Sullivan's ballet Victoria & Merrie England

by Selwyn Tillett

(Published with kind permission of the author; the article was published in “The Ballets of Arthur Sullivan – A survey written and compiled by Selwyn Tillett”, published by The Sir Arthur Sullivan Society at 71 Hockley Lane, Eastern Green, Coventry CV5 7FS, 1997)

The Background

After the premature collapse of The Grand Duke, his last opera with Gilbert, in July 1896, Sir Arthur Sullivan retired to the continent for the remainder of the summer and found himself in the congenial society of much of the British Royal Family. It was, his nephew Herbert wrote, as though Mayfair had migrated into Switzerland; and Sullivan made the best social use he could of the presence at the Engadine of the Duchesses of York and Teck, Prince Francis of Battenburg, Princess May and others. He toured Munich and Vienna, where he stayed for some time with the Empress Frederick. In this company his thoughts turned naturally to Queen Victoria's forthcoming Diamond Jubilee; a totally unknown singer from Koraput in India had already written that he would come to England expressly to sing whatever Sullivan might compose for the occasion - provided of course that Sir Arthur would advance him £500 for his expenses!

Sullivan had received practically a Royal Command to set a 'Jubilee Hymn' to be 'sung in all churches and chapels on Sunday June 20th 1897', and at his own suggestion the Right Reverend William Walsham How, Bishop of Wakefield, had been dragooned into providing the words. The bishop, who died shortly after the Jubilee, wrote some of our best-known Victorian hymns including 'It is a thing most wonderful' and 'For all the saints who from their labours rest'. By suggesting How, Sullivan neatly forestalled the awful possibility of being forced to set a patriotic effusion by Alfred Austin the Poet Laureate, which he, Sullivan, saw as an attempt to oust the National Anthem, and of which he had no very high opinion as a piece of verse. Writing to Austin in frank terms to refuse his text, Sullivan explained that he was looking for

a few shining lines... Then, if I could find a good swinging tune (an absolute necessity) the thing would be sung by solo, by chorus, played by military bands - at theatres, at music halls, meetings of every description, and on the march. Simple words and simple tune... but unless I can get something that appeals to me instantaneously I shall do nothing.

The bishop's words proved scarcely more attractive, but Sullivan duly set them and was in due course rewarded with the Queen's faint praise in considering the hymn 'pretty and appropriate'. In spite of the Queen's request that he should send his complete works to her, the Jubilee Hymn is now the only composition by Sullivan surviving in the Royal Archive. Its tune, 'Bishopgarth', is still occasionally sung today.

Sullivan returned to London in late September and began to toy with the idea of composing a second Grand Opera, based on the Arthurian cycle. But more than a year before, in June 1895, he had been commissioned by Alfred Moul, General Manager of the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, to provide music for something exceptionally splendid to be produced during the Jubilee festivities. He therefore knuckled down to his task. The subject originally intended (the Greek legend of Sardanapalus) was quickly abandone and Victoria & Merrie England began to take shape. It was to reflect the life of Great Britain through the ages, and Sullivan was to make his music suitably 'national' in consequence.

Bad weather and bad health forced Sullivan back to Beaulieu for the winter. He did little work before Christmas but in January 1897 established a regular daily routine. He would compose in the mornings, entertain or be entertained to lunch, take long drives in the afternoon and finish up at the tables in Monte Carlo. After several hours' gambling and a late supper he would again compose until the light of dawn drove him to bed.

For substantial parts of his new work we should perhaps read 'adapt' rather than 'compose'. The combination of his natural laziness and spring in the south of France aside, were there not lying about somewhere scraps of old pieces, unwanted by him and forgotten by the public, to say nothing of the whole score of his L'Ile Enchantée, untouched for more than thirty years? He engaged in a detailed correspondence with his hard-worked amanuensis Wilfred Bendall in the early part of 1897:

The 'fine old English gentleman' was embodied into the ballet before your letter came, as I recollected it. Thanks all the same... I can also do without the bit from the Sapphire Necklace as I have a page or two of the score here - enough to shew me the cast of the scoring. I want however the full score of (music quotation, unidentified): it was on my study table before I left London. It is on upright paper and not in my handwriting. It was amongst all that music I brought upstairs, & is perhaps in the spare room... It has struck me that something - either score, or bandparts of the Ile Enchantée - was saved from the Crystal Palace fire. Now I want you to set to work at once about it & find out. You must get Manns to have a search made by West in the Crystal Pal: Library, & at the same time tell Middleditch to ransack the library at Cov: Garden, and if necessary you must see the mortgagee - Mr Faber I think it is. I am pretty well certain there is a set of band parts existing somewhere, and I believe they are in the Covent Garden library. Tell Middleditch that I will make him a handsome present if he will search thoroughly. If they are found - wire me at once.

The music arrived this morning, & I have wired you not to send Macbeth as I don't want it now. The news that you have all the string parts of the ballet delights me - I thought they must be somewhere... Now will you please at once get Baird to make a score (from the string parts leaving me to fill in the wind) on my upright paper of the following numbers (list missing)... I wonder what has become of the wind parts. Have you enquired of Middleditch and West

Indeed Sullivan was delighted. No less than ten individual dances were to be extracted from L'Ile Enchantée, some of them slightly reworked, others lifted wholesale. All will be noted below when considering the new ballet's story line.

