It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!
I'm sure we've all heard music by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) -- but have you heard anything by Sullivan without Gilbert?
Sullivan was not always known as a composer of light opera; it was only after he met W.S. Gilbert in 1870 that his focus turned to musical theater. Before that, he composed a number of critically acclaimed pieces for the concert hall, including his Irish Symphony
, a cello concerto, and his best-known concert work, his Overture di Ballo
, in 1870. Interestingly, in the years after Sullivan's death, a number of critics argued that his shift to musical theater was a waste of his talents. One, Fuller Maitland, wrote in 1901 that Sullivan's early work "at once stamped him as a genius" who would never fulfill his promise as he produced fewer and fewer serious concert works. This seems an unkind assessment of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, but certainly Sullivan's early concert works deserve more attention than they have received.
Arthur Sullivan was persuaded to compose a cello concerto in April 1866. At the same concert where his only symphony premiered, Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti played the Schumann cello concerto. Sullivan was impressed by Piatti's playing, and Piatti was evidently impressed by Sullivan's symphony; after that concert Sullivan immediately set to work on a new concerto for Piatti. Sullivan's concerto, first performed by Piatti in November of the same year, filled a large gap in the repertoire at the time. In the 1860s, there were few cello concerti in the standard repertoire: Schumann's has never been frequently played, and none of the Romantic concerti in today's standard repertoire had yet been composed, so cello soloists of the time tended to stick largely to Vivaldi, Haydn, and Boccherini.
Eventually, the likes of Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar came to dominate the cello concerto repertoire, and early Romantic cello concerti such as Sullivan's fell into neglect. After Sullivan's death in 1900, his cello concerto would only be performed twice before the 1980s: once a few years after the composer's death, and once in 1953. The score and parts were never published, but remained in storage at the offices of music publisher Chapell & Co, where they were destroyed in a fire in 1964. But two copies of the solo part survived, with indications of orchestral cues written in. In the early 1980s, Charles Mackerras, who had conducted the 1953 performance, used these two copies, along with his own memory, to produce the reconstruction of the concerto that we know today. Appropriately enough, at the premiere of the reconstructed version, the cello soloist was also someone closely connected to musical theater: Julian Lloyd Webber, younger brother of musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber!
The structure of Sullivan's cello concerto is rather unusual. The first movement, the most substantial in most concerti, is instead the shortest here, serving as a brief introduction before a cadenza segues into the second movement. The opening theme from the first movement ends up serving as a second theme in the finale, which is in sonata allegro form rather than a more traditional rondo.
I. Allegro moderato
II. Andante espressivo (3:20)
III. Molto vivace (10:17)
For those interested, there's also a video of Julian Lloyd Webber playing the concerto -- unfortunately not the best audio quality, but maybe worth seeing just for the musical theater connection: