W hen we embark on a general examination of Sullivan’s music across the full spread of his comic operas, we find that there are two types of comic style that crop up time and time again. These styles are not characteristic of the Spielopern of Albert Lortzing, whose music Sullivan would have encountered during his three years of study in Germany, nor, unlike some other comic devices he employs, are they indebted to the opéras-bouffes of his celebrated and influential comic precursor Jacques Offenbach. They may be said to typify Sullivan’s individual musical humour They are found in embryonic form in Cox and Box (1866) and emerge a little more distinctly with The Contrabandists (1867).1 Thereafter, they are found regularly from Trial by Jury (1875) to The Rose of Persia (1899). The only exceptions are his serious opera Ivanhoe (1891) and his last (unfinished) comic opera The Emerald Isle (1901).2 in the latter, Sullivan is found forging a new comic style, but it is one that he did not live to develop further. I will label Sullivan’s most typical comic styles, with humorless banality, Comic Style I and Comic Style 2 (alternatively, they might be called, the jerk and the wobble).

Leaping melodic intervals in a jerky rhythm characterize the first of these styles. I will give two examples from The Pirates of Penzance. The chorus “Climbing over reeky mountain” has musical interludes that feature rapidly executed ornamental not and leaping melody. Sullivan marks most of the notes with sta cato dots, ensuring that they are played in a spiky rather tha flowing manner. In the example quoted, the higher notes hav a descending shape, while the lower notes hold to the sam< pitch; therefore, these higher notes have a melodic interest thai registers on the mind (Ex. 1). However, this melodic movement fells on weak beats, and so it comes across as quirky in character. This kind of irregularity is common in Comic Style 1, but is more usually obtained by the jerky rhythm of two short notes followed by a brief silence (that is, a musical rest).

The vocal leaps written for the chorus in the finale of Act 1 are a means of giving comic emphasis to their observations. It suggests the excitement and surprise of the chorus at the marital opportunity on offer (Ex. 2).

Ne-ver was such op-por-tu-ni-ty To get mar-ried with im-pu-ni-ty.

Sullivan is representing the state of mind of the chorus, rather than the actual words they are singing. It is perhaps not often that Sullivan’s music brings Marcel Proust to mind, but that author makes an observation about operatic music that seems apposite to my discussion here. Proust likens the way our inner thoughts can change the way we live our lives — even if outwardly nobody notices any difference-to the way a melodic motif in an opera introduces a novelty that we would not suspect from merely reading the libretto,3 Another illustration of unexpected treatment of words would be the trio for the Duke, Major, and Colonel in Patience. Reading the text “It’s dear that mediaeval art” would be unlikely to conjure up the jerky disjointed musical setting given to the words by Sullivan (Ex. 3). Here, Sullivan is more interested in character psychology than representing the meanings of words. The trio suggests the awkwardness of the military officers in their attempts to adopt medieval poses.

It is, of course, indebted to Comic Style 1, although the jerkiness in Ex. 3 is created by rhythm alone rather than in conjunction with leaps. The jerkiness of the rhythm is increased because Sullivan breaks up the melody with musical rests. He does something similar with the trio "With wily brain" in Utopia Limited. In both cases, the jerkiness alone of Comic Style 1 suffices to create humour. The Herald’s song "The Prince of Monte Carlo" in the Grand Duke, offers a fuller display of Comic Style 1 in the melodic leaps and jerky snap rhythms, followed immediately by musical rests, that occur at the words "his be-eu-ti-ful daughter" (Ex. 4), The break in mid-word is heighted by the dramatic effect of diminished seventh harmony (on the “eu” of “be-eu-ti-ful”) and is both memorable and funny.

If the snap rhythms and leaps were ironed out, it would be unlikely to raise a smile, or linger in the mind (Ex. 5).

The melodic leaps are smaller in the introduction and interludes of the trio "He who shies" in Iolanthe. The first two bars contain the "free-floating" sixth degree of the scale, which was in this period a characteristic marker of the popular style (Ex. 6), Notice, once more, how the inclusion of musical rests immediately after the snap rhythms is important to the effect (adding spikiness to jerkiness).