Later items in the same correspondence deal in great detail with Bendall's arrangement of Victoria & Merrie England for eventual publication in piano score. The honest Wilfred persistently endeavoured to include as many details of orchestral colour as possible - Sullivan equally persistently told him to take them all out and make the thing playable:

I return you herewith your MS arrangement of the 6th scene. It is excellent, but now and then a shade difficult, & I have made it more practicable. The fugue is a twister, and nothing further can be done with it, unless we print a separate arrangement for the use of children and persons of weak mind and fingers

The last scene was a beastly one to score - so many notes to fill in. When it came to the triple subject - the Union - I stopped dead, & couldn't get on. Something stood in my way, and I didn't know what. At last, day light came to me. It was the 'Men of Harlech' who resolutely barred my passage - so I swept them clean away - gallant little Wales has been sacrificed and I am triumphant. Don't attempt, in your P.F. arrangement, to unite the three tunes. Take one only, or four bars of one, & four of the other, and in small extra lines show what is going on at the same time, without trying to make it playable.

I return you the MS arr: of Scenes 5 & 6, with a few alterations - most of them tending towards simplifying the thing. To tell you the truth, I was terrified at your arrangement of the movement (in 6/8 A flat) in Scene III. It was absolutely unplayable. The figure in the left hand (quoted) is very difficult as it developes (sic), and the chords in the right hand are (even alone) not easy, and when combined with the left, are appalling.

The whole movement wants adapting, not arranging, and I would suggest your leaving out the figure altogether (it is purely orchestral colour) and giving the following shape and accent to it (quotation, exactly as in the published piano score)

With the donkey-work over, Sullivan could now relax even more and had no immediate need to return to London while there was still agreeable royal society on the continent. Her Majesty herself arrived for the Spring, and at his own request Sullivan played the harmonium for morning service on Easter Day at the Hotel Regina in Cimiez. The congregation consisted of the queen, Princess Beatrice and her children, Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, a few assorted servants and himself. The queen later sent him a pocket-book as a souvenir.

In due course the ballet's opening was arranged for Tuesday 25 May, the day after the queen's birthday and nearly a month before Jubilee Day itself, 20 June. Sullivan returned to London to supervise the last rehearsals at the Alhambra.

The Theatre

"London cannot boast of another spot where an equal amount of aspiring fallen humanity vegetates, lives, breathes and has its being. What a chronicle of misery and woe, of aspiration and disappointment, of loyalty and treachery, of innocence betrayed and vice made more vicious.."

Not, as one might think, the Reading Room at the British Museum, but Leicester Square, seen through the eyes of Peeping Tom (27 June 1859). In Tom's day the Square was at the heart of London's growing French quarter, and in the opinion of most respectable Englishmen his remarks were entirely justified. The 'Royal Panopticon of Science and Art' had opened there in 1854, but its exhibitions and the reputation of the neighbourhood failed to draw the public to be instructed, despite such wonders as an Artesian well, a fairy fountain which sent up coloured sprays from floor to dome, electrical machines, working models and an immense pipe-organ. In 1858 the building was converted by E. T. Smith, the lessee of Drury Lane, re-named the Alhambra Palace, and let to Howes & Cushing's Grand American Circus. On their departure, in the first of many brushes the Alhambra was to have with this particular functionary, the Lord Chamberlain refused Smith a licence to operate the building as a theatre, but more sympathetic magistrates allowed him a music licence. He therefore thoroughly re-ordered the interior. In place of the circus ring there grew a large open space for chairs and tables. A stage fifty feet wide and seventy deep was created, necessitating the removal of the famous organ (it was eventually sold to St Paul's Cathedral). As the 'Alhambra Palace Music Hall' the building re-opened in December 1860 and soon gained a place in the forefront of the London Halls by housing the début of Léotard, 'the daring young man on the flying trapeze', who swung back and forth over the heads of his eating and drinking audience at a salary of £180 per week. Later in his career Smith exhibited regular prize-fights there after being refused permission to use the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden!

Smith's successor as manager was Frederick Strange, who had amassed a large personal fortune by supplying refreshments to the patrons of the Crystal Palace. He invested all of this in his new venture and determined that once again the building should attempt to interest a different, not to say higher, class of public. His first production therefore was an 'Oriental Ballet' based on Auber's opera Azael and called L'Enfant Prodigue. It was presented by the Bros. Kiraefy and their Hungarian Ballet Company and provoked the anger of several 'legitimate' theatres who claimed that this was a stage play, for which Strange had no licence. In 1870, amid lengthy legal wrangles, even his music licence was withdrawn when a can-can troupe appeared at the hall for five weeks and was several times watched by the Prince of Wales. The troupe eventually removed to the Globe and the licence was restored.

Endeavouring to stay out of trouble with the law Strange then presented a series of 'Promenade concerts' - but these quickly degenerated into cleverly stage-managed nightly riots between expatriate French and Germans, the Franco-Prussian war being then at its height, during which Strange instructed the Alhambra Orchestra to play national airs of whichever faction appeared to be winning the free-for-all. The Hall closed down.

Nothing daunted, Strange obtained an adequate licence and opened the building once again, this time as the Royal Alhambra Palace, 'Theatre of Varieties', in 1871. He returned to his original intention and began to present 'opéra bouffe' with spectacular ballets more or less interpolated into the action. To compose and conduct the majority of these Strange brought to the Alhambra one of the more remarkable of Victorian extrovert musicians - Georges Jacobi.

