King Arthur


Arthur Sullivan's Incidental Music

By Selwyn Tillett

(Published with kind permission of the author and the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. This article was first published in “King Arthur - A Booklet to celebrate the centenary of the first production 12 January 1895”, edited by David Eden, SASS)

[Auf Anfrage des Schauspielers Henry Irving stellte Arthur Sullivan 1895 die Bühnenmusik zu dem Drama “King Arthur” von Comyns Carr zusammen. Eine geplante Oper, die aus heutiger Sicht eine willkommene Ergänzung zu “Ivanhoe” dargestellt hätte, konnte er trotz eines ausgearbeiteten Librettos nicht weiter verfolgen.
Der folgende Beitrag von Selwyn Tillett befasst sich mit mit der Gestaltung der Bühnenmusik und wird ergänzt durch Wilfred Bendalls Einleitung, die er 1903 seiner Edition der Musik voranstellte.]

Szenenaufbau des Dramas

Wilfried Bandall's Prefac (1903)

Text of the drama by Comyns Carr (1895)

recording of Sullivan's music:

King Arthur - Incidental Music

(& Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor)

MARCO POLO 8.223635

Sullivan toyed with the idea of an opera on the Arthurian legend for many years. but always abandoned the project. Similarly, actors and critics frequently opined that Henry Irving should mount an Arthurian play at his own Lyceum Theatre, with star parts for himself and Ellen Terry as Arthur and Guinevere. The version by J. Coniyns Carr produced there on 12 January 1895 (closing 3 May) was for both men only the partial achievement of an ambition; partial for Sullivan, whose dream was less than half fulfilled, and partial for Irving, who found that the play's real interest lay in the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot (Forbes Robertson).


Critical opinion. having awaited Irving's Arthur for so long. was deeply divided. In a perceptive but partisan review of the opening night. Clement Scott offered a very plausible reason for this:

At last Henry Irving is to be the 'half-divine' ruler and founder of the Table Round; at last Ellen Terry is to be the Queen Guinevere we have pictured in our imaginations these countless years! . . . Everyone known and unknown had a dreamy, undetermined view of how "King Arthur" ought to be done. The poets, the sentimentalists, and the aesthetes pestered poor Mr Irving with their ideas; some would have been too medieval, some too diffuse, some demanded Vivien, others insisted on Elaine, all naturally clamoured for poetical and pictorial effect. The disciples of Tennyson clung with desperation to the poem of Guinevere as the one thing essential . . . but these things were not to be. Mr Comyns Carr cut the Gordian knot; lie had to make a play . . . We must not cry our eyes out because here and there modernity supplants medievalism, and imagination is sacrificed for theatrical effect. We come to the theatre with our minds steeped in the Tennysonian version of the Arthurian legend . . . and the disappointment that we do not get the King Arthur of Tennyson or the Queen Guinevere of Tennyson, that we do not see the pictures that have been presented to our minds for a lifetime, is inevitable.

Daily Telegraph 14 January 1895

The ethos of the play was wrong from the outset; everyone came away with his ideal unrealised. The costumes, described in the same review as 'unromantic, unheroic, and unideal', bespoke only Burne-Jones' greater experience in the studio than on the stage. A properly dramatic treatment of the undoubtedly dramatic story, couched to suitably heightened verse* might yet have redeemed Carr*s work In the eyes of the critics; but the third truth to be faced was that he had produced a gorgeous spectacle at the expense of any real dramatic interest in the characters on show. Even those determined to praise his technique for its- restraint chose their words carefully:

A betrayed and deluded husband, whatever his aimiable and respectable qualities may be, is very apt to cut a pitiable figure in fiction. ... To make such a man what is called 'sympathetic' is extremely difficult. It can only be done by insisting on his patriotism, his force of character, his physical courage. And here we think Mr Carr has done better than Tennyson. . . His verse is seldom careless in its workmanship, and frequently expressive, intelligent, and elevated.

The Era 19 January 1895

Many of the audience attended only to see their idol incarnate as their ideal; but after Carr's unsurprising concentration on the relationship of Guinevere and Lancelot: Mr Irving in his impersonation of the King performed an act of rare artistic sacrifice. The older Arthur is made, the more formal, abstracted and cold he appears, the less sympathy is with him, the more with Lancelot. But Mr living considered not his own part, but the interests of the play as a whole; and he bravely made Arthur elderly, staid, and icily noble - in short, the most aggravating husband possible for a woman of Guinevere's temperament. . . It was Charlemagne with a mixture of Menelaus.