The opening of the Mikado’s song has the largest comic leaps of all (Ex. 7).

Here the leap is of a ninth, and the musical harmony is one that Sullivan was fond of using in Comic Style 1: the chord of the dominant ninth. It is present also in the previous musical example from Ioianthe. This harmony was more a feature of nineteenth-century "popular" style than "classical" style. Scaphio and Phantis’s duet "Let all your doubts take wing" in Utopia Limited shows Sullivan using the dominant ninth again, in dance music of the leaping style (Ex. 8). Adding to the tune’s jerkiness is an occasional stress on a note that falls on a weak beat (a technique known as syncopation).

We have already encountered Sullivan’s use of the "free-floating sixth, and here we find Sullivan making use of another feature of later nineteenth-century popular style, the “free-floating” major seventh; the F-sharp in the third and fourth bars sounds dissonantly over a tonic chord of G major.

The style suggests comedy, and Phantis dances to this tune claiming it expresses his happiness. When Scaphio dances to it, however, he insists his dance typifies unselfishness. Later, in the Act 2 trio "If you think that when banded in unity" Scaphio declares that another dance he does to the same tune means "complete indifference.” Then, as that trio draws to a close, the King adopts it as the accompaniment to his dance of “cheerfulness,” while Scaphio and Phantis employ it for their dance of “remorselessness” The various repetitions of this tune create humour because Sullivan makes no changes whatsoever to accommodate the shifting moods of the characters. They constantly ask each other to guess the meaning of their dances, but the tune is indifferent to whatever display they put on.

Comic Style 1 is usually employed economically, often being confined to introductions or interludes, but it permeates the whole of the quintet “If Saphir I choose to marry” in Patience. The introduction contains syncopation and leaps in snap hythm followed by rests, and one leap occurs over a dominant ninth (Ex. 9).

The verse melody is full of leaps, and when the five characters come together at its close, the melody clearly borrows from the bar containing the leap and dominant ninth harmony in the introductory theme (Ex. 10).

He will have to becon-ten-ted With our heart-felt sym-pa-thy!

In the accompaniment to the refrain, Sullivan piles on the comic energy with staccato notes and syncopations in every bar (Ex. 11).

Comic Style 2

Another common comic style used frequently by Sullivan is characterized by undulation, it is often an oscillation between a pair of notes, or a wobbling motion up and down across three or more notes. When other composers employ oscillation, it normally involves a single syllable, as in Purcell’s song “Sound the Trumpet" (Ex. 12).

You make the list-’ning shores re-bound

This is the well-known technique known as “word painting.” The undulation is used by Purcell to suggest the reverberation of a long, loud note on a trumpet. When Sullivan’s comic precursor Offenbach uses an undulation in the "fly duet" in Orphee aux enfers, it is also for word-painting reasons: it brings to mind the buzzing of a fly (Ex. 13).

Compare these examples to Pish-Tush who, in “Our great Mikado.” oscillates between two adjacent notes, singing a fresh word to each (Ex. 14). The amount of repetition seems inordinate; we may expect two bars of identical undulation, but not three. David Huron (2006: 285) has noted that excessive repetition in music creates a humorous effect, but here it would be mistaken to think that Sullivan is employing repetitive undulation solely as a musical joke.4 Once again, we may surmise that Sullivan is using a particular musical device to represent character psychology. Here, the use of undulation fails to flow smoothly as it does in Ex. 11 and Ex. 12, because of the need to articulate separate words. This gives it a mechanical quality that connotes narrowmindedness and intransigence.

Bunthorne in “If you’re anxious for to shine” (Patience undulates around three notes (Ex. 15). There is a mechanical obstinacy about that, too, and it suits Bunthorne’s scornful attitude: this is what you must do, he insists, if you wish to shine among the followers of the Aesthetic Movement.

If you’re anx-ious for to shine in the high aes-the-tic line

Strephon has a three-note undulation at the beginning of "The lady of my love" (Iolanthe), but it is not the same as Bunthorne’s (Ex. 16). This time it spans a larger musical interval, and perhaps suggests the giddy confusion caused by his embarrassing situation.

