Sullivan’s religious style found in the Festival Te Deum

by Benedict Taylor


The Festival Te Deum of 1872 is not one of Sullivan’s best known or indeed in many ways characteristic works.  In common with most of this composer’s music, it has received little analytical study; one might have wondered if in fact there is much to say about it – rather, as its historical genesis might suggest, is it not just music to be heard, to be enjoyed?  Despite its undeniable success as a large-scale, public statement of belief and thanksgiving, however, it does contain several more subtle musical points which I believe are worth further investigation and which I will consider here.



Religious musical-tropes and intertextual allusions


  Though the very opening bars – an initial fanfare and contrasting response – might seem a purely conventional call to attention, they hide a more significant feature – the use of a four-note turn motive familiar to many as a Baroque cadential suspension figure (Ex.2.1).  Heard at the outset, removed from its usual cadential context, Sullivan’s use of this motive here raises it to a structural level as an independent thematic unit; effectively, a (now rather hackneyed) religious musical-cliché is incorporated into the musical fabric of this work as the starting point for structural thematic elaboration.  Sullivan is perhaps infamous for using this idea in The Lost Chord, where it contributes significantly to the religiose atmosphere of the song; the use here of this well established religious musical ‘topic’ suggests a common link between Sullivan’s responses to an underlying sacred or religiose subject.    


 Use of another established musical idea with clear sacred connotations is seen at b.10.  This four-note motive – two pairs of notes turning back on each other, outlining an ascending fourth – is familiar to many from the finale of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, K551, though its use in the Credo of the same composer’s mass K192 has sometimes led it to be called Mozart’s ‘Credo’ motive.  Its history, however, extends further back, as a hymn ‘Lucis creator’, ultimately to plainchant.  Though Sullivan would surely have known Mozart’s last symphony, it strikes me the most obvious model for this passage is the start of Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony (the ‘Reformation’), op.107, where this same motive is treated in near identical (though more sustained) fashion, building up a consciously-historicist, imitative texture alluding to sixteenth-century Catholic polyphony.  Written in 1829-30 and performed once, in 1832, Mendelssohn’s Fifth was only published posthumously in 1868, four years before Sullivan came to write his Te Deum.  In the light of the echoes I hear of the ‘Dresden amen’ in Sullivan’s second movement (bs13-15), I suggest Sullivan might well have been acquainted with Mendelssohn’s work, which can justly be considered the locus classicus of nineteenth-century historicism.


  In his use of such motives here, Sullivan is drawing on a common set of pre-existent musical ideas connoting a sacred subject.  Such intertextual allusions are in fact quite frequent in the nineteenth century, being seen in an age when the concept of a musical ‘canon’ was becoming increasingly established as a way of establishing one’s place as a part of a continuing musical heritage; for religious music in particular, such a desire for musical continuity was reinforced by the perceived necessity of retaining an appropriate sacred style modelled on that in established liturgical use – namely the contrapuntal idiom of the Baroque or Renaissance.



Motivic development and thematic working


  This ‘Credo’ motive is only heard twice here, entries on  and  being used as a means of creating a contrapuntal, imitative supporting texture for the entry of a fragment of the hymn tune ‘St Anne’ (better known as ‘O God our help in ages past’).  As with the former idea, this hymn tune is barely suggested here in the introduction before disappearing.  In this procedure, Sullivan’s long-range planning is much in evidence, as this introduction is recalled at the start of the finale, thus imparting a cyclic frame to the whole work.  Now, however, what was previously implicit is fully realised, as the whole of the hymn tune is stated at the corresponding point in the theme’s recapitulation.  Moreover, after this hymn has been heard twice, first in the orchestra and sopranos followed by full chorus, it gives ways to a powerful fugue (Ex.1.6), composed on the similarly undeveloped ‘Credo’ motive.  This motive’s fugal possibilities, only previously hinted at in the first movement by the two statements on  and are now fully realised in an impressively sustained extended section which is further added to by statements of ‘St Anne’, its melody broken into fragments, as a cantus firmus in the orchestra.  Such a texture attests a deep debt to Bach, as can be ascertained by comparison with a cantata such as No.48, where fragments of the final, Schlusschoral are heard over the canonic four-part opening chorus.  Also highly similar in this context is the very idea of a pre-existent, well-known hymn tune coming more to the surface of the musical fabric over the course of a work, being suggested in the first movement and fully revealed only at the end; Sullivan differs only in his further use of second theme – the ‘Credo’ motive – in this process.