The Era 19 January 1895

Those of the press who were impatient with such mealy-mouthed apologies for a misguided experiment said so openly. The Pall Mall Gazette in particular claimed to have seen through the whole thing:

... it must be firmly recorded that whatever Mr Carr's conception of drama may be, he has not come within measurable distance of constructing one. In development and construction the play is about the level of a precocious child's powers of composition; in characterisation it is scarcely better. There are, in fact, no characters at all... at such moments of crisis each one lifts up his voice to generalise the situation for the benefit of those who are listening. . . . Take the blank verse for a beginning. It is distinguished by the manner of Shakespeare; it contains lofty moralities and thunderous adjectives, and it rolls along with the ease and facility of a billiard ball. It is unfortunate that its obscurity is not compensated by intelligence. . . . If Mr Carr would sedulously study Milton and the blank verse of, say, Keats, and produce himself in occasional blank verse poems of not more than fifty lines, he may possibly write something not unworthy of perusal; but even though he said nothing at all at the end of that period he would have gained much.


Mr Irving was something more beautiful and picturesque than ever; he had no opportunity, certainly, for acting. . . . Scarcely less noble in appearance was Mr Forbes Robertson, whose most beautiful voice was deplorably wasted. . . . Miss Ellen Terry declaimed her blank verse with the emphasis of a metronome, and appropriate gestures.

Pall Mall Gazette 14 January 1895

Even the normally polite Times, after a review of two whole columns concluded that the pieces was no more than:

... an agreeable medley of passion, sin, expiation, chivalrous sentiment, blank verse, music, magic, and mysticism, the whole belonging to that indefinite period when there was no glass in the windows.

The Times 14 January 1895

If Carr's text were truly so inefficient as such reviews might indicate, it is hardly likely that a man of Sullivan's theatrical experience would risk employing him to produce a complete libretto for his long-delayed Arthurian opera. Far more probably Sullivan had seen in the interest developed between Lancelot and Guinevere promising material on which to base the kind of romantic drama that characterises much of his output in the 1890s. However In the present work. where none of that interest is musically expressed, little of Sullivan's share was thought worthy of detailed comment; in the long Times review quoted above his name does not even appear. One might almost presume a kind of conspiracy of silence deliberately surrounding his rather insubstantial new contributions to a perplexing work (The Prologue and three acts were prefaced by extracts from the romantic works of his youth thirty years and more before - the Marmion overture (1867), the Irish Symphony (1866), and the music to The Tempest (1861-2)). The Era, while listing all the extracts from his earlier pieces, said of the new music only that it was 'skilful and appropriate'


The music of King Arthur is to a considerable extent choral, which is rather a novelty in the way of incidental music for a drama. The dreamy effect of the subdued female chorus in the scene of the Magic Mere is charming, and the entire opening will remind lovers of Wagner of the Rheingold and the Rhine daughters.


The same unhappy comparison was made by the Pall Mall Gazette, which, if it had been studiously nasty to Carr, was now brutally fair to Sullivan:

Sir Arthur Sullivan's incidental music unfortunately sympathises rather with Mr Carr's actual literary work than with the Tennysonian tradition. We have so much kindness for Sullivan's music of later days that we are fain to suppose that he has drenched himself with the spirit of the author of this particular play. His music has brightness, but its rhythm is far too marked and emphatic. It was unfortunate, for a beginning, that his subject was identical to some extent with Wagner's greatest work; and even the distant chorus of knights had reminiscences, so far as the subject was concerned, with Tannhäuser. It was, therefore, only natural that Sullivan's determined desire to follow his own lighter operatic bent, and Mr Carr's triviality of emotion, should have made his music seem, in the circumstances, somewhat uninteresting, and in itself trivial . . . though we are willing to admit that this musician is, in some respects, an exquisite writer of humorous opera, he is, for serious incidental music, no better fitted in his personal art than he was fitted for the composition of an opera to the libretto of such a work as Ivanhoe. We admire his genius none the less for it; we do but choose to define certain limitations.

It was only after Sullivan's death that his secretary, Wilfred Bendall, to whom the score of King Arthur had been bequeathed, determined to recapture so much as was possible by preparing the work for publication. His immediate problem was to decide how much could be salvaged in an intelligible form. Sullivan had been required to supply only rarely a continuous flow of musical ideas; much of the score consisted of a mixture of orchestral melodrama, leitmotiv, and short phrase repeatable ad lib to allow a line to be delivered with special point or an actor to get off the set in time. It was more like the constant undercurrent that would accompany a film of TV drama, and for the same reason would be Impossible and pointless to perform alone in concert.