The la-dy of my love has caught me tal-king to a-no-ther

“I’m called little Buttercup" (HMS. Pinafore) is an example of four-note undulation (Ex. 17). Here, the undulation emphasizes the repeated pet name "Buttercup."

Phoebe also has a four-note undulation in “When maiden loves" [Yeomen of the Guard), but Sullivan shows once more that he is possessed of sufficient musical imagination not to repeat himself. Here, it spans the slightly smaller musical interval of the diminished fourth (Ex. 18). It lends this undulation a melancholic quality that suggests that Phoebe endures a monotony of unsatisfied yearning.

When Maid-en loves, she sits and sighs. She wan-ders

There is an undulation over a six-note compass in Giuseppe’s Act 2 song "Rising early in the morning" from The Gondoliers (Ex. 19). In this example, we are back to mechanical associations: he is singing about his and his brother Marco’s regular daily routine.

The biggest undulation I have found spans an octave; it is in the chorus of dragoons in Patience, "Now is not this ridiculous” (Ex. 20), The wide compass adds emphasis to their exasperation.

Undulation is the defining musical feature of the famous patter song "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" in Pirates. Sullivan shuns a predictable military style, such as that in Ex. 21.

I am the ve-ry model of a mo-dern Ma-jor-Ge-ne-ral,

Instead, he opts for an undulation, and gives the words the mechanical quality we have noticed in other examples (Ex. 22). In the present case. Sullivan is not aiming to induce laughter with a musical absurdity. He is interested, once more in representing character psychology: this is not an intimidating military man but, rather, a superficial character who has merely learned a large number of facts.

I am the ve-ry model of a mo-dern Ma-jor-Ge-ne-ral,

The philosopher Henri Bergson, who wrote a lengthy essay on laughter, argued that mechanical repetition is often a source of humour (Bergson 2005/1911). The use of jerky rhythms in Comic Style 1 also suggests the mechanical at times, an example being the "medieval" trio in Patience., referred to earlier, Jt would be wrong, however, to think that Sullivan falls into the error of composing mechanically predictable or tedious music. In the course of the solo section of the Major-General’s verse, Sullivan employs six different undulating pairs of notes, and when the chorus interrupts to repeat the soloist’s words Sullivan uses three different undulating groups of three notes. At the end of each stanza, the undulation is broadened to cover a five-note span ("In short, in matters vegetable, etc.").

Undulating notes do not always lie immediately next to one another. Undulations between two notes a third apart are not uncommon. Examples are "We've been thrown over” (Patience, finale of Act 1), "Rapture, rapture!" (the duet for Dame Carruthers and Sergeant Meryll in Yeomen of the Guard), and "Giving him the very best" (the refrain of the Duchess’s song in Gondoliers), In Yeomen of the GuardGondoliers. There, the same device is good humoured, but in Yeomen the effect Ls one of irony. It makes the quartet strangely affecting; amid the "doing and undoing" it is the jester who is undone. For Jack Point, pleasure goes and sorrow tarries, it could be argued that Sullivan makes another ironic use of this particular undulation, in "When off the loser’s popp'd1' in the Notary’s song "About a century since" in The Grand Duke.

There are many variants and developments of the undulating style, and The Gondoliers furnishes some interesting examples, Sullivan clearly did not wish to repeat himself in a predictable manner in this comic opera, having undoubtedly been stung by accusations from various high-minded critics that he had betrayed his musical talent. (See Lawrence 1899: 125; and Jacobs 1984; 401-402)5 In The Gondoliers, we find a mixture of undulations and leaps, as in "Kind sir, you cannot have the heart" {the opening of the finale of Act 1). An undulating pair or group of notes can drop or rise in pitch, as in Tessa and Gianetta’s ‘After sailing to this island" (Act 2, No. 4). There can be repeated notes within the undulating group, as in the Duke’s "Small titles and orders" in Act 2.

