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The problem of Gilbert and Sullivan performance materials

Most people would assume that, since Gilbert and Sullivan have been so widely renowned for so many years, the availability of satisfactory performance materials for their works would be a given. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The operas were produced at a time when the idea of copyright protection was only just beginning, and so the performance materials were jealously guarded by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Over time, performance traditions gradually evolved, and by the time the operas were given new editions in the late 1920s, Sullivan had been dead for 25 years, and Gilbert for 15.

New vocal scores, libretti, and sets of band parts were commissioned, but without author input, the resulting materials naturally reflected then current performance practice, and bore significantly less relation to Gilbert and Sullivan’s intentions than the original materials. Those originals were already flawed in the way of such things, but the new materials were a good deal more so. Printed full scores were a rarity, and with conductors working from cued vocal scores there was no easy way to check the accuracy of the band parts.

Wind forward to today, and little has changed, except that performance traditions have evolved still further, and the band parts have gradually become more corrupted as they’ve been reprinted. For most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the only parts available are still the D’Oyly Carte ones, either direct from the company library, or via reprinted editions such as Kalmus. The musical establishment has tended to be somewhat ‘snooty’ about Gilbert and Sullivan, and so in academic circles there has been a reluctance to address the issue.

That is gradually changing, with Broude Brothers in the United States embarking on a complete critical edition in the early 1990s, but so slowly that to date only Trial by Jury and HMS Pinafore have appeared. In 2000, OUP added a critical edition of Ruddigore edited by David Russell Hulme to the mix, and Dover has helped with reasonable full scores (but not parts) of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance. Now, OUP has added perhaps the finest of all the G&S collaborations with the publication of The Yeomen of the Guard.

In addition to returning as far as possible to the material as conceived by the authors, the preparation of a critical edition provides an opportunity to examine contemporary material which was cut from or rewritten for the original production. In the case of Yeomen, there are three complete songs in these categories, as well as various fragments.

  • Wilfred’s ‘When jealous torments rack my soul’ is a fabulous and highly unusual song. Gilbert wanted to cut it because he was worried about a supposedly comic work beginning with two solo numbers which were serious in tone, and Sullivan finally agreed 13 days prior to the opening night. Gilbert’s concerns might well have been justified in 1888, but since it plays an important musical role in the continuity of the whole, it is well worth including today.
  • Meryll’s ‘A laughing boy but yesterday’ is in a very different category from Wilfred’s song, because, far from being an integral part of the original plan, it was a relatively late addition. A cue-line was required (‘He’s a brave fellow, and bravest among brave fellows, and yet it seems but yesterday that he robbed the Lieutenant’s orchard’), which one can see hand-written into the prompt-book by Gilbert. It was then cut because Gilbert felt it was irrelevant, which is true, but it is a good song if not in the same league as Wilfred’s.
  • The original version of Is life a boon? is actually a rather wonderful song. It is a lot more florid than the final version, and has a very different second verse in the relative minor which necessitates an extra closing section to unite the verses/keys. An analysis of the lyric structure shows why this was a difficult song to set, and perhaps explains why Gilbert didn’t like Sullivan’s initial attempts.

These are just three examples of extra material which one might or might not wish to incorporate, but the central point remains that with the publication of this new critical edition of Yeomen, one more Gilbert and Sullivan work need no longer rely on the substandard materials which have been the only option for the past century. The new edition also offers a concert version which retains all the music but replaces the dialogue with a brief narration, and a reduced orchestration which allows for performances with as few as nine instrumentalists.

Featured image credit: Cover design from Yeomen of the Guard Vocal Score. (C) Oxford University Press. Do not reproduce without permission.

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