Born in Berlin in 1840, Jacobi had studied composition and conducting from the age of six, completing his studies in Paris with Auber. He took first prize for violin at the Conservatoire in 1861 and immediately joined the fiddles in the orchestra at the Opéra Comique. He quickly became their leader and remained in this position nine years. In his spare time he formed a small orchestra of his own which gave concerts in the picture gallery of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Here he gained a wealth of conducting experience, and in 1869 was invited to become Musical Director of the Bouffes Parisiens which naturally enough specialised in the works of Offenbach. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, being German by birth but French by adoption, his situation became insecure and he fled to London. Here his reputation spread quickly in both French and theatrical circles, and Strange's invitation put him firmly in his element. He remained at the Alhambra for twenty six years; Victoria & Merrie England was practically the last thing he was to conduct there.

Strange's policy remained constant until the Alhambra burned down in 1882. When it opened again the following year there was a noticeable difference. Over the past forty years both ballet dancers and their choreographers had increasingly sought refuge in the Music Halls as the popularity of ballet in the opera house declined. Strange and Jacobi therefore determined to make a thorough effort to elevate its position, and took on as Maître de Ballet the choreographer Carlo Coppi who opened a dancing school on the premises. Henceforth there would be two large-scale and entirely selfcontained ballets each evening, with a music-hall programme between them to act as light relief and to ensure continuing financial success. Once tried this formula proved immensely popular, enabling Strange to pay his principal dancers a handsome £25 per night. Ballet history was made at a performance of Aladdin in 1892 when the great Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani (1863-1923) first performed her famous series of 32 fouettés, which she introduced into the third act of Swan Lake during the 1895 revival at St Petersburg.

It would, however, be misleading to think of the Alhambra's "new improved" ballets in terms of the Classical presentation one expects today. Neither Swan Lake (Moscow 1877) nor Sylvia (Paris 1876) reached London in their complete form until the Dyagilev Company's tour of 1911/12. Coppélia (Paris 1870) was given in one act at the Empire Theatre in 1884, and was not seen in its entirety until 1906. The Sleeping Beauty (St Petersburg 1890) had to wait until 1921, when it was given at the Alhambra by the Dyagilev Company. Cut off from the classical source, Alhambra ballet developed in a direction of its own.

Always in a single act, the ballets were really mime-dramas, containing a large number of individual scenes and "speciality" dances, with several grand tableaux (fights, shipwrecks and other visually startling dramatic effects). The rapid pace of the action did not allow time for the expansion of more lyrical moments, so that although the ballets were not devoid of choreographic merit they contained little in the way of the romantic pas-de-deux or long solo.

Of the two nightly productions, one was normally an expressly comic adventure, while the other had less plot but a good deal of patriotic sentiment and music. It also provided an excuse for the girls of the corps de ballet to parade en travesti in the bare essentials of military dress while revealing a substantial acreage of leg. In writing Victoria & Merrie England Coppi and Sullivan were conforming very closely to this established type, as will be seen from our synopsis and illustrations; the Union March in particular cannot have failed to fulfil its promise. Popularity was assured, and decorum more or less preserved; but the sale of opera-glasses, in the front row of the stalls as much as the back of the gallery, received an extraordinary stimulus!

Such a programme, although rewarding, made heavy demands on all concerned, particularly on Jacobi, who in his long years at the Alhambra was required to write more than 100 full-length ballet scores. All of these are now sadly consigned to the dust-heap, but in their time many achieved international acclaim and were successfully taken to Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Rome, Paris and America. Chief among them were Yolande, The Golden Wreath, The Swans, Melusine, Blue Beard, Ali Baba, Lochinvar and La Tzigane (which ran in harness with Victoria & Merrie England). He also wrote a comic opera The Black Crook in collaboration with Frederic Clay, incidental music for Henry Irving's play Robespierre, and many violin pieces including two concerti.

Jacobi's room at the Alhambra, it was said, had the air of a select and delightful club; but on his appointment as Professor of Conducting at the Royal College of Music in 1896 his new duties gradually forced him to give up his much-loved theatrical career. He was twice President of the Association of Conductors in England, and for his services to music was made an Officier de l'Academie in France and Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel the Catholic in Spain. He died in London in 1906. The Alhambra itself continued as a variety theatre until 1936, when it was demolished; the site is now occupied by the Odeon Cinema.

Despite the slightly self-conscious attempts of Strange and Jacobi to "raise the tone" of the ballet, the music hall bill also served to establish the Alhambra's reputation. On and after the first night of Victoria & Merrie England, Sullivan's Jubilee tribute was preceded by an 'Exceptional Variety Programme' of about an hour's duration. To cast an eye over the theatre's advertisements in the press through the summer of 1897 is to build up a tantalising picture of some of the strangest bedfellows that Sir Arthur's music ever had. Topping the bill on that first night was Cissie Loftus, only twenty one, and already beyond question the most brilliant mimic and impersonator anywhere on the Halls. For many years she was to appear on both sides of the Atlantic, and in 1901 was spotted at the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York by Henry Irving who engaged her on the spot as a straight actress to tour with him in the parts that Ellen Terry was now too old to play. She spent several seasons with Irving earning a good deal less than half the salary she could have made on the Halls, and returned to her impersonations after the first Royal Variety Performance in 1912 (in which she topped the bill appearing as Vesta Tilley despite the fact that the real Miss Tilley was also on the programme). After a successful film career she died in America in 1943. At the Alhambra in 1897 she appeared as Signor Fregoli (an Italian 'eccentric' clown who had only recently completed a season there in his own right).