In the comic operas of the 1880s, it is common to find a mixture of Comic Style 1 and Comic Style 2. In Patience, Jane and Bunthorne’s duet "So go to him" has a Comic Style 1 introduction, then the verse begins with Comic Style 2, but we soon find the characters alternating the two styles. When we came to the exclamations "booh" and "bah" the humour is slightly different: these shouts are jerkily comic, certainly, but they also convey the irritation the characters feel. In Princess Ida, Gamas Act 3 song "Whene'er I spoke" also has a Comic Style 1 introduction, and features associated with that style persist in the accompaniment to the verse, although the verse has a melody influenced by Comic Style 2. When the distance between two notes of an undulation is greater than the interval of a third, it is difficult to know whether to describe the musical motion as undulating or as leaping. A novel amalgamation of Sullivan’s leaping and undulating comic gestures is present, for example, in "From morn to afternoon" in the Act 1 finale of Yeomen of the Guard. It is an oscillation between a pair of notes a fourth apart, that falls in pitch bar by bar.

Other Comic Techniques in the Music of Sullivan

Decorated initial I

would not want to give the impression by focusing on the frequent employment of these two comic styles that I am anywhere near exhausting the topic of Sullivan’s musical humour. I must stress that I have been discussing the most typical features of Sullivan’s comic technique, not its sole features. Sir Joseph Porter’s "When 1 was a lad" [Pinafore), for instance, shows that Sullivan does not always rely on Comic Style 1 and Comic Style 2 to be funny. There are many other humorous resources at his disposal, and my problem is finding the space to deal with them. The illustrations that follow, therefore, are more aptly described as indicative than adequate.

Sullivan rarely quotes other music directly, but sometimes he does so to comic effect: “Rule, Britannia!” and “Garryowen” in Utopia Limited, for example, or the snatch of a Bach organ fugue played by clarinet and bassoon when the Mikado mentions that composer in his Act 2 song.)6 There are, however, many examples of musical parody to be found in these comic operas. Some are of a general kind, for example, those making fun of features found in serious opera. Some are of a more specific nature. The source of the parody “A nice dilemma” in Trial by Jury may not be readily identified by an audience today, but it was recognizable to many at the premiere. Indeed, the Times referred to the music it parodies as being from “one of the most renowned finales of modern Italian opera” without feeling any need to mention Bellini’s La sonnambula by name (quoted in Lawrence 1899:106)7 I have written on musical parody in Sullivan’s music elsewhere (Scott 2008: 100-108; Scott 2010; 269-77), but I am focusing here on Sullivan’s comic techniques as they relate to his own musical style.

There is one parody I want to mention, however, because it is all we have, musically, to help us imagine the sound of the Moore and Burgess blackface minstrels at the smaller St James’s Hall in nineteenth-century London. It is “Society has quite forsaken” in Utopia Limited. There are only four chords in the whole of this song, which is harmonically, therefore, more reminiscent of early minstrelsy of the Stephen Foster kind. Nevertheless, Sullivan provides an imitation of the sound of the minstrel band, with its banjos and tambourines. Thomas Dunhill (1928: 207), who was old enough to know what the minstrels sounded like in reality, remarks that this parody is “extremely funny.” It would seem that time has undoubtedly stolen much of the humour of this piece.

