Longfellow, Liszt and Sullivan


by Richard S. Silverman

[published with kind permission of the author; first published in The Musical Review, XXXVI (1975)]

His work now denigrated by critical opinion as trite and superficial, it is easy to forget that his contemporaries counted Longfellow amongst the greatest of poets. He was held in high esteem both in his American homeland and in Europe. Following his death, a bust of the bard of Hiawatha was placed in Westminster Abbey. Longfellow was the first American to be so honoured.


Longfellow's poetry inspired several large-scale musical compositions. Some were significant works in their day, but none has stood well the test of time— if inclusion in today's standard repertoire is the criterion by which musical quality should be judged. The lamentably short-lived Anglo-African composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), composed a trilogy of symphonic pieces based upon Longfellow's Hiawatha. This music was much admired by Sir Arthur Sullivan who, toward the end of his life, was an enthusiastic supporter of Coleridge-Taylor.


Many years before, Sullivan had also composed a large-scale work derived from a Longfellow poem. In this instance, the poem is not well known today, as is Hiawatha. Sullivan's dramatic cantata was based upon The Golden Legend, which is the second part of a trilogy of poems entitled Christus: A Mystery. This poetry, though obscure today, was apparently well known in the second half of the nineteenth century, for Sullivan's was not the only cantata inspired by The Golden Legend.1


In 1874, Franz Liszt composed a cantata for baritone soloist, chorus and orchestra based upon a German translation of Longfellow's poem called Die Glocken des Strassburger Münsters. It was the Princess Wittgenstein who suggested this poem as the subject for the cantata. Details are hazy concerning the exact date of the completion of the work and of its premiere. It can at least be determined that The Bells of Strasbourg was completed late in 1874, since a letter of i6th September, 1874 reveals that Liszt was still at work on the composition.2 The first performance of the work did not generate much enthusiasm, for in a letter dated is January, 1880 the composer indicates that there had been no additional hearings of his cantata: “They've {The Bells) only been heard once before in Pest, at Wagner's express desire, at the occasion of a concert he conducted tliere in 74 or 75; and they are totally unknown elsewhere.”3


Although it was Wagner who had requested the performance, one wonders at his interest in The Bells. Cosima Wagner, expressing a joint opinion, described Liszt's Longfellow-inspired cantata as "a curious work; very eff( tively written, but so alien to us".4 This unfavourable reaction is curious in ti respects. In the first place, The Bells could not have been "so alien" to Wagner as it later influenced him in the composition of Parsifal. 5 In the second pla< this criticism is singular in itself, as one of the rare opinions expressed regarded this cantata. The Bells is a mature work of Liszt, written at a time when tl composer was well known throughout the musical world. One would suppo that a new cantata by so famous a musical personage as Franz Liszt would have generated some excitement or interest. Rather, the very opposite occurre The Bells quickly passed into the shades of oblivion, from which it has yet emerge.

Most writers on Liszt appear either unaware of or indifferent to the piece. Searle6 makes only passing reference to The Bells, while Corder's only comment is to give an erroneous date for its composition.7 Sitwell supplies some detail regarding the circumstances of the work's conception. He seems, however, be unfamiliar with the actual music.8


While there is little information on Liszt's The Bells of Strasbourg, Sullivan cantata on the same subject, The Golden Legend, has received considerable attention, though most of it before the turn of the century. Whereas Liszt cantata inspired little enthusiasm, the premiere of Sullivan's work was a occasion of great excitement: “When it came to an end a scene followed, only comparable, perhaps, with that presented after the last note of Elijah at Birmingham in 1846. The hall was a show of fluttering handkerchiefs and waving hats; a sustained thunder of approval came from the audience accentuated by the ringing cheers, one, two. three, and all together, of the male chorus the members of the orchestra laid down their instruments to clap their hands; and the chorus ladies pelted the composer with flowers.9


Lawrence paints a similar picture of the triumphant premiere of l6th Octobe 1886.10