  This cyclic frame imposed on the work by the thematic return over the outer movements, however, is merely the outermost manifestation of a web of motivic connections that runs throughout the piece.  On the whole, these connections are either a case of (near-) literal recall or of shared family resemblances, such as a prominent rising fourth, found between enough themes or in such situations as to make one think that the connection perceived is not just arbitrary, though some of the thematic working is more complex and ‘organic’. The table given below shows these connections, along with the page number of the vocal score where they are found.  The very opening motive, a rising fourth, may seem such a common gesture in tonal music as to make any perceived connection involving it pretty meaningless; however, the same rising fourth contained in the ‘Credo’ motive by b.10 is less contentious, particularly as this four note motive is clearly heard, in sequence, as the middle part of the opening choral section (“All the earth doth worship Thee”, 1.3).  Similarly, the final, fugal section of this movement features a prominent inversion of the ascent (1.4): in such a context, with a limited number of themes stated in a short space of time with very close affinities, the links between them assume great significance.  The march-theme (1.7) that enters almost incongruously in the finale also seems to belong to the same group (compare with 1.3 “All the earth”); though there has been much intervening music, the finale’s strong links with the first movement strengthen the case.  Whether or not the pre-existent hymn tune, St Anne, should be connected is harder to decide.  For once the rising fourth is not - but -, and it is surely easy enough to find connections to a great many abstract shapes in its long melodic line, but the very last section – a ascent – is sequenced out on p.73 in a manner which highlights this pattern, and given the connections between much else in these two outer movements perhaps one could view this as being a further example (this melody is, in many ways, the underlying idea of the whole work).

  Another, smaller set of melodic shapes are shown in the second family.  The very first page of the score lays bare a substantial amount of thematic working.  Besides the exposition of the rising fourth (1.1 & 1.2), the previously discussed ‘Lost Chord’ suspension is clearly seen to be developed out over the orchestra’s introduction.  The initial statement, turning around , is sequenced up to  obviously enough in b.4, before being extended into a falling scale from , whose harmonisation is strongly reminiscent again of Mendelssohn (see the replying phrase to the first subject of his First Symphony, op.11).  This last segment is recalled from b.18, though the previous two bars (1.2b / 2.3), due to their juxtaposition, are conceived as related to the turn figure despite their being clearly a variant (either prime with enlarged interval or inversion) of the seemingly unconnected ‘Credo’ motive.  In fact, besides the relationship perceived here, connections between the two families run deeper: as the reduction in 2.2 shows, the shape at the start of 2.3 / 1.2b, as well as being a development of 1.2, is a melodic diminution of 2.1’s scale.  This diminution goes on to become a highly significant motive further on in the piece, used (in rhythmic augmentation) as the big second theme of the third movement (“Thou art the King of Glory”, ps26 & 30, 2.4) and at the very end of the finale (p.78) for the word “Amen”.  The fact that this theme is clearly heard as derived from the introduction is made manifest on p.65, where at the very end of the exposition of the St Anne tune, analogous to its position in bs16-7 of the first movement, it enters in the orchestra, now in the rhythm of its third movement appearance (in diminution).


  One other thematic connection should perhaps be noted, though it seems of less importance; the rather static, chant-like idea of “The glorious company of the Apostles” (3.1), which seems alluded to in the melody of “O Lord, save Thy people” (3.2).  While few of the processes explicated above are particularly remarkable, acknowledgement of their existence should at least convince more sceptically-minded listeners of the greater complexity of Sullivan’s music than what has all-too-commonly been thought.  In the case of the strategic use of the recalled themes over the outer movements, Sullivan’s processes do have a highly important structural role, and indeed understanding of these functions can considerably add to our appreciation of the music.  It should also be noted that the sacred idiom in no way precludes Sullivan here from carrying out the type of thematic work that can be found running throughout his entire œuvre; such processes are clearly an integral part of his approach to composition.


Learned’ techniques and sacred style


  The use of fugue, as touched on in the comparison with Bach, also raises the issue and notion of what constitutes ‘sacred style’.  The work’s sacred credentials are reinforced, at least from a nineteenth-century perspective, by the use of fugal passages and other ‘learned’ archaic contrapuntal techniques.  Fugue itself is only found in the outer two movements – in the first, “To Thee all Angels cry”, in the finale “O Lord, let Thy mercy” – though its influence permeates into other, smaller-scale imitative passages, such as “All the earth” (I), and “Day by day” (VI).  One of Sullivan’s most impressive passages is that in the third movement for the section “Thou art the King”, where successive sets of imitative entries paired at two-bar intervals (Bass + Alto, Tenor + Soprano) move through the harmonic sequence I-I, IV-IV, V-V, I-I.  Roderick Swanston describes this as a “magnificent, tightly-knit fugue" 1  an observation over which I would only question his somewhat loose use of the term ‘fugue’ (it probably need not be said that ‘fugue’ is far from necessarily being the highest compliment available to a contrapuntal texture).  Given the previously noted subtle thematic derivation of this theme and its synthesis with elements from the first section of this movement for the magnificent, final climactic statement on p.30, this whole section shows Sullivan at great strength. 