“A wand’ring minstrel I” in Mikado shows Sullivan’s ability to compose in a variety of styles. In this song, he captures the sentimental ballad style, the patriotic style, and the sailor’s ditty in a musical illustration of Nanki-Poo’s ability range through every passion, tuning his “supple song” to the mood of his audience, Sullivan demonstrated that his skill didn’t stop here, and adopted a number of national styles in his operatic music. The opening chorus of Gondoliers, for instance, establishes the location with an Italianate style: a flowing melody with often more than one-note to a syllable and sweet harmonies in parallel sixths. Perhaps there’s a touch of the British tar in Antonio’s "For the merriest fellows are we," but the Italian style continues (together with Italian lyrics) when Marco and Giuseppe (the gondoliers of the title) enter. There is no denying that stylistic mimicry adds to the humour of Sullivan’s music. It is never lazy imitation, relying on musical stereotypes and cliches: for example, he must have studied Highland bagpipe grace notes carefully in order to use them idiomatically in McCrankie’s song in Haddon Had. Remarkably, this song has a drone accompaniment throughout, with no accompanying chords, and the melody’s compass is completely within the bagpipe’s range. Moreover, the melody fits the Highland bagpipe scale and could, in fact, be accompanied on that instrument.8 I know of no other nineteenth-century opera or concert composer who demonstrated a similar concern for accuracy in writing imitation bagpipe music. When presented with lyrics, Sullivan’s compositional technique relied first of all on finding the most suitable rhythm. His manuscript sketch of the famous trio “Three little maids” (Mikado) allows us to see some of his working methods.9 We find, at first, a basic rhythm using just two different notes that has dearly been constructed as a vehicle for the words “Three little maids from school are we / Pert as a schoolgirl well can be” (Ex. 23, to which I have added words for illustrative purposes).

Three lit-tle maidsfrom school are we. Pert as a school-girl well can be.

That could easily have become the setting given in Ex. 24 (accompanied with a predictable tonic harmony for the first bar and dominant for the second.

Three lit-tle maidsfrom school are we, Pert as a school-girl well can be.

However, Sullivan pushes forward the start of the tune by half a bar, and accompanies it with the less predictable dominant to tonic harmonies [Ex. 25),

Three lit-tle maidsfrom school are we, Pert as a school-girl well can be.

It is this kind of subtle musical thinking that prompts me to take issue with the theatre critic B.W Findon, who believed Sullivan’s music was characterized by "beautiful spontaneity" (quoted in Lawrence 1B99; 188-326, at 292). Behind that apparent spontaneity lay a lot of hard work.

The combination of two distinctive themes is another musical technique that does comes about spontaneously, yet it is found frequently in the comic operas.10 This device appears in the early operas as well as the later ones: it is found, for instance, in the chorus of sailors and women in Pinafore [Act 1, No. 7), and is employed to striking effect in Pirates, in “When the foeman bares his steel.” There must have been discussion and planning with Gilbert, so it is difficult to know whose thoughts came first. I therefore propose to take a single, early example, already fully worked out in the 1877 version of The Sorcerer, that seems to have been conceived solely by Sullivan (although I admit to relying on conjecture rather than evidence). There is no suggestion in the libretto that there will be any combination of two distinctly characterized themes in the duet “Welcome, joy” sung by Sir Marmaduke and Lady Sangazure. The lyrics imply that first one character will sing, and then the other. In fact, the verse structure for Lady Sangazure is an exact parallel of that provided For Sir Marmaduke.

SIR M. (with stately courtesy

Welcome joy, adieu to sadness!
As Aurora gilds the day.
So those eyes, twin orbs of gladness,
Chase the clouds of care away.
Irresistible incentive
Bids me humbly kiss your hand;
I’m your service most attentive—
Most attentive to command!

(Aside with frantic vehemence)
Wild with adoration!
Mad with fascination!
To indulge my lamentation
No occasion do I miss!
Goaded to distraction By maddening inaction,
I find some satisfaction
In apostophe like this:
“Sangazure immortal,
“Sangazure divine,
“Welcome to my portal,
“Angel, oh be mine!”

(Aloud with much ceremony)
Irresistible incentive
Bids me humbly kiss your hand;
I’m your servant most attentive—
Most attentive to command!

Sir, I thank you most politely
For your grateful courtesee;
Compliment more true and knightly
Never yet was paid to me!
Chivalry is an ingredient
Sadly lacking in our land —
Sir, I am your most obedient,
Most obedient to command!

(Aside and with great vehemence]
Wild with adoration!
Mad with fascination!
To indulge my lamentation
No occasion do I miss!
Goaded to distraction
By maddening inaction, I find some satisfaction
in apostophe like this:
“Marmaduke immortal
“Marmaduke divine,
“Take me to thy portal,
“Loved one, oh be mine!”

[Aloud with much ceremony]
Chivalry is an ingredient
Sadly lacking In uur Land;
Sir, I am your most obedient, Sir,
I am your most obedient,
Most obedient to command!
Most obedient to command!