Other attractions that summer included Alexandra Dagmar, best known as a principal boy in pantomime but formerly a straight concert singer; she had been launched on to the stage in 1884 as 'the great American Actress Miss Grant Washington' playing the title role in an alarming production of Richard III. Also on the bill were Henry Lee 'in his celebrated character representations entitled Great Men, Past and Present'; Vasco the Mad Musician, an Army bandsman trained at Kneller Hall, who had toured South Africa with a small opera company before joining the Frank Fillis Circus where he developed a unique act in which he played 25 instruments in 20 minutes (and claimed he could play 50); May and Flora Hengler, whose family troupe once had the unlikely distinction of juggling before Queen Victoria; King Luis and Ergotti; the Wortleys, 'magnificent Aerial Performance, first appearance in England'; Madeleine Kilpatrick and W.H. Barber 'the unapproachable American Safety Trick Cyclists'.

From July 8th the evening's entertainment also included 'Magnificent CINEMATOGRAPHIC VIEWS of the JUBILEE PROCESSION taken by Messrs. Phil and Bernard (Wrench's Patent). This splendid Panorama is composed of the most interesting and striking features of the whole of the procession, and presents a series of animated pictures never excelled. Every evening, at 9.20.' Most of the major Halls had seized on the potential of the cinema at its outset; many showed some sort of 'animated photographs' regularly from March 1896 onwards. The Alhambra's however were always de luxe, being on this occasion '300 pictures in brilliant colours'. Towards the end of the year the cinema gave place to regular Grand Wrestling Tournaments which claimed to exhibit 'The CHAMPION WRESTLERS of the World - including Pierri (The Terrible Greek)'.

However attractive the ballet might be, the other items on the programme were not normally guaranteed to bring in 'the quality'; and the opinions of those who had consistently taken Sullivan to task for 'prostituting his art' in comic opera may easily be guessed when it became known in what surroundings his forthcoming tribute to Sixty Glorious Years was to be given. These considerations were not likely to worry Sullivan himself as he could be sure of earnest support from all sections of the public. After a full dress rehearsal at one in the afternoon, Victoria & Merrie England was first produced on the evening of May 25th 1897, with inevitable triumph. His diary records

Magnificent house - all the élite of London present, including Princess Louise, Duke of Cambridge and the Adolphus Tecks. Great enthusiasm. Conducted the performance myself. Genuine success.

Indeed, as the Daily Telegraph pointed out rather sharply the next morning, given the time, and composer and the glittering audience, it could hardly have failed. It was a genuine financial success, too; there were six performances a week (nightly); and together with the première on May 25th and the final performance on November 20th, there were 155 performances in all. Sullivan was paid £2,000 down, plus a share of the nightly takings. He was further rewarded by an invitation to dine at Windsor, twenty minutes' private conversation with Her Majesty, and the Jubilee medal. His work was well done and suitably appreciated; it was beyond doubt one of the more attractive productions of Jubilee Year. But it is perhaps going too far to say with his nephew that "he caught the history of England and charmed it into notes."

Synopsis of the ballet

Scene One represents 'ANCIENT BRITAIN' in the period of the Druids. A forest of oaks. Night. As the curtain rises to "tranquil music descriptive of the virgin forest" (Daily News, 26 May), Britannia is discovered sleeping under the sacred oak. Britain's Guardian Genius enters and dances a short pas seul, our old friend "tiddle-iddle-um", "a nice little dance" (The Era, 29 May), after which she kisses Britannia to an obvious melody and prophecies her future greatness in a further pas seul. A slow march, adapted from the Pas de Châles in L'Ile Enchantée, is heard in the distance as Druids, Priestesses and Neophytes enter. The Era noted the effective use of harps and clarinets here; later trombones also played a prominent part. Various Mistletoe rites and sacred dances are performed around the oak, and when these are completed the Arch-Druid, silver sickle in hand, moves towards the oak beneath which Britannia is still asleep. Inspired, he prophecies to the same obvious melody "that she is predestined to be the mother of a race which shall be mighty amongst the Nations of the World". He twines a wreath and places it upon her head. She awakes at last to embrace Britain's Genius, and as all kneel before them the Scene closes with a 'Solemn Tableau' and a reprise of the Druids' march. Once again The Era noted how effectively "the white robes of the Druids and their golden ornaments stand out against the brown background of foliage".

The Short Scene Two depicts 'COMING OF AGE IN QUEEN ELIZABETH'S TIME'. At the back stands a stately Tudor manor. Villagers and retainers assemble on the village green to celebrate the occasion and to greet the young heir, variously described as "the Duke's son" and "the eldest son of the Lord of the Manor". Church bells ring. The young man's father (or old uncle) entrusts to him his own sword and impresses upon him to wear it with honour: "With this I fought for Queen and country". After a short Polka the first theme is resumed and all exeunt.

