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
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,
be it understood,
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,
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