The fact that Sullivan returns to the decorous gavotte rhythm for the final section of the duet makes it even funnier, as each character tries to control their libido without success. The dream duet from Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène helped Freud (1976/1953: 628-9) to clarify his theory of secondary revision in dreams; the Marmaduke and Sangazure duet, had Freud known it, might have performed a similar service regarding his theory of sexual repression.

In order for a combination of themes to have dramatic effect, there needs to be something that distinctly characterizes each theme and, moreover, that “something” must also characterize the dramatis personae. The obvious solution is to set a patter-like theme in short note values against a spun out lyrical melody. Sullivan always tries to avoid the obvious, however, and his musical inspiration in employing this technique did not dwindle in later years; an inventive example occurs in the opening chorus of Puritans in Act 3 of Haddon Hall (1892).

Humour can be obtained from a striking contrast between words and music, as in “With cat-like tread” in Pirates.11 It is difficult to know who decided to have the Pirates enter to fortissimo accompaniment, singing loudly about their capacity for remaining silent and undetectable. The idea would have come from Offenbach’s Les Brigands, in which the carabinieri make so much noise with their heavy boots that they are never able to sneak up on the brigands and capture them. Another example of this kind of contrast occurs in Iolanthe, when the women’s chorus sings “We are dainty little fairies.” Sullivan provides the dainty fairies with loud, heavy, low-pitched chords, rather than soft, light, high-pitched chords that convention would have dictated. On the opening night, the critic of The Times was unimpressed, complaining that there was “nothing of the brightness and lightness that Weber or Mendelssohn would have given to such a scene,” and that Sullivan’s musical opportunity had been sacrificed to Gilbert’s humour.12 It is strange that the critic discovers no imagination in Sullivan’s musical humour. The fairies do sing a staccato melody of the kind that would normally connote daintiness. What they are singing, therefore, is perfectly suited to the words—it’s just that the orchestra has other ideas. Sullivan shows in the very next number, the Queen’s “Invocation” that he is quite capable of writing fairy music of the Mendelssohnian type if he wishes.

Sullivan has fun with characters making musical interruptions. An early example is found in Trial by Jury. The chorus sings: “He’ll tell us how he came to be a fudge.” The Judge asks the chorus to let him speak, and the chorus echoes: “Let him speak.” The libretto contains nothing more before the Judge’s song begins, but Sullivan decides to have the chorus sing once more loudly “He’ll tell us how he came to be a judge.” It seems that the humorous device of not letting the Judge speak is Sullivan’s idea. Sir Joseph’s entrance with his family in H.M.S, Pinafore is example of music interruption.


I am the monarch of the sea.
The ruler of the Queen’s Navce,
Whose praise Great Britain loudly chants.


We are his sisters, and his cousins and his aunts!

The Duke of Plaza-Toro’s entrance “From the sunny Spanish shore” [Gondoliers) is an imaginative reworking of this scene. Sullivan reworks it again in Utopia Limited, when Captain Fitz-battleaxe and four troopers interrupt Princess Zara’s song with the exclamation.: "And we are the escort, First Life Guards!" There are also resemblances between these scenes and the Mikado’s entrance with his daughter-in-law elect.

Related in some ways to interruptions are the echoing voice effects. Offenbach is the source of this device, but it is usually the kind of echo that changes the subject of the verb. In the song “Ma premiere femme est morte” in Offenbach’s Barbe-bleu (1866), for example, the soloist sings, “Jc suis Barbe-bleu,” and the chorus sings in confirmation, “II est Barbe-bleu!” as found in the Pirate King’s song. Sullivan employs this type of echo in, for example, the Pirate King’s song in The Pirates of Penzance. The funniest use that Sullivan makes of this device is found in the Policeman’s song from Pirates, in which the chorus sometimes echoes half-words only; for instance, “occupied in crime” becomes “-’Pied in crime,”13 It is difficult to know whether Gilbert or Sullivan took the lead in deciding on echoed words.