Including the substantial extracts from earlier works there were in all 38 separately numbered items, whose numbering is perverse and whose exact intended moment of performance is not often immediately certain. However the most extended of these items were choruses on or off stage at points of special interest. Whenever a reprise of such a piece was called for, whether of the whole piece or of a mere handful of bars, and whether following the main statement of the piece immediately or several scenes later, each reprise was dignified with its own separate number, even though the actual musical text of the reprise might consist of no more than a written instruction to copy out specific bars of the original statement. Reference numbers or letters, in accordance with Sullivan's usual practice, were then added to the original statement at the relevant points. Thus at least in theory, however untidy the autograph might be, the copyist's task in making orchestral parts was greatly eased.


Bendall. in turning a complex and bitty score into a suite of five choruses, took two major decisions to ease his task further. Many of the score's short and entirely unvocal passages were ignored altogether, while the original statements and reprises of major choruses were rationalised by excision and compression. What now appears as a distinct number in the suite is thus in effect an abridgement of all that occurred on stage using that musical material. Bendall's adaptation was published by Novello in 1903 as a vocal score of 38 pages. We repubUsh the complete score In this booklet, retaining the original page numbers. (The score is republished in “King Arthur - A Booklet to celebrate the centenary of the first production 12 January 1895”, edited by David Eden, Sir Arthur Sullivan Society.) This is taken as the basic musical text in the following discussion, and to referred to as VS. Sullivan's autograph score, now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, is referred to as MS. Sullivan himself is identified as AS, his regular copyist George Baird as GB. and Wilfred Bendall as WB.


nach oben


After a prelude consisting of the Marmion overture abridged, the Prologue displays 'the magic mere' - a wide lake with a rocky path descending to the shore. No 1 opens with 18 bars of orchestral introduction marked Andante con moto. 9/8 in B flat, scored for a band of 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp and strings (6 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass). In common with all the other pieces the metronome markings of VS are not in MS. Rehearsal letters A, B and C are transferred without alteration.

After verse 1, 'Dawn and daytime turn to night', during which the curtain rises at 'heedless of the changing year', Arthur and Merlin appear on the summit of the rocky path, and Merlin tells of the existence of Excalibur. A long orchestral interlude accompanies their dialogue, represented in VS by the later passage between letters C and D. The second verse was originally then preceded by a four-bar horn call beginning at MS letter E, these bars being marked 'cut 4 bars, GB'. Sullivan's original intention was to have verse 2 sung to a new version of the theme of verse 1, with the stress altered:

music example no. 1

All the vocal parts are written out but later struck trough, so that the words of verse 2 ('Sword no mortal ahall withstand' etc.) no longer appear in MS. The bar reference numbers replacing this passage represent a truncated form of the orchestral interlude, with the first violin part written out by GB, leading directly into verse 3, 'Warrior knight, into thy hand'. Follwing the MS accurately therefore one would expect the two interludes to be run together, whereas in VS the words of verse 2 appear directly after verse 1, set to a repeat of verse 1. It is at first unclear from the present state of MS whether the decision to abandon the original verse 2 and repeat verse 1 was made by AS In production or by WB to assembling the suite, a repeat for verse 2 is nowhere indicated, but two bars before B in MS repeat marks have been added to the score at the beginning of a new page. Coming in mid-phrase this is an impossible place to repeat from, but the marking may simply be misplaced as verse 1 begins at the identical point on the previous leaf. In direct contradiction is a note from GB at the top of the page, 'Make no repeat'.


Just before letter C an original repeat instruction has also been erased. It would appear therefore that when the original verse 2 was abandoned a decision was made to repeat the music of verse 1, but that later for some reason no doubt connected with timing on stage verse 2 was cut altogether. WB has restored the full text and returned to what was first done on stage. However, m so doing, he has also realised how much the interest of the scene would be held up in concert if both orchestral interludes were maintained; the shortened interlude, over which Merlin explains to Arthur that the sword should be his, he has omitted, while transferring the longer version from the end of verse 1 to the end of verse 2, and thus running verses 1 and 2 together. In consequence MS letter E has disappeared, and MS letter F becomes VS letter D. From the beginning of verse 3 the number is unaltered.


