms premiered his Academic Festival Overture and Henry James published Portrait of a Lady.
The story is set on the Surrey-Hampshire border, where people often walk from the military base at Aldershot in Hampshire to Castle Guilford (Castle Bunthorne) in Surrey. Grosvenor walks over from a cottage in Surrey, probably near Jane Austen’s home in Chawton. Gilbert’s own parents had made an arranged marriage and he makes several references to Austen’s writings: Patience’s lovesick Dragoons echo Captain Harville’s speech from Persuasion about continuing to pine for a lost love longest.
All the village ladies, rapturously caught up in Aestheticism, ignore their military suitors in favor of two contrasting aesthetes (hypocrite/“fleshy poet” Reginald Bunthorne and egoist/“idyllic poet” Archibald Grosvenor). The poets dote on Patience, the simple village milkmaid, who cares nothing for poetry “True love must be completely unselfish – it must wither and sting and burn!” When she sings “Am I alone and unobserved?” she is the first character to have the stage to herself. Patience is courted by a young Duke (self-described as an aesthetic sham) who composes poetry for her, and by her childhood playmate Archibald Grosvenor, an “Idyllic poet” of great beauty. Bunthorne offers himself up to be raffled off to the ladies, and Patience intervenes.
Act II begins with the Lady Jane playing a large bass instrument (traditionally, a cello or tuba) in a bucolic setting. The village ladies now follow Grosvenor, and the military men have transformed themselves into Aesthetes to win back their attentions. A complex quintet in 6/8 ensues, in which multiple nuptial pairings are proposed. After an extended comic sequence of reversals and twists, the two poets meet and Grosvenor cedes the aesthetic field to Bunthorne. Patience deserts Bunthorne for Grosvenor, and the ladies pair off with the Dragoons, reverting to “prettily pattering, cheerily chattering, every-day young girls.” Everyone ends up with a suitable partner except Bunthorne, who is left holding a lily.
Sullivan supports Gilbert’s witty rhymes with a rich variety of musical styles. Patience builds thematic unity across the entirety of an opera without making operatic parody a linchpin. From this point on, the Savoy operas would owe less to Victorian burlesque, striving for tightly constructed commentary on a single theme. The new Gilbert and Sullivan would contain fewer imitations of other operas and more Duets, Trios, and ambitiously connected sequences. There are fewer discreet numbers than in the earlier operas, and musical scenes are longer: this is the first Savoy opera to employ the strong musical, dramatic and visual contrast between the male and female choruses. In Act I this culminates in a finely constructed finale featuring their best double chorus.
Sullivan’s elegant “I hear the soft note” is one of his most heart-wrenchingly beautiful songs. Gilbert lampoons contemporary writers in the Colonel’s “Heavy Dragoon” song: he mentions the “wit of Macaulay, who wrote of Queen Anne…” Macaulay, the eminent historian is commonly reputed to have undertaken his History in order to write of this, his favorite, period; but he never reached it.
In Gilbert’s conception, Bunthorne was made up to represent Whistler (1834-1903), the famous American-English painter and etcher, with his eye glass, lock of white hair, moustache and imperial. English contemporaries also saw in him a wild caricature of the poet Swinburne (1837-1909). Ironically, most audiences now associate the “fleshly poet” Reginald Bunthorne with Oscar Wilde, though at the time of the production, apparently, he was understood to be portrayed by the rival poet Archibald Grosvenor (“I’m such a Narcissus.”): in those days Wilde would have been about twenty five years old and was not then the portly figure he became ten years later. However, within a few years Wilde so resembled Bunthorne that the British press remarked, “A case of nature imitating art.”
Mrs. Langtry, Lady de Bathe (1852-1929) an actress known as the Jersey Lily, and possibly the most beautiful woman of her day, always contended that the famous characterization of Wilde, “If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand,” was an unjust aspersion on Wilde, for before he had achieved celebrity he invariably brought her flowers, but as he could not then afford elaborate bouquets he used to buy a single, but beautiful, lily, and would walk down Piccadilly carrying the solitary bloom. Wilde’s remark as a student at Oxford: “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” was transformed by Gilbert into “such a judge of blue and white and other kinds of pottery.” Since D’Oyly Carte acted as the main literary agent for Wilde and Whistler, he arranged for them to see the premiere of Patience. Wilde would later comment on Gilbert, “Caricature is the tribute which mediocrity pays to genius.”