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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

16. Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, Billy Budd



Historians have given the erroneous impression that, after the famous 'Savoy carpet' quarrel, there was a break in the Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration; in reality, this was not the case. In 1892 the two Savoyards chanced to meet at a party given by their mutual acquaintance, Oscar Wilde. Wilde, a great enthusiast for the G and S canon and HMS Pinafore in particular, suggested, only half in jest, that they should write a sequel. Gilbert was keen on a nautical version of the Magic Lozenge story, but Sullivan would have none of it. Wilde then recollected a short story by Herman Melville which he had just been reading: why not, he said, adapt Billy Budd? It was perfect for musical treatment: set aboard a man-o'-war, with plenty of drama, full of great characters and - knowing Sullivan's enjoyment of a technical challenge - an all-male cast! Gilbert was at first uneasy, but felt that he could not let such an opportunity pass. Thus was born the operetta Billy Budd.

Gilbert sketched out the libretto in no time, even managing to slip in 'The Magic Lozenge' as a sub-plot. He did, though, alter the ending of Melville's tale substantially, for the Savoy audiences would have found the tragic conclusion too much to swallow. The libretto gives plenty of scope for choruses, trios, duets and solos. What composer could resist such lyrics as Captain Vere's opening song:

      VERE     I'm Captain of the 'Indomitable'
      ALL       And a right good captain too
      VERE     You're very, very good,
                     And be it understood,
                     I command a right good crew.
      ALL      We're very, very good, (etc.)

Or Billy's 'Madrigal' in Act 1:

      Billy Budd, king o' the birds!
      He sighed for the moon's bright ray,
      Looking down on the poop-deck,
      He sang 'Ah, well-a-day!'...

Or the wicked Claggart's meeting with Vere, when he tries to undermine Billy's good character:

      Kind captain, I've important information,
      Sing hey, the kind commander that you are,
      About a certain intimate relation,
      Sing hey, the merry sailor and the tar...

Sullivan responded to Gilbert's words with music of great force and emotion, unmatched in their previous collaborations. Particularly fine are the 'Great Shanty' in Act 2, which has a Handelian breadth to it, and the poignantly- moving closing scene, where, just as Billy is about to be hanged from the mainyard, Red Whiskers reveals that he is in fact Captain Vere's son and Claggart his long-lost uncle.

Sadly, the Wilde scandal broke out just as Sullivan was completing his score; the public indignation that ensued made it a risky proposition to stage, and the work has remained unperformed.


Copyright © 9 March 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


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