Arthur has previously seen a vision of the woman who is to be his destiny. The vision of Guinevere rises again at Merlin's cue 'Look upon thy fate' as No 2 begins. The first six bars of the Introduction In VS are struck through in MS, but a note above corrects 'All in, GB'. There then follow the present barse 7, 8 and 9, and a further three bars identical with bar 9. These last are struck through with the note 'cut 3 bars, G. Baird'. Thus at some time on stage the introduction under Merlin's cue was intended to be a mere three bars. VS bar 10 of the introduction, identical with bar 9. is restored by WB from those cut out by GB. The first four lines of the chorus follow as In VS, the last of them receiving rehearsal letter G and therefore following on in numeration from the previous number MS then ends verse 1 with two string chords as at the end of the piece in VS, and shows a double bar and a general pause to mark a complete stop.


Arthur now vows to find Guinevere and crown her as his queen. The turmoil that awaits them is foretold. The dialogue is punctuated with three more snatches of the chorus, each allotted its own separate number, but precisely what form they took is unclear. No 3 is written and scored almost in full as a twelve-bar abridgement of the vocal part of No 2, with a double bar and a general pause again marking the complete stop. There then follows the section from VS letter B to the end, with many bars numbered and referring back to their equivalents tn No 2, and the simple indication 'No 5 repeat No 3'. However the section Is headed 'No 4 A 5 Repeat No 3', with two cues given, and Its first six bars are struck through. The intention appears to have been to abandon this final section outright, though WB has restored it place of three tame repeats of material already heard.


Arthur takes Excalibur from the lake, to aid him in his task and to win England; as he receives the sword MS No 6 begins. This is the same as the introduction to No 1, but on strings only, including solo violin apparently additional to the rest, and stops where the voices would come in. It ends with a six-bar coda repeatable ad lib if the action on stage were held up. Arthur's death is prophesied, and as the scene closes No 7 is a further repeat of the same theme to the words 'Great Pendragon's son. to thee/Here we yield Excalibur'. These eleven bars are again marked 'repeat if necessary', and as mere repeats WB ignores Nos 6 and 7 altogether.


The first act, dealing with the quest for the Holy Grail, is set in the Great Hall at Camelot, and as prefigurament of the British Empire opens suitably enough with the Imperial March. Then follows a 'Prelude', marked No 8, consisting of a solo melody Andante, 6/8 in E flat and In GB's hand. It stops in mid-phrase after 8 bars and to struck through and marked 'Out GB'. Immediately after, on a fresh page, it is repeated and continued for a total of 20 bars, the curtain marked to rise at bar 13. The page to headed 'copy from No 10', where the complete scoring to given in full. WB Ignores the passage, but its opening to given below:

music example no. 2

(Phrasing corrected from No 10)

The quest for the Grail to now discussed, to the accompaniment of No 9 on muted strings. This corresponds with the first 26 bars of VS No 3, with the omission of two bars' trumpet call at the beginning. The last twenty bars are again repeatable. As Sir Percival announces the approach of all the knights, the strings tremolo accompany the solo violin in 15 bars of the 'Rise and go forth' theme. Elaine now begs Guinevere to dissuade Lancelot from the quest, and as she departs Lancelot himself enters. No 10 writes out in full the theme already met as No 8: 'Curtain' to marked at bar 13 owing to confusion with the earlier appearance, and then scribbled out. Bars 1 to 5 axe numbered, five bars left unnumbered, and bars 11 to the end numbered 6 onwards. The harp floats an arpeggio through the last three bars; the opening of the number is marked incomprehensibly 'one harp only'. It to tempting to suggest that this number may have found its way into King Arthur from Sullivan's Macbeth music for the Lyceum, in which two harps, sometimes playing alone, were a notable feature. As access to the Macbeth autograph is currently difficult this possibility cannot be clarified; in any event the whole of No 10 was ignored by WB in constructing his Grail scene.

During the scene which now ensues between Guinevere and Lancelot two verses of the knights' hymn are heard offstage; these are marked 'Nos 11 & 12 behind the scenes, orchestra tacet, Harmonium'. Finally the trumpet sounds for two bars and 'The Chaunt of the Grail' proper begins. The orchestra to augmented with two comets, three trombones and timpani, and the theme to marked 'alla marcia' for the first time. As Arthur, his knights and a procession of priests and boy choristers enters, No 13 commences and corresponds exactly with VS No 3 as far as the seventh bar of letter K, then adds the last five bars of VS and ceases. MS letters A - E appear in VS as letters F - K.

