Arthur Sullivan

The nineteenth-century tendency toward specialization was much abetted by the widening gulf set in between “high” and “low” genres in the twentieth, which increasingly entailed the segregation of performers and audiences as well as composers, and a rigid hierarchy of taste that reinforced social distinctions. That hierarchy is already evident in the case of operetta, not so much in the way in which the genre was valued by audiences as in the way in which it was valued by its own specialist composers. The three with whom we are acquainted – Offenbach, Strauss, and Sullivan – all eventually aspired to the higher status of the very genre they spoofed.  (III, 657)

There’s something Faustian about this bargain: aspire to the “high” and risk alienating the masses (and their $) in the pursuit of Art; give “the people” what they want (ie. embrace the “low”) and risk forever being branded as an unserious, pandering lightweight. Operettas of the 19th century are a lot like musicals today – big market, little respect from the arbiters of high taste. For an ambitious, highly talented composer like Sullivan, this false dichotomy was an iron cage. When he attempted to make the transition to “serious opera” with Ivanhoe, his adoring public “betrayed him,” and he was mocked by the taste-makers. Embittered and ghettoized to the lighter genres, he soldiered on for the last ten years of his life with both inspiration and popularity flagging, dying at a fairly young age with the “feeling he had been mistreated and unjustly forgotten” (658). Ironically for such a master of comedy, poor Sullivan’s story is more fitting for tragic opera than the operetta form in which he so greatly excelled.


  1. Ralph Locke says:

    Each case is surely different. Of the three composers mentioned, it does sounds as if Sullivan was particularly torn by a desire to use his talents more “worthily” (and be recognized for this). Sad, indeed, if he didn’t understand the marvels he produced with Gilbert….

    In more recent times, there have been artists of a “popular”/populist inclination who have tried to produce more “serious” work (by certain standards of the day). Some have succeeded remarkably and durably (Gershwin). Others produced work that hasn’t held listeners’ attention/affection very much, after an initial flurry of interest (Paul McCartney’s oratorio, Billy Joel’s piano pieces as adapted in Lisztian style by another musician).

    Where do Duke Ellington’s and Dave Brubeck’s large-scale pieces belong along this continuum, I wonder?

  2. Josh McNeill says:

    It makes me wonder what would have happened if these composers, or the ones mentioned by Ralph, started out writing for both genres. It seems like the problem only becomes apparent when someone has spent too much time or become too popular writing one type of music first. They’ve created expectations that they’re then expected to fulfill at every step. Maybe that’s why Gershwin would have more success than someone like McCartney. Gershwin had a pretty clear interest in writing “high” music right from the start. It’s like the musical equivalent of being typecast.

  3. Mark Samples says:

    Interesting comments. I am just this moment writing about a modern example of this in my dissertation. Sufjan Stevens (Brooklyn composer/musician by way of the midwest), I argue, is following a variation of this track from popular to serious composer. Only with him, he started out in the first place with a limited audience. He made a huge splash in 2005 with his concept album on the social/geographical history of Illinois, and is now balking at the popularity by going in a completely different direction than the project that gained him notoriety—but all in the name of progress and authenticity to his art (sound familiar?).

    Josh mentions the metaphor of the “typecast” serious composer. An even better term in my estimation is what I call the “artist brand.” It captures the matrix of expectations that are attached to “serious” art (elite, experimental, cultured, high, etc.), but places it in the modern context of the culture industry. This is an important concept that I’m trying to get at in my dissertation—tracking the influence of brand theory on 20th and 21st century music.

  4. Mark Samples says:

    On second reading, Josh, “typecast” is a nice concept to capture the stubbornness of distinction between “high” and “low” artists, and the difficulty a musician might have in moving from one category to another. Ellington certainly was confronted with this when trying to get Black, Brown and Beige off the ground. Written for his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943, it was supposed to launch him into the realm of more serious music. In the media coverage leading up to the event, Ellington had captured his aspirations by proclaiming that his successes in popular music had been fine, but when it came to his compositional career, he was “not content with just fox trots.” The piece was largely panned by critics at the debut, often for being “formless.”

    One more thought: typecasting works both ways. Just think of Renée Fleming’s recent Dark Hope, her interpretations of rock songs, that garnered a decidedly tepid response from critics.

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