The stimulus for Sullivan's Golden Legend was provided, not by a princes, but by a critic. In February, 1886 Joseph Bennett suggested Longfellow poem as a subject for the cantata that Sullivan was to compose for the Leeds Festival and presented the composer with an adaptation he had made Sullivan was immediately pleased with the libretto and paid Bennett for th rights to it. Herbert Sullivan"11 gives the amount paid by his uncle as 300 pounds while Young12 reduces this to a more reasonable sum of 31 pounds 10 shillings.
Only a few weeks before the composer of The Lost Chord and H.M.S. Pinafore began work on the composition of his best serious piece (on 24th March, 1886), Franz Liszt paid a short visit to London. Liszt knew Sullivan, for he had met the British composer many years before in Leipzig. Sullivan was only a young student when, at a social gathering in May, 1859, he parti­cipated in a game of whist with Liszt, David and Bronsart.

By April, 1886, Liszt was an old man. In his letter of 26th November, 1885 to the London Philharmonic Society, Liszt excused himself from conducting one of his symphonic poems during the approaching visit because of years of absence from the podium; he asked that the orchestra's regular conductor, Sullivan, direct the concert.13 In addition to a symphonic poem, The Legend of St. Elizabeth was given at St. James's Hall during Liszt's brief stay in the British capital.

Whilst in London, Liszt renewed his acquaintance with Sullivan. It was Sullivan who escorted the ageing pianist and composer around the city. One can only conjecture whether Sullivan mentioned the new cantata that he was soon to begin and whether Liszt thus made him aware of his own composition on the same subject. Such a circumstance would seem the most likely way in which Sullivan could have been apprised of Liszt's earlier setting of The Golden Legend. For, as stated above, Liszt's The Bells quickly dropped from view after its premiere.

That The Golden Legend manifests substantial Lisztian influence is without question. The precise source of this influence is open to question, but The Legend of St. Elizabeth offers itself as a likely candidate. Sullivan's cantata is indebted to Liszt's great oratorio, especially in matters of harmony and thematic development.

A comparison of Liszt's and Sullivan's Longfellow cantatas is limited, since the only parallel treatment is of the Prologue. The Bells of Strasbourg comprises only two parts, the first of which is derived from another of Longfellow's poems. The "Excelsior" prelude is a slow, majestic and rather short work. Not very much of Longfellow's text is employed. In fact, only the word "Excelsior" is sung, first by the chorus and subsequently by a solo mezzo-soprano.
The second and principal part is the Prologue. The setting for this scene is the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral. It is night, and a storm is raging. Lucifer, with the spirits of the air, is attempting to tear down the cross. The formal plan of each composer's Prologue is similar because of the nature of the text. The poem can be divided into strophes, with each strophe containing three parts:
(1) Lucifer (solo baritone) urges on the spirits of the air in their attempted destruction of the cross;
(2) The spirits (full chorus in Liszt, female chorus in Sullivan) plead their inability in the face of superior heavenly forces;
(3) A phrase of Gregorian chant sung in Latin by a male chorus.

The general atmosphere of the scene calls for music of violence and intensity. Both composers provide storm music in the typical nineteenth-century thundering brasses, chromatic runs of strings and woodwinds; harmony darkened with diminished chords. Both scores are highly chromatic, moving rapidly from one tonal centre to another. This is especially so in the the Sullivan work, where the chromatic peregrinations cause the harmony to float directionless through a sea of keys. The result of Sullivan's over-indulgence in chromaticism gave Hughes the impression of "unsophisticated atonality".14

Before The Golden Legend, Sullivan had never been so adventurous in his treatment of harmony. In contrast to Liszt, Sullivan was not an harmonic innovator. In this work he appeared to be making an extraordinary effort in order to prove that he was capable of profound, dramatic expression. To accomplish this task, he greatly expanded his harmonic palette. The results, though inconsistent, would be startling to one familiar only with the Sullivan of The Pirates of Penzance.
Each Prologue begins with the sound of bells; Liszt's strike a third15, while Sullivan's play out the melody heard throughout much of his cantata (Ex. 1)

Example 1

The appearance of an obvious example of Sullivan following Liszt's lead is deceptive. For it was not Liszt's The Bells but Joseph Bennett's suggestion that induced Sullivan to begin his piece with the sound of bells.16 Stormy sections then follow, building up to the entrance of Lucifer. Liszt's broken vocal line imbues his devil with a nervous energy. Lucifer, in the Sullivan setting, is a less dynamic figure; the fluid, descending melody has a sombre quality (Ex. 2).