The last bar of No 13 marked both 'Segue No 13 1/2' and 'Segue 9'; turning back to No 9 we find 'and No 13 1/2' scrawled faintly after the original heading. This is the purely instrumental version, and continues under dialogue while tension builds as Guinevere wavers between love for Lancelot and duty to Arthur. It leads to a brief orchestral melodrama of 11 bars (Nos 14 and 14 1/2) as she finally resolves to ask Lancelot to stay behind:

music example no. 3

After this we read 'For No 15 see back of 13', but turning over the page a frame to act out for 24 numbered bars of No 13, of which bars 11 to 19 are repeatable. The men's vocal line is given for ten bars, after which the higher voices replace it, and the first violin part is given throughout. The passage corresponds with the eight bars before letter L of VS No 8, followed immediately by bars 9 to 16 of letter M and the first half of bar 17, completed by the last 5 1/2 bars of VS. The last 1 1/2 bars are then struck through. the first 10 similarly, and the whole piece marked 'Cut - refer to No 13. No 15 - go back'. Unfortunately on reference back to No 13 there to nothing to indicate either a point to begin from or a point at which to stop. The indication to return to No 13 however would suggest the need for a longer chorus on which to end the Act than to given either by the original No 15 or by its repeatable second half. WB has achieved this in VS by a simple repetition of the entire vocal part of No 13, with the new words from No 15, and postponing the the five-bar coda to the end of the piece. Whether or not this took place on stage it does provide a more balanced chorus, takes due note of the continual repeats of the material throughout the scene, and ignores the musically unrelated and fragmentary Nos 14 and 14 1/2

The second act was Introduced by a section from the music to The Tempest, after which the curtain was to rioe on the slope of a hill in springtime studded with bushes of whitethorn. A company of maidens, garlanded with white may, descend the slope, followed by Guinevere and her ladies. As they do so No 16, the May Song, commences. This appears in VS as No 4, where it is reproduced exactly as far as the third bar of page 30 (24th bar of letter P). MS then continues immediately as from letter Q to the end, with the exception of four extra bars before the chorus' last phrase and an extra orchestral chord at the end, all of which GB marks to be cut. A repeat to indicated from VS letter P to the end, and marked 'No 17 for the ladies' exit later in the scene. Some of their words are given for this last fragment. There to thus no trace in MS for the lines beginning 'He beneath whose sun-kissed feet' which form a complete second verse in VS, though they appear in the printed text of the play. Were they used on stage, or has WB merely transplanted them from the text to make a longer and more satisfactory chorus?


There to one brief indication in MS which suggests that a second verse repeating the musical text of the first was indeed used in production. At MS letter B (three bars before the first vocal entry) a heavy X has been marked across the frame for the voices. These three bars and the ensuing bar to which the voices enter are numbered 1-4 in the same heavy hand above the string parts, and there to a further X at the point where the voices come in. I believe that these markings together furnish not merely the indication of a repeat, but an easy guide for the conductor turning back several leaves. If so, VS No 4 is the only item in WB's suite performed exactly as it was at the Lyceum.


The scene proceeds after the departure of the ladies, and Lancelot and Guinevere are overheard by Mordred and Morgan le Fay. No 18 is a mere six bars of string melodrama, a shortened version of No 14, to underline a question of Morgan's. No 19, with which the act closes, to another occurrence of Lancelots leitmotiv, the same as No 8 and No 10. The first violin part is given, and a note below from AS suggests something of the difficulty of composing the second half of your score while the first is already in rehearsal: 'This refers to No 10 - this is slightly shorter, but I haven't got No 10, & so can't put in the reference numbers'. These have been added by another hand below, and are, as one might expect, bars 1 to 5 and so-called 6 to 15 (sec No 10 above). The whole piece is marked to three separate places by GB to be repeated as necessary. WB ignores both pieces as before. '


The third act opened with an extract from the Irtsh Symphony, before the curtain rose on a vaulted chamber, opening onto the river. Guinevere and Lancelot discover that their love is known, and Lancelot leaves as Arthur enters to tell the Queen that Elaine is dead. She has killed herself because Lancelot loves another. Elaine's body is now brought for burial, accompanied by attendants who bear a letter from her to Guinevere. MB gives as no 21 (sic) a frame for an Andante alla Marcia in B major, but writes only the cello part. After 13 bars of this, resembling the present 'Funeral March' (VS No 5) but modulating rather differently, there to a general pause marked 'wait for cue, "This set again in earth"' before the Funeral March begins in earnest with all parts given in full. The whole of this first section has then been struck through, and ignored by WB.