  This last point brings us to the subject of the ‘double chorus’ technique, found operating at the ends of many of this work’s seven movements (to a greater or lesser extent, movements I, II, III, VI and VII).  This is clearest in the second, sixth and seventh movements (ps16, 60 & 71), where two distinct, contrasting themes are combined at the movement’s climax.  In the first and third movements the approach is looser, the apotheosis seeming to synthesise different, previously separate elements (I, p.10, the culminative statement of the fugue theme merges the contrasting fugal and homophonic textures of the earlier sections; III, p.30, the second theme (“Thou art the King”) reaches an impressive climax at the point of tonal return to the G major of the first section and its Baroque ‘walking bass’, the first theme itself recalled in the continuation of this melodic line (p.32)).  Though the contrapuntal qualities of this technique could obviously be viewed as a just use of the sacred idiom, Sullivan’s future use of this technique in his comic operas could possibly lead some to question his blurring of sacred/secular distinctions.  Such a criticism would clearly be chronologically nonsensical, however; a wiser conclusion could be to suggest that this use in operetta stemmed from origins in the world of church counterpoint.2



The ‘problematic’ finale


  Perhaps the most contentious point of the whole work is found in the use of one of these double themes – the jaunty march-tune which appears midway through the finale.  Is Sullivan really just an insincere, lightweight comedian, or is his concept of taste so lacking as to be unaware of the obvious vulgarity of such a decision?  Swanston, surely correctly, recognises that something here is clearly intentional.  As he puts it, “after a succession of clever fugal devices and a decisive re-establishment of the sacred credentials of the work, the entry of the military band with the jauntiest and most operatic of marches is completely unexpected.  Its opening repeated G grows out of the fugue, and it was obviously Sullivan’s intention to combine different worlds into one, as the march becomes the accompaniment to the re-entry of the St Anne hymn tune”.  Perhaps he could have gone even further, by calling to mind the example of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is surely the model here.  In this earlier work, needless to say, after the grandiose climax on “der Cherub steht vor Gott” in the choral finale, the music gives way to some rather grotesque grunts on the contrabassoon and the entry of a banal variant of the ‘Joy’ theme as a Turkish march, complete with the percussive trappings of janissary music.  The effect is incongruous, and perplexed many (quite progressively-minded) listeners in the nineteenth century.3    Towards the end of the movement, the ‘Joy’ theme (in a different variant) and a second idea (“Seid umschlungen”) are combined in a double fugue, analogous to Sullivan’s double chorus of his two themes.  Many different readings have been given to account for Beethoven’s strange decision;4  what they (nearly) all seem to have in common is the idea of (dialectical) synthesis of opposing worlds into one, of ultimate equality or brotherhood.


  While many critics – even those favourably disposed to Beethoven – at times dismissed this work as an error of judgement from a deaf, if not mad composer, such an attitude has been extremely rare for at least the last century (Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous remarks are perhaps the most notable (and amusing) exception).  Instead, people are content to believe that this juxtaposition was intentional, and refrain from passing judgement on that above-judgement.  Now while Sullivan’s Te Deum may not be as great a work as Beethoven’s Ninth – as complex, as profound, showing the same compositional mastery – this is not, and should not be, the point here.  Beethoven’s decision to introduce an incongruous, banal element is usually taken on trust as being intentional, and hence accepted; Sullivan’s, who in this decision was surely following his predecessor’s lead, should therefore be as well, irrespective of how we value the relative musical merits of the two works.5 For in this finale, as Swanston recognises, Sullivan is fusing two opposing worlds – the ‘high’, sacred, official style, suitable for the national celebration of the recovery of the Prince of Wales, and the everyday, common, secular, style of the people who were the subject of their Prince, and after all, Sullivan’s public – and in doing this, succeeds magnificently.



Related stylistic issues


 Elsewhere in the work, such a contrast between the sacred and secular is arguably less convincing.  Movements IV and V are those furthest removed from the overall mood of the work, both at times strongly reminiscent of a light operatic world – the ballad-like style of “When Thou tookest upon Thee” evoking the Sullivan of The Sorcerer (think of the flute’s doubling of the vocal line at “Thou didst open the kingdom of Heaven” or the following transferral of the opening melody to the oboe), and the lilting 6/8 waltz of “We believe that Thou shalt come”.  There is no real problem here (it should be remembered that much religious music by nineteenth-century Italian operatic composers has been censured for being both operatic and trivial, yet was and is still played); the music is not particularly bad, if neither exceptionally distinguished, but could seem weaker – or at least inappropriate – in its context.  (The Te Deum was written for a public function and not for purely liturgical use; however, notwithstanding, a movement such as the fourth does still seem rather an emotionally-lightweight response to what is quite a serious subject, one which would perhaps work in a sentimental ballad but not here.)