Scene Three. The Birthday Festivities continue. It is apparently May Day, and an excuse is thus provided for the introduction of a number of different 'traditional' dances. Bag-pipers enter, leading a procession of mummers and revellers. There is an improbable "historical Quadrille" for Britons, Romans, Saxons and Normans. The May Queen enters, "carried on a pretty throne" (The Era), and attended by her Maids of Honour. Morrice Dancers (sic) arrive and perform to a very attractive jaunty 6/8 theme in which The Era again noted clever use of 'pipe and tabor' effects. Their dance is followed by a Mazurka which The Graphic (29 May) thought one of the more specifically English pieces in the score(!). This is danced by 'Knights of the Sword & Rose Maidens', and is followed by a coyly expressive 'Flirtation Scene' for Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Friar Tuck now has a short scene with a dragon, in which according to the Daily Telegraph the two protagonists are represented by bassoon and euphonium. A Hobby-horse dance precedes an elaborately disguised waltz for six women Morrice Dancers. This becomes enlivened as all the other characters join in. Finally the May Queen herself dances what the Daily News thought 'a rather feeble pas seul' before the whole company combines in a Maypole Dance reminiscent of the Act 1 Finale of Ruddygore. The ever-observant Era noted that in all the May Queen's items 'some very pretty effects are created by the contrasts of delicate greens with pale vermilions," while her entrance music and solo dance, the Mazurka, the Flirtation and the scene with Friar Tuck, have all been imported from L'Ile Enchantée.

Scene Four deals with 'THE LEGEND OF HERNE THE HUNTER'. A Wild Glade in Windsor Forest. Night. A storm rages, which the Telegraph likened to that in The Golden Legend, but which has, in fact, also been transplanted from L'Ile Enchantée. Herne's hunters enter (Allegretto misterioso in 5/4 time) carrying the spoils of the chase. Herne himself appears in a flash of lightning (one bar's complete orchestral silence). The hunters lay their booty before him; but he "reproaches them on the insignificance of their offerings" and commands the hunt to be resumed. "They refuse, being tired." He threatens them angrily and after a brief altercation they prostrate themselves before him; ordering them to follow he sweeps away. As the weather grows calmer, a party of Wood Nymphs ("sylphs in shaded heliotrope" - Daily Telegraph) enters (to the theme associated with the Fairy Queen in the earlier ballet) and dances a Lehár-flavoured salon Waltz which The Times (26 May) thought 'very elegant' and The Telegraph 'dreamy'.

The Nymphs leave and Scene Five commences with an approaching Yule-Log procession made up of Pipers, Drummers, Musicians, Peasants, Masqueraders and children. These dance around the log to the first Galop in L'Ile Enchantée. At the close of this, Herne and his followers suddenly reappear and "attack the peasantry who struggle in vain with them". The nymphs enter and protest, accompanied by the Snow Fairy who protects the merry-makers and subdues Herne. Eventually all the peasants run off in fright leaving the nymphs and hunters to join in a reprise of the nymphs' Waltz, with the hunters' 5/4 theme thrown across the waltz tune in astonishing counterpoint.

Scene Six takes place in the Hall of an old castle, in the time of Charles II. It is Christmas. The servants bustle about, arranging the room. Jesters and musicians enter and take their places on benches at the far end of the room. Guests arrive, followed by the Lord & Lady of the Manor attended by other nobility. The Lord of the Manor gives a sign for everyone to be seated whilst he alone stands - "a fine old English Gentleman!" The Head Cook and his attendants proudly bear in the Boar's Head, bedecked with bays and rosemary, to its medieval carol; pages follow with a Baron of Beef. "The Roast Beef of Olde England" competes briefly with the carol until dinner begins. It is accomplished with remarkable speed and the guests proceed to drink to their host's health. He now orders the tables to be removed and the doors opened that the peasantry may come in and 'partake of the Christmas Cheer'. They enter, timidly approach their master and mistress, and express the season's greetings. Four of the retainers now execute the infamous "comic Pas de Quatre" - a fugue in waltz time which Sullivan himself thought "a little daring"! This is followed by a brief solo for a drunken jeste and a hectic game of Blind Man's Buff. Father Christmas enters in procession and distributes gifts; the scene closes with an elaborate kissing dance under the mistletoe, which includes an Eb middle section that may unconsciously have suggested 'Long Live Elizabeth' to Edward German.

Scene Seven was a complex tableau vivant depicting Victoria's coronation on June 28 1838 and represented in precise detail the painting of that occasion by E T Parris, dedicated to the nation by Thomas Boys. While the cast assembled, Sullivan's Imperial March (written for the opening of the Imperial Institute, now Imperial College, in 1893) was played. Such was the effect produced on the audience that the papers recorded at least three extra curtain calls were necessary before they would allow the final Scene to proceed.

Scene Eight: '1897 - BRITAIN'S GLORY'. A typically contrived set-piece in which enter successively the English Grenadier Guards, the Royal Irish Troops and the Gordon Highlanders. The Union is then represented by the cacophonous device of playing all three tunes together. The Daily News commented next day that the audience relished how obviously "The British Grenadiers" had been made the predominant partner - while it alone of all the press seemed to notice that, in Sullivan's own words, "gallant little Wales had been forgotten". The Artists' Volunteer Corps enters to an unmistakable in-joke, followed by the 22nd Bombay Infantry, the Bechuanaland & Cape Mounted Infantry, Canadian Troopers, Australian Riflemen and other Colonials, gladly marching Home, Sweet Home. The assembled forces then 'manoeuvre together' to a reprise of the Union March. One suspects that Sullivan was enjoying himself! Representatives of the Senior Service appear and dance a Hornpipe ("all sailors should dance Hornpipes" ) after which further formations are danced to a Pas Redoublé. Britannia arrives in great solemnity, and the ballet ends inevitably with the National Anthem, during which the 'Grand Electrical Finale' included 'Four Emblematical Pedestal Groups, representing EUROPE, ASIA, AFRICA and AMERICA', which were 'exact representations of the Sculptures on the base of the Albert Memorial'. On the first night the entire audience rose to its feet in great excitement and sang at this point, despite the high and remote key into which the piece has been directed (B major, or rather C flat, the natural key of the orchestra's six harps).