Example 2

Liszt achieves harmonic contrast by setting the answering chorus in major, diatonic harmony. The harmony, combined with the lush, harp-laden orchestration, gives the music a "heavenly" colour as the chorus sings of being thwarted by saints and guardian angels (Ex. 3).

Example 3

Sullivan's chorus of spirits does not sing with such sweetness of its adversaries. Finally, a phrase of Latin, religious chant follows the chorus of spirits.

Liszt and Sullivan are strictly guided by the structure of the poem in working out their Prologues. The pattern of Lucifer, chorus of spirits, and Latin chant is followed in both works until the last strophe. Liszt continues the alternation of forces to the end of the scene, whereas Sullivan's theatrical sense leads him, at this point, to combine all three parts. The combination of contrasting •themes was a favourite device of Sullivan and is encountered in most of his operas. In the Prologue to The Golden Legend, the composer's considerable skill as a contrapuntist serves him well in achieving a dramatic climax to the scene by effectively juxtaposing the three battling forces (Ex. 4).

Example 4

In both works, the Prologue concludes with a complete Latin hymn. For Liszt, this final section serves as a conclusion to the entire cantata. His setting of "Nocte surgentes" is majestic and brings the work to a powerful conclusion, emphasizing the triumph of the heavenly forces over those of Lucifer. On the other hand, Sullivan's Prologue is, as the word properly denotes, the beginning of a larger work. The composer was, thus, free to utilize the Latin hymn in a different fashion. Sullivan's setting of the hymn, in contrast to the heavily scored, highly chromatic storm, is harmonically and rhythmically simple, while the texture is light – that of a male chorus accompanied by an organ.
The Prologue to Sullivan's Golden Legend was highly praised in British musical circles. Mackenzie called it "elaborate, vivid, and exciting. . .".17 Stanford thought that Sullivan had, in his treatment of Lucifer, managed "a happy avoidance of conventional devil-music, . . .".18 It is interesting to observe that neither of these two composers had detected the influence of Lisxt. Stanford may have perceived it indirectly by pointing to the influence of Wagner in the colour of the Prologue.19

Although Sullivan created some of his most powerful and striking music in The Golden Legend Prologue, one is led to question whether he was actually pleased with the work. In a letter of 26th December, 1889 Sullivan expressed rather curious sentiments for a composer of conservative training and composi­tional bent: “It sounds paradoxical, but there are times to me when the music would be more beautiful and more complete without notes. I suppose it is that the diatonic and chromatic scales are so limited. How often have I longed to be free of fixed intervals. More especially in the prologue to the Golden Legend, I felt myself hampered by having to express all I wanted to say by voice and instruments of limited means, and definite unchangeable quality. . . “20

A comparison of the two Prologues reveals less disparity of style and intensity than one might have anticipated from composers of such different temperaments. For Liszt, the diabolical in music was a favourite subject. Many of his works abound in stormy or supernatural effects; the Mephisto Waltzes are probably the best-known examples. Sullivan's lyric gifts did not generally accommodate themselves to such topics. The Golden Legend Prologue and the ghost music in Ruddy gore prove that, with full application at the peak of his powers, he could compose truly dark, dramatic music. On the other hand, Sullivan's other ventures into these subjects were not always admirable, being merely a reworking of tired conventions. The storm music in Haddon Hall may be cited as an example of this type.