As with our uncertainly about who chose particular words to echo, it is difficult to know when “excessive” repetitions of words for comic effect might have been Sullivan’s idea rather than Gilbert’s. The repetitions of “Head over heels” (Yeomen of the Guard) may well have been Sullivan’s idea. This final stanza in the libretto runs as follows:

Temptation, oh, temptation
Were we, I pray, intended
To shun, whate'er our station,
Your fascinations splendid;
Or fall, whene'er we view you,
Head over heels into you?
Temptation, oh, temptation, etc.

Instead of repeating the opening line of this stanza, as is suggested here, Sullivan has Elsie Maynard sing in long, sweeping melodic phrases “Oh, temptation” while Jack Point and Lieutenant Fairfax exchange rapid repetitions of “Head over heels.” Consider, also, the repetitions of the word “matter” in the trio “My eyes are fully open” in Ruddigore. The word appears five times when all three sing together, but Sullivan introduces many, many more repetitions — and they sometimes run on [like a drum-tap accompaniment) when one of the characters begins to sing other words. The concluding observation that this kind of rapid patter is not generally heard — and if it is it doesn’t matter — is, of course, Gilbert’s comic genius. Even so, it is easily forgotten that, when setting lyrics, it is Sullivan who is responsible for the comic timing. This does not always mean adopting a quick tempo; it often involves musical phrasing and rhythm. Consider the scene in Yeomen of the Guard in which Fairfax is first introduced to his supposed sister Phoebe; the hilarity of his surprised reaction is down to Sullivan’s faultless timing. Nevertheless, this is a subject for which there is no space available here.

Sometimes it is the orchestra that doesn’t seem to matter. The duet “Oh, listen to me, dear” sung by Julia and Lisa in The Grand Duke, is amusing because it has a flowing melodic accompaniment, but the characters sing short recitative-like phrases as if they are self-absorbed and, consequently, ignoring the orchestra. The finest example of characters ignoring each other, rather than the orchestra, is undoubtedly found in the quartet “In a contemplative fashion” (Gondoliers). Sullivan was certainly the driving force behind this, asking Gilbert for metrical contrasts in the lyrics of the characters so that he could produce an effect of growing confusion against the steady reiteration of the tranquil opening melody. Sullivan twice asked Gilbert for redrafts.14 The resulting ensemble is unique in opera.

The setting of words of excessive or exaggerated sentiment to intense, seemingly heartfelt music creates some of the most memorable effects in the comic operas. The Fairy Queen’s song in Iolanthe is both ludicrous and serious. Where is its like, except in Gilbert and Sullivan? Thomas Dunhill captures our sense of surprise in listening to this song: “the really amazing thing about it is that any composer with these lyrics of Gilbert in front of him could have translated their absurdities into an everlasting expression of loving wonder” (Dunhill 1928:107). Whether songs such as “Tit-Willow” (Mikado), “Oh Foolish Fay” (Iolanthe) and “A tenor all singers above” (Utopia Limited) can be described as humorous, teetering as they do between comedy and sadness, I don’t know. There is a related difficulty with Sir Roderic’s “When the night wind howls” in Ruddigore. (See Scott 2010: 276.) Gilbert did not find this ghost music amusing, and, of course, it is not: what we have here is a silly yet demonic parallel to the absurd yet serious songs of love. In a way, you might say Sullivan has composed the wrong music, but these instances are different from his having provided the wrong music for the Pirates’ chorus “With cat-like tread”

I conclude with the recommendation that we should remember that some of the most delightful moments in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas come from the seemingly perfect match of amusing words and humorous music. The test and music together create hilarity greater than that produced by simply adding together the humorous content they contain individually. Two splendid examples are the trios from Mikado, “Three little maids” (for female voices) and “To sit in solemn silence” (for male voices). But there are many other examples. Certainly, anyone listening yet another trio, “A British tar” in Pinafore, would have to admit that it is not the words alone that make it funny, but also the musical setting. Yet, in this case the humour is conveyed via the learned contrapuntal style — evidence, if any is needed, that Sullivan is an exceptional musical humourist.


Last modified 23 February 2017