It is instructive to note, in this 'Grand National Ballet', the similarities between Scenes Two and Three and W. P. Frith's famous picture 'Coming of Age in the Olden Time': indeed, the ballet as a whole shows marked parallels with the common stereotypes of Victorian historical iconography. Before the appointment of Lord Acton to Cambridge in 1895, "history" had been a province of literature rather than a discipline in its own right, while the Romantic revival and consequent antiquarian interest had produced several popular works in the genre of Charles Knight's "Old England", described as 'a Pictorial Museum of regal, ecclesiastical, baronial, municipal and popular antiquities' (2 volumes, London, 1845-46). These books were made up of texts and engravings very loosely based on surviving monuments and verbal accounts; Knight's, for example, has twenty pages of text with many lithographs of 'Druids', and a long illustrated account of May Day and Christmas celebrations in the Elizabethan period (cf. Scene Six). Victoria similarly had become equated with Elizabeth as a focus for romantic chivalry, and thus the ballet's apparent anachronisms, particularly during the Jubilee, would in fact have been highly appropriate.

It is noticeable too that Sullivan's music is 'nationalistic' rather than 'Imperialistic', unlike The Banner of St George, Elgar's offering for the Jubilee celebrations. Nor did he attempt to write in a deliberately archaic or particularly 'English' style; his art was that of the romantic historical novel rather than the rattle of the sabre. It was not for nothing that his first cantata Kenilworth (1864) and the grand opera Ivanhoe (1891) were based on Walter Scott, nor that he had consistently returned to Tudor-Stuart and 'Ancient British' themes (The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), Haddon Hall (1892), King Arthur (1894) including his numerous suites of Shakespearian incidental music and the ill-fated Arthurian opera.

Not only was Sullivan in the forefront of Romantic nationalism, he had also become something of a 'Composer Laureate' producing royal music on suitable occasions. From the songs and marches welcoming Princess Alexandra in 1863 to the Festival Te Deum in thanksgiving for her husband's recovery in 1872; from the Ode on the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886 (words by Tennyson) to the Imperial Ode of 1887; from the Jubilee Hymn to the Te Deum for victory in the Boer War (his last completed work), Sullivan's task had been to immortalise Victoria and her family in music. This combination of national and royal strands in his work therefore served to make him the natural choice as composer of a ballet whose aims were not only a similar combination but the bringing to life of scenes which existed, if not in historical fact, at lest in popular prints and the loyal imagination.

Press Reports

The ballet's incongruities are obvious enough to us, but on these the papers next morning were generally silent. There is also, apart from the details already noted, surprisingly little that they found to say about scenery, costumes or presentation. This is understandable considering the need to explain the various scenes, which all did at some length, and to comment on Sullivan's score. It was also true that the final curtain was so late in falling (the Daily News obligingly timed the performance from 9.55 to 11.35 pm) that more detailed reviews would not have met editorial deadlines. The delay was due largely to the long waits between scenes to allow the set to be changed, and although the management apologised for this in the programme the Daily Telegraph expressed an earnest wish that the process could be speeded up as soon as possible, while the Daily News carped that the same end could be better achieved by omitting entirely the scenes involving the Druids and Herne the Hunter!

Only The Times and The Era took trouble to mention the non-musical side of the production. The Times thought T. E. Ryan's scenery "in excellent taste", Alias & Howell Russell's costumes "gorgeous" and the spectacle as a whole "altogether finely mounted". The Era was only a little more specific; it found the scenery "admirably artistic", the costumes "exquisitely artistic" and the management worthy of hearty praise "for the lavish outlay and bold enterprise displayed". The corps de ballet was "drilled to perfection" and the orchestra "as good as ever" (a rather double-edged compliment), while the choreographer, Carlo Coppi, had "shown his wonted skill and ingenuity".

As to the principal dancers, again the critics had remarkably little to say. Perhaps they did not feel qualified to pronounce on the finer points of an Alhambra spectacle, which was certainly not the sort of thing some were used to. However, they did produce some general remarks. Of Signorina Legnani, the première danseuse, The Times commented that she "dances the parts of the Genius of Britain, the May Queen and the Snow Fairy with great skill and grace", while The Era considered her "a dainty personage... as the Genius of Britain she displays her wonted ease 'on the points' and is repeatedly encored". The Stage (27 May), welcoming her back to the Alhambra after a long absence, called her "the life and soul of the ballet... her several solos were heartily applauded". Considering the number and relevance of her pas seuls one is reminded of the 'singing chambermaid' in Gilbert's Trying a Dramatist who introduced at least three extraneous numbers into every play "in order to give briskness to her part"!

All the papers noted that Julie Seale's dance as the tipsy jester had been encored; only The Times spoke of her Robin Hood but found her "excellent" in both parts. The Stage thought Miss Casaboni "a dainty and delightful Maid Marian (who) danced with her usual cleverness". Only our friend from The Era bothered to comment on Ethel Hawthorne's "magnificent" Britannia, but being obviously a man with an eye for detail also noticed that she was "a fine figure of a woman"!

The gentlemen scarcely came off any better; Lytton Grey as Friar Tuck was "very comical" according to the Morning Post (26 May), but only "sufficiently humorous" for The Times. The Stage felt he had "made the most of his chances". Reading between the lines one might say he over-acted. Again, the Morning Post thought Mons. Vanara "acted well" as Herne, while The Times found him "energetic". The Era noted that they both had "little to do but do it well". Of Signor Guainazzi as Little John, who seems to have had nothing to do, no-one said anything at all, though The Era singled out Nancy Houghton, a member of the corps, for her "neat little solo" in scene four.

