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Rehabilitating the sacred side of Arthur Sullivan, Britain’s most performed composer

November 2018 saw the release of the first ever professional recording of Arthur Sullivan’s oratorio, The Light of The World, based on Biblical texts and focused on the life and teaching of Jesus. Reviewers focused as much on the piece as on the performance. The critical reaction to this work, which had been largely ignored and rarely performed for over 140 years, was extraordinary. Classical music magazines and websites hailed a revelatory discovery, with music of an engaging freshness and directness. What particularly impressed critics was the handling of the character of Jesus. Radically, Sullivan dispensed with the usual narrator and made Jesus a real character who interacted with others. There was general agreement among those reviewing the recording that this treatment of Jesus as a human figure with emotions gave The Light of the World a real spiritual depth contrasting with the pious sentimentality of most Victorian oratorios.

These tributes represent an overdue acknowledgment of the talents of a very different figure from the familiar master of the patter songs, rumpty-tumpty choruses and light, lilting waltzes of the Savoy operas. They are part of a welcome rehabilitation and appreciation of Sullivan’s sacred music and of the spiritual sensitivity as well as the artistic competence and daring innovation that underlay it. After more than a century of almost total neglect, this significant part of his overall output is coming to be appreciated not just in its own right but also in terms of its influence on Edward Elgar and other twentieth-century British composers.

The Savoy operas will always remain Sullivan’s most enduring legacy. Yet they are not what he wanted to be remembered for. In a newspaper interview during a visit to the United States in 1885, he said: “My sacred music is that on which I base my reputation as a composer. These works are the offspring of my liveliest fancy, the children of my greatest strength, the products of my most earnest thought and most incessant toil.” 

Sullivan was schooled in the Christian faith and the world of Anglican church music. As a young boy he attended the parish church where his father had responsibility for the music. Between the ages of 12 and 15 he sang as a chorister in the Chapel Royal, steeping himself in the Anglican choral tradition of hymns, anthems, and plainchant. While making his way as a composer and conductor, he served as organist in two London churches. His closest friends were church musicians and he developed a particularly intimate relationship with George Grove, one of the leading amateur Biblical scholars of the Victorian age.

Church music was Sullivan’s most abiding love. His first and last compositions were settings of a Biblical and a liturgical text, respectively. At the age of eight, he wrote an anthem setting the opening verses of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon.” At the age of 58, when his strength was ebbing fast, he wrote a Te Deum to celebrate the end of the Boer War, devoting himself to this sacred piece to the detriment of an operetta, which remained unfinished at his death. In the fifty years between these two compositions, he produced a formidable corpus of sacred music encompassing two Biblically based oratorios, The Prodigal Son and The Light of the World; a sacred musical drama, The Martyr of Antioch; a sacred cantata, The Golden Legend; three Te Deums; twenty-six sacred part songs and ballads; nineteen anthems; and over sixty original hymn tunes, including ST GERTRUDE for “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and NOEL for  “It came upon the midnight clear” is universally sung in Britain. Several of these religious works became as well-known and popular with his contemporaries as his comic operas. His sacred ballad “The Lost Chord” was the best-selling song of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. For more than two decades, The Golden Legend was the second most performed choral work in the United Kingdom after Handel’s Messiah.

The almost complete disappearance of Sullivan’s serious music, and particularly of his religious compositions, from the repertoire throughout the twentieth century was partly due to the general reaction against Victorian taste and values but it was also the consequence of a sustained campaign by music critics and commentators. During his lifetime, Sullivan faced considerable criticism for devoting too much of his time and talent to lightweight theatrical pieces and not fulfilling his youthful potential as a composer of serious and sacred works on a par with Brahms. In the twentieth century, while his comic operas won many accolades and continued to be performed, criticism shifted to his sacred and church music which was denigrated for being dull, affected, insincere, vulgarly populist, and over-sentimental.

Underlying these criticisms of Sullivan’s religious music was a widely shared view that he was not himself a person of any great faith or spiritual depth. This has been the consensus among his recent biographers, in marked contrast to the strong emphasis on his religious impulses and sensitivity in the early biographies written during his lifetime by those who knew him. Those who have contributed to the recent rehabilitation of his serious music have continued to downplay his religious commitment and his sacred works.

Sullivan was certainly no saint or ascetic, but rather a bon viveur who lived life to the full. He did not often write or talk about spiritual or theological matters. But there is clear evidence from his diaries and letters, which has been ignored or overlooked by his more recent biographers, that he had a consistent and simple Christian faith, which was shaped in a liberal Broad Church direction by his close friendship with George Grove. He felt that faith was best expressed in practical charity and in the exercise of generosity and forbearance. He emphasized the theological themes of forgiveness and assurance in the texts that he chose to set and the way that he set them. He remained loyal to the church in which he had been nurtured, and retained a lifelong affection for the Anglican choral tradition.

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