The present opening of VS No5 (the 'Funeral March') is now given the new No 21, after the excision, and proceeds in B major for sixteen full bars, to be repeated as neccessary as an accompaniment to the dialogue. It is marked to begin piano, becoming pianissimo and later mezzoforte at given cues, with a coda of 3 1/2 bars to round it off for the last time (3 1/2 bars before VS letter S, but still to B major). Then follows a page of written instructions to the copyist to supply a series of musical scraps underlining key points in the action. Interspersed with doodled faces of eight male members of the cast.


Guinevere faints on reading Elaine's letter; as she does so No 21A is marked as a further repeat of the final phrase of the march, but if the music had been continuous throughout the scene it is difficult to interpret this as anything but an instruction to the conductor to signal to the band that the final cadence and coda were at last on their way. The queen is carried off, leaving Arthur and Mordred alone. Mordred sows the seed of suspicion to the king's mind, and to a dialogue with Lancelot the king learns the truth. Twice during this scene the last six bars of No 6 are played, repeated thrice each time, as Nos 21B and 21C, when the king refers to his sword. Guinevere now realises that her love is lost to both, and news comes that Caerleon is under siege. Leaving the queen to Mordred's charge, Arthur departs to battle. On his last line, 'My sword is drawn; I want no scabbard now!', the stage direction instructs all the knights to raise their swords to answer as the curtain falls. For this obvious tableau AS supplies (as No 22) seven bars of fortissimo E flat major Chords (the first four almost inevitably repeatable ad lib), which, along with the other fragments, WB justifiably ignores.


The fourth act was introduced by a further extract from TheTempest, after which the scene to revealed as the queen's prison at Camelot. Here Mordred tricks her into believing that Arthur is dead, and claims her for himself. She would rather die than submit to him, and in anger he announces that she must be tried for treason against Arthur by her Implied adultery with Lancelot. The musical opportunities of such a scene would be powerful in an operatic setting (compare the similar situation between Rebecca and Brian In Ivanhoe), but in the present word not a note is heard until the confrontation is over, and then only to cover a change of scenery. No 24, for the change, consists of seventeen bars of undistinguished stormy D minor, the last fifteen, to be repeated so long as the change lasts:

music example no. 4

This again WB ignores. The fact that it is numbered 24, however, leads one to suppose an original plan either for a brief Prelude to the act (like No 8) or for some kind of musical underlining to the indesputably dramatic situation on stage.


The storm past, the scene is once again the great hall, now filled with armed knights. Mordred sentences Guinevere to death, but grants her leave to summon a champion to meet him in single combat. The two bars of trumpet call (one note) with which the champion announces himself are scribbled on the back of No 24 and graced with the Number 24A. The champion enters as Guinevere leads the knights away. Mordred insists on knowing the identity of his opponent before they fight, and he is revealed as Arthur himself. In combat Arthur is fatally wounded, and Mordred retires in triumph. Arthur summons Sir Bedevere and commands him to take Excalibur and throw it into the lake whence it came. As the sword makes its final appearance there is another complete repeat of No 6 (= No 25), and once again the drama of revelation and duel have been enacted in orchestral silence. Sir Gawaine enters and announces to the king that Mordred has encountered Lancelot, and both are dead.


Guinevere now returns to learn the identity of her luckless champion. As she sees Arthurs face, she falls in tears at his feet and the figure of Merlin arises spotlit above them. Arthur, dying, receives a vision of Camelot as it was, and Guinevere in her innocence; this is accompanied on muted strings by the theme of the May Song (No 16) transformed into a D major Andante In 6/8 (No 26). There is a pause at Arthur's death, after whiche the same key and tempo begin again (No 27) as Merlin prophesies his return and the future salvation of England. Finally the stage is left in darkness save for a vision of Arthur's body borne to the Isle of Avalon, as the music leads into the final chorus (No 28). This is represented in VS by the section on No 5 from the letter T onwards, save that the original chorus is for ladies' voices only, and for concert performance WB has made up tenor and bass from the lower orchestral parts. The difficulties of stage timing are reflected even here; there are notes in MS from GB indicating that at some point in production bars 5-12 of the chorus were cut, while at another the last 14 bars were repeated! WB has wisely left alone and the final chorus stands as AS originally intended.


