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Classics on Sunday: Sullivan songs

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ON Tuesday I wrote about the sheer joy of taking part in a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan, and this made me think of a couple of Sullivan’s serious compositions.

He wrote the part-song The Long Day Closes in 1868, three years before he met Gilbert, and it became one of his most popular works. The lyrics were by Henry Fothergill Chorley (1808-1872), a prolific art, music and literary critic and rather unsuccessful opera librettist and novelist.

These are the words:

No star is o’er the lake,

Its pale watch keeping,

The moon is half awake,

Through grey mist creeping,

The last red leaves fall round

The porch of roses,

The clock hath ceased to sound,

The long day closes.

Sit by the silent hearth

In calm endeavour,

To count the sounds of mirth,

Now dumb for ever.

Heed not how hope believes

And fate disposes:

Shadow is round the eaves,

The long day closes.

The lighted windows dim

Are fading slowly.

The fire that was so trim

Now quivers lowly.

Go to the dreamless bed

Where grief reposes;

Thy book of toil is read,

The long day closes.

It used frequently to be sung at funerals of members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which produced the G & S operettas.

Here it is performed by the King’s Singers during the 2008 Proms season:

It was orchestrated by Carl Davis for the great Mike Leigh film Topsy Turvy (1999)about Gilbert and Sullivan.

The other piece I would like to highlight is Yea, Though I Walk, from the oratorio The Light of the World. Sullivan wrote it in 1873, after his first collaboration with Gilbert (the opera Thespis, first performed on December 29, 1871, but now mostly lost) but before their second (Trial by Jury, 1875). The Light of the World was first performed at the Birmingham Festival on 27 August 1873.

Sullivan wrote the libretto, based on the New Testament, with the help of the music scholar George Grove. It follows the whole life of Christ, told mostly in the first person. It was an ambitious idea, given the inevitable comparisons with Handel’s Messiah and other great works. The Standard commented: ‘Considering the difficulties of precedent with which Mr Sullivan had to deal, in Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Passion music, not to mention Mendelssohn’s unfinished Christus, he may be said to have entered the lists against an array of giants. To say that in the face of these he has held his own ground, if he has not encroached on theirs, is to bestow praise of the highest significance.’

The Light of the World was widely performed during Sullivan’s lifetime, but seldom since then.

These are the words of Yea, Though I Walk:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death,

I will fear no evil,

for Thou art with me,

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death,

I will fear no evil,

for Thou art with me,

Thy rod and thy staff comfort me,

thy rod and staff comfort me.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death,

I will fear no evil,

for Thou art with me,

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death,

I will fear no evil,

for Thou art with me,

for Thou art with me,

art with me.

It was written as an unaccompanied quartet but I can’t find a recording on YouTube. This one is by the choir of Keble College, Cambridge.

I’d like to dedicate these two songs to the memory of our dear friend Rob Freeman, who died yesterday. RIP Rob.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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