On Sullivan's score most of the papers had much to say, and each singled out what it considered the best or most likely to last of the individual numbers. By common consent these were the druids' march, the Morrice dance, mazurka and 'disguised' waltz, the storm music, Yule-Log procession and Nymphs' waltz, and of course the "Union March". The comic fugue created the expected flutter; The Graphic thought it "extremely clever and most amusing", the Morning Post "cleverly and humorously introduced" and the Telegraph "really finely-developed". The Daily News "scarcely expected to find a fugue in an Alhambra ballet" while The Times sneered "It is sufficiently erudite to make its effect on the audience, without being hampered by any such overpowering degree of musical value as would make its neglect a matter of regret when the present production has run its course". None of the critics seems to have spotted that the theme is in fact a naughtily-elaborated side-swipe at the National Anthem.

With regard to the Union March, two schools of thought existed over the tune used to accompany the Irish troops. The Daily News and the Graphic took it to be 'Garryowen' while The Times and the Morning Advertiser (26 May) gave their votes, correctly, for 'St Patrick's Day'. The Standard, which plainly didn't know, commented safely (26 May) that "the Royal Irish enter to the tune associated with them". The Times also noted in typical vein that

The treatment of these and other popular themes... is hardly as witty as the similar devices in the Britannia overture of Mackenzie, or the original Finale to the first act of the same composer's His Majesty; but it is only fair to remember that Sir Arthur Sullivan is here appealing to a very much less cultivated audience than those for which the works mentioned were intended.

Other papers were less snooty, but had the same general opinion of the work as a whole:

Repeating the service he has already rendered to comic opera, Sir Arthur has in Victoria shown that it is possible to be effective, and to elicit the close attention and appreciation of a mixed audience without any sacrifice of musicianship or good taste.

Daily News

He retains his fun and his gift of melody, and while although at the Alhambra his music is, of course, not unduly ambitious, it nevertheless, in details of orchestration and particularly in the delicate and often humorous treatment of the wood wind, shows the hand of the experienced musician.


Sullivan knows the stage as few musicians know it, and consequently he has been able to supply the Alhambra management with music which appeals at once to the man in the street and to the scholar. No one can possibly conceive Sullivan composing music that had not in it the elements of popularity and an original humour of its own.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 29 May

The humour and the delicacy of the score were other themes taken up by many of the press:

Again and again... the ear is struck by a phrase of singular sweetness and suitability, by a movement of happy, curious quaintness.


The music is altogether delightful - melodious, spirited, abounding in humorous touches, and scored with the deftness of a master. Doubtless many of the graceful and fanciful numbers will find their way to the concert room.

Morning Post

... brilliantly successful - enriched with a delightful score, full of melody, of pleasant ingenuity, happily appropriate... distinct musical humour, quaintly obtained - a veritable masterpiece, entirely worthy of its composer.


Sir Arthur is heard in his happiest vein, and combines a delicious flow of melody with the most musicianly orchestration. (There is)... infinite humour in the treatment of the orchestration.

Morning Advertiser

The Times, as usual, felt differently:

He has been careful not to present the Alhambra audience with orchestration so refined as to be ineffective or unintelligible. He has scored the work with a bold touch worthy of M. Jacobi himself (!), and if he has not yet conquered the secret of obtaining a refined effect from a noisy score, as has been done by such masters of ballet-writing as Tschaikowsky in Casse-noisette, or Delibes in Sylvia and Coppélia, there is every reason to hope that his next ballet will be inferior to none of these excellent models. There is one essential quality in good ballet music, for the sake of which any want of refinement can be readily forgiven, and without which real success cannot be obtained; that quality is swing, or entrain, and, to say the truth, it is one which appears all too rarely in the present instance.

But then, The Times' critic was Fuller Maitland, who had always attempted to lessen Sullivan's reputation as against that of his own idols Stanford and Parry.

In general, however, the papers saw little to grumble at; the Daily News thought it "the best ballet ever produced at the Alhambra", concluding in "a perfect blaze of triumph"; The Stage said that "time after time the audience burst forth into exhuberant enthusiasm". Even The Times had to admit that there was "enthusiastic applause". The man from The Era summed it all up in one paragraph:

It is one of the most splendid artistic achievements which have ever been made at this popular place of amusement. It is not only a beautiful and gorgeous spectacle; it is a lesson in history and historical costume, accompanied by some of the best music ever written for ballet purposes... Victoria & Merrie England is a triumph, and is likely to be immensely popular during the forthcoming Jubilee.

But perhaps the fairest review of all came from the unlikely pages of The Sun ('All the News that's fit to print'). Their critic, James Glover, had a long-standing public argument with the Alhambra management over the propriety of importing foreign composers of ballet and now crowed that he had won his case: "It is to THE SUN and to THE SUN alone that we owe the fact that this house is now filled with its first work in the ballet line by a native composer!" After claiming that Victoria & Merrie England "is a pantomimographic stage display, illustrative of real English life," he concluded that

...Sir Arthur Sullivan's music is the music for the people. There is no attempt made to force on the public the dullness of academic experience. The melodies are all as fresh as last year's wine, and as exhilarating as sparkling champagne. There is not one tune which tires the hearing, and in the matter of orchestration our only humorist has let himself run riot, not being handicapped with libretto, and the gain is enormous... All through we have orchestration of infinite delicacy, tunes of alarming simplicity, but never a tinge of vulgarity, and a total absence of the cymbal-brassy combination which some ballets never do without...