 In the context of such stylistic distinctions, Swanston has commented on the tonal movement away from the overall C major for the most secular sections – here B minor, brightening to the major at the end of the fourth movement and remaining there for the fifth.   Taking this further, closer study of the fourth movement reveals a marked use of the Neapolitan flattened-second scale degree, C major, which would be strange if it were not for this tonality’s wider context in the piece.  (The movement features a prominent Neapolitan in b.6, in itself not unusual; however, after a move to the third-related key of G at the end of the first paragraph, the music finds its way to C major as the effective secondary tonal area in the following, developmental passage, moving back to B minor for the repeat of the first section.  This progression is obviously a larger-scale translation of the local move in the first bars, but at this level the use of C major is more striking.)  Where Sullivan does try to write in a more ‘devout’ style in these inner movements, he tends to employ the contrapuntal techniques previously noted, or in movements II and VI an antiphon-like statement and response form, a procedure which is markedly successful.7





While this work is, to my mind at least, not particularly groundbreaking or individual, I hope this brief survey suggests it is far from being a badly-composed or weak one.  Closer study suggests both a greater degree of complexity and strength in its construction than some critics might think from only the most casual acquaintance with the music (accusations of lack of substance and triviality hold little foundation in the face of the score), and, going on further from my brief exposition of such issues, could encourage one to question more critically the validity of distinctions between sacred and secular and the distrust of Victorian ‘clichés’.


Not all of Sullivan’s works are as great as, to give my own opinion, The Golden Legend, The Tempest, the Symphony, parts of Ivanhoe, the In Memoriam and Macbeth overtures and a handful of his operettas.  This does not mean that other works, such as this Te Deum, should either be ignored or be uncritically extolled.  Sullivan’s reputation will be able to rise once the true quality and strength of much of his music is recognised – even those pieces lacking the individuality and character of his greatest work – and once misconceptions and ideological forces hostile to his reputation have been explicated and cleared.  The latter has been well underway for the last decade at least; the former is still an open field.  This is not an invitation to unbridled enthusiasm; critical respect from those unwilling to admit Sullivan into their individual pantheon can only (but should hopefully) be earned by balanced and well-reasoned argument.  Though one might love Sullivan’s music, this should not preclude adopting a critical attitude towards it; it is through such a cautious approach that sceptics may be swayed.






[1] Roderick Swanston, notes to BBC Music Magazine CD, vol.9 no.7, BBC MM203 (2001).

2 Not to suggest that this was the first time this idea had been essayed by Sullivan; see the several pages Gervase Hughes devotes to a discussion of the use of this technique in Sullivan’s music (The Music of Arthur Sullivan, pp.78-83).  A significant work not mentioned by Hughes is Gounod’s Faust (1859), which I believe may have been an important influence on Sullivan here (see the soldiers’ chorus of Act 2).  Gounod had initially been devoted to church music, before his first operatic venture, Sapho, in 1851 gave rise to the church/stage conflict that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  (N.B. Bernard Shaw’s comment that Sullivan’s operettas seemed almost ‘churchy’ after Offenbach.)

[3] See Nicholas Cook’s book on this work for a greater discussion of the symphony’s reception (Beethoven: Symphony No.9, Cambridge Music Handbooks, Cambridge.

[4] Such as a musical depiction of the brotherhood of the worm and cherub in Schiller’s proceeding text, the sun or warriors flying from East to West (memories of recent Turkish aggression still hanging over Vienna?), a dialectical view of history progressing from the orient to Europe inspired by Hegel (the archaic, Gregorian ‘Seid umschlungen’ standing for Christianity), or was it just another attempt at courting popularity from Beethoven (who was hardly adverse to this, pace Fuller Maitland, as Wellingtons Sieg and his Restoration Cantata Op.136 show).

[5] There is therefore absolutely no need to make an apologia for Sullivan’s finale.  To put it simply, anyone who accepts Beethoven’s decision but not Sullivan’s finds themselves open to quite justifiable charges of hypocrisy.

[6] While on this area, one should note the potential allusion to the subdominant-inflected cadence closing the fourth movement in the plagal opening of the fifth (though the latter is in the dominant, F#).

[7] See Swanston’s notes for more discussion of sacred/secular styles in this work.