The same cannot be said of the material in VS which immediately precedes it. Admittedly anyone studying VS No 5 as it stands, without knowledge of MS, would accept it as a unity; even WB's careful title 'Funeral March and Final Chorus' is calculated to deceive the hearer into thinking of it as Arthur's Funeral March. It is only when the whole work is examined that the true difficulty which faced WB becomes apparent. To retrace our steps; the major musical item in Act 3 was Elaine's funeral march (No 21), repeated as necessary. All other music was either an insignificant repeat (Nos 21 A. B. C) or an irrelevant fragment (No 22). In Act 4, with the exception of the storm episode (No24), there is only a trumpet call (No 24A) and yet a further repeat (No 25) before the connected sequence (Nos 26, 27, 28) leading the play to its conclusion. No 21 was too effective to be lost, and yet too brief to stand alone no matter how many times it might be repeated.


WB's solution is ingenious. No 21 and the final sequence are to be run together, and a way is to be found to allow a long section in D major to grow out of B major smoothly. First, note is taken of the constant repetition of No 21; it is played through twice, but by the alteration of one leading note the second time has been transposed comfortably down into G major (VS No 5 letter R). Here the original four-bar coda can be added, also in the new key (VS No 5, 4 bars before letter S).


A second problem now arises. We have had a slow and lengthy 4/4 section and are about to embark on another in the final chorus (No 28). The two connecting passages, Nos 26 and 27, share a most un-march-like 6/8 metre, and the first of them has already been transformed from 3/4. There is no way in which either can be included as it stands without completely altering the feel of the piece, only to change back again to the stately 4/4 very quickly. Taking full advantage of the feet that however altered it is still a repeat. WB loses No 26 altogether, and irons out the 6/8 of No 27 to the same slow march 4/4 - even inventing a 'L'istesso tempo' marking to emphasise it (VS No 5 letters S - T). The whole number now flows gently and easily, with no trace of the rumimation behind it.


No-one would claim that the reconstructed King Arthur is a lost masterpiece; but it is certain that if Bendall had not undertaken his work of salvage soon after Sullivan's death, no-one would have bothered since. His restoration was made with an eye both to the integrity of each chorus in concert performance and to the preservation of as many as possible of Sullivan's original intentions for performance on stage. Both aims led also to the use of as much of Carr's text as could conveniently be kept. It should be a source of great regret that Sullivan's ambition for a complete Arthurian opera was baulked, for certainly Bendall's suite os no substitute at all; but his five edited choruses at least allow us to hear many of Sullivan's ideas in a continuous and musitcally satisfying form, with their tempo and duration free from such considerations as how long Mr Irving will take to die tonight.


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In 1894 the late Sir Arthur Sullivan accepted a commission from Sir Henry Irving to compose incidental music to Mr Comyns Carr's drama of "King Arthur". The work was produced at the Lyceum Theatre, on January 12th, 1895, and proved a great artistic success. After the withdrawel of the drama it was suggested to the composer that it would be a pity to allow such beautiful music to remain unpublished and become forgotten. and that a selection might be arranged in the form of a short concert-cantata.

From quite early days, however, Sir Arthur Sullivan had been fascinated by the story of Arthur and Guinevere and had always desired to write a grand bpera on the subject - and indeed at his request the late Mr Lionel Lewin once sketched out a libretto. Sir Arthur, remaining faithful to the idea of his youth, decided to have no arrangement made of the music in question, because he still hoped some day to compose a grand opera on the subject to which some of this music would be incorporated. He so far carried out his scheme as to enter into treaty with Mr Comyns Carr for the production of a libretto founded on his drama. After the composer's death it was decided to revert to the original proposition regarding the music, and the present concert-arrangement is the result.


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Comyns Carr: KING ARTHUR

A Drama in a Prologue and four acts
premiere: London, Lyceum Theatre, January 12th 1895

Synopsis of Scenery


Scene - The Magic Mere

Act I

The Holy Grail

Scene - The Great Hall of Camelot

Act II

The Queen's Maying

Scene - The Whitethorn Wood


The Black Barge

Scene - The tower above the river at Camelot

Act IV

The Passing of Arthur

Scene 1 - The Queen's prison at Camelot

Scene 2 - The Great Hall at Camelot


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