The remaining scenes of The Golden Legend permitted Sullivan to tread more comfortable terrain. There is less of the diabolical, and more of human emotion. Although the subject-matter seems more congenial, there are some unfortunate lapses in the quality of the music. The "churchy" Sullivan of The Prodigal Son makes an unwelcome appearance in "O gladsome Light". There is, however, a wonderful outpouring of melody in "The night is calm" and in the evocative music of Scene vi. Although Stanford felt it out of place,21 the fugue in the Epilogue is Sullivan's best essay in this form. And if the Epilogue would strike us today as self-righteous, indeed chauvinistic, we must reflect that it is a product of an optimistic age, in which men still believed in an established order and a brighter future.
Posterity has treated neither Liszt nor Sullivan with accuracy. The legend of Liszt the pianist still seems to overshadow the reality of Liszt the composer. Of the considerable number of his compositions, how many are really well known? The Dante Symphony or Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne may well be safely left to the silence of obscurity. How often, though, does one hear the Faust Symphony or The Legend of Saint Elizabeth ? The existence of some works, such as the Requiem Mass, is hardly known. The Bells of Strasbourg is not one of Liszt's masterworks. It is a powerful and exciting work, but one whose dimensions seem to lessen its chance of revival. The assemblage of large orchestral and choral forces for the preparation and performance of a brief work would seem to make a hearing of The Bells an impracticable undertaking.
Sullivan's Golden Legend remained a popular work in England, at least to the end of the Edwardian era. The cantata had some success in Germany but was never widely known beyond the British Isles. The continued standing of The Golden Legend in the active repertoire came to an end in the cynical, anti-Romantic atmosphere of the post-World War I period. Only through the comic operas did the composer Sullivan remain a vital figure. As in the case of Liszt, a distorted picture of Sullivan has been passed on to us. The enormous and continued success of the comic operas has, unfortunately, served utterly to obscure the remainder of the output of England's first native composer of stature after Purcell. Sullivan did not become the great composer his contemporaries thought he would be. He lacked the consistency, self-discipline and, perhaps, the depth of feeling necessary to accomplish such a task. That he composed much delightful music is well known, and on this alone his name will survive. It does injustice to his memory to grant him this but to forget that he also wrote music of power, beauty and sensitivity.

(Published with kind permission of the author)

1In fact, Sullivan's treatment of the subject was the third after Liszt's and Buck's. Dudley Buck (1839-1909), an American organist and composer, wrote a Golden Legend first performed in 1880

2Franz Liszt. The Letters of Franz Liszt to Marie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. ed. and trans. Howard E. Hugo (Cambridge. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1953), p. 179.

3Ibid., p. 236.

4Arthur W. Marget, "Liszt and Parsifal", The Music Review, XIV (May. 1953), p. 113.

5For a discussion of the connection between The Bells and Parsifal, see the article by Marge mentioned above.

6Humphrey Searle, The Music of Liszt. Second Edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc 1966), p. 113.

7Frederick Corder, Ferencz Liszt (New York: Harper & Brothers. 1925), p. 168. (Corder's date of 1847 makes no sense and should be considered a printing error.)

8Sacheverell Sitwell, Liszt (New York: Dover Publications. Inc., 1967). p. 278.

9Walter J. Wells, Souvenir of Sir Arthur Sullivan (London: George Newnes, Ltd.. 1901). p. 59.

10Arthur Lawrence, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Chicago: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1900), p. 169.

11Herbert Sullivan and Newman Flower, Sir Arthur Sullivan (London: Cassell & Co . Ltd, 1927), p. 159.

12Percy M. Young, Sir rthur Sullivan (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1971). p. 153

13Franz Liszt. The Letters of From Liszt, ed. La Mara. trans. Constance Bache (New York:

Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1968), Vol. II, pp. 479-480.

14Gervase Hughes, The Music a/Arthur Sullivan (New York: St. Martin's Press Inc., 196 p. 67.

15A third to the ear, but notated as a diminished fourth [Ed.]

16H. Saxe Wyndham, Arthur Sullivan (London: Kegan Paul. Trench, Trubner A Co.. Ltd., 1926), p. 193.

17B. W. Findon. Sir Arthur Sullivan: His Life and Music (London: James Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1904), p. 86.


18C. V. Stanford, Studies and Memories (London: Archibald Constable & Co., Ltd., 1908), p. l63-


20Saxe Wyndham, p. 208.

21Stanford, p. 164.