The final scene was somewhat disappointing, and enthusiasm never reached fever heat, but this must be attributed more to the paucity of incident in the scenario than to anything else. A collection of scenes chosen for prettiness of effect seems to have been the idea, and as such the new ballet must be counted an undoubted success. At the same time, may I hazard a regret that a more coherent story has not been employed, and that more individuality was not given to the whole surrounding? The day may be said to have arrived when we want a little drama in our £10,000 ballet; when we may confidently expect to have the libretti of these entertainments written by real dramatists, and then handed over to the ballet master, so that some kind of continuous interest may be created... it certainly seems a pity to waste a composer like Sir Arthur Sullivan on a series of tableaux vivants which - no matter how patriotic - do not achieve any real impressive result.

26 May

The Encore, a music-hall journal with a policy of visiting one major house each week, postponed its visit to the Alhambra until 26 July, when Victoria & Merrie England had been running two months. In the course of a long and detailed review of the variety Bill ("Emmy's trained toy terriers proved an interesting show"), it noted briefly that the ballet was maintaining its earlier high standard:

The directors of the Alhambra are quite certain that they possess one of the finest ballets that was ever produced at their house, as not only is the scenery so pretty, but the dresses are also the richest that have ever been seen at this house... The house, having received a visit from Royalty, is now quite a fashionable resort.

29 July

The Morning Advertiser had prophesied the same thing after the opening night:

Victoria & Merrie England marks an era in the development of 'variety theatre', and through it the Alhambra has received the hall-mark of society approval, for without a doubt the Alhambra will be the most popular resort during the coming months.

The approval which The Times and others were unwilling to give was irreversible. The Prince of Wales, Princess Alexandra and other members of the Royal Family visited the Alhambra no less than nineteen times during the six months' run of Sullivan's ballet. Respectability for variety and the music hall was henceforth certain, and was secured by the first 'Royal Command' Performance at the Palace Theatre in 1912 and its now-annual successors.

As a product of the Diamond Jubilee, Victoria & Merrie England can hardly claim a place in the permanent ballet repertory, though a new production would re-introduce it as an entertaining and eccentric curiosity. Revivals were in fact projected by the Festival Ballet as part of Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee Celebrations in 1977, and by the Northern Ballet as part of the Buxton Festival in the piece's centenary year, 1997. As indirectly responsible for the legitimate acceptance of Variety it should not be forgotten.

Projected performances, however, until very recently, were dogged by one basic and insuperable problem. The autograph score and most of the orchestral material had simply disappeared. Wilfred Bendall arranged the whole ballet for publication as a piano solo; Sullivan himself had arranged its first five scenes, heavily cut, into three Suites for concert use, and Bendall had transcribed these three Suites for piano duet - but only the first Suite still exists in its orchestral form. The third Suite was partially recorded for the Zonophone Company as long ago as 1907, by the Black Diamonds Band in a further transcription for military band, from which some hints at the original orchestration could be gathered. For the scene depicting the queen's coronation Sullivan had re-used his Imperial March of 1893, but this was originally written for huge open-air forces (as compared with the smaller resources of a theatre pit). The final scene's transcription of the National Anthem is harmonically very close to the arrangement by Sir Michael Costa, universally used throughout the later nineteenth century, whose scoring survives.

With these exceptions it might have been thought impossible to reconstruct the whole ballet. However, the survey of contemporary press reports of the first production, published in the first edition of the present article, had produced many details of the instrumentation of particular pieces. The further work of the Sullivan Society in preparing orchestral parts for its new performing edition of L'Ile Enchantée in 1990 allowed the necessary movements to be transferred easily from one ballet into the other, and the re-discovered correspondence between Sullivan and Bendall in the spring of 1897 revealed further details of scoring and counterpoint.

Armed with all this information, a very substantial task of editing and reconstruction was carried out by Roderick Spencer to produce material for the world première recording of Victoria & Merrie England. There, Scenes 1, 2 and 4 are largely Sullivan's own orchestration; scenes 3, 5 and 7 include's Sullivan's own work and incorporate hints from other sources; much of the scoring of Scene 8 is suggested in notes in the solo piano reduction, or can be assembled from elsewhere. Only the instrumentation of Scene 6 is completely editorial. It is a great tribute to Roderick Spencer's work that one of the first reviews of the recording was able to say that it is impossible to tell where Sullivan leaves off and Spencer begins.

Further Bibliography

L. Baily: The Gilbert and Sullivan Book (revd. ed.), London 1966

R. Busby: British Music Hall, London 1976

Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians (5th ed.), London 1954

G. Le Roy: Music Hall Stars of the Nineties, London 1952

R. Mander & J. Mitchenson: British Music Hall (revd. ed.), London 1974

H. Pearson: Gilbert & Sullivan (Penguin), London 1950

T. Rees: Thespis - A Gilbert & Sullivan Enigma, London 1964

R. Strong: And When Did You Last See Your Father?

The Victorian Painter and British History, London 1978

C. D. Stuart & A. J. Park: The Variety Stage, London 1895

H. Sullivan & N. Flower: Sir Arthur Sullivan -

His Life, Letters & Diaries (2nd ed.), London 1950

P. Young: Sir Arthur Sullivan, London 1971


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