Sullivan began the composition of The Light of the World at the end of September, 1872 and it would occupy him for many months. In a letter to his friend, J. W. Davison, dated 16 May 1873 Sullivan makes clear the unusually long time (for him) that he spent on its composition. He wrote:
I never go out in the world as my Oratorio takes all my time and thought...I have stuck to my work since last Michaelmas without faltering. The 1st part is done & is in rehearsal and the second is rapidly progressing. The words are all compiled from the Bible by Grove & myself. I think the book is really beautiful thanks to dear old 'G'.1
During the rehearsal period, Sullivan made several visits to Birmingham, where the work was to receive its first performance at the Festival of 1873. He soon became a popular figure with the choristers. As one, William Poutney, later recalled:
I well remember the rehearsals of this work. The composer came several times to try over the choruses, and his firm but gentle manner soon made him a favourite with the choristers, who seemed to vie with each other in the desire to make the oratorio a success. 2
As the time of the first performance approached, the betrothal of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, to the Grand Duchess Marie, daughter of Tsar Alexander II was announced. Sullivan numbered the Duke amongst his friends and immediately sought and received permission to dedicate the Oratorio to his future wife.
The first performance took place at the Birmingham Festival on 27 August 1873 in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh with Tietjens, Trebelli, Sims Reeves and Santley as the principal soloists. It had been confidently expected that the work would be a masterpiece that would rival Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah in popularity. Indeed, the first performance was a triumph and the President of the Festival, the Earl of Shrewsbury, publicly congratulated the composer at the end of the performance.
Sullivan used to say that when the lull in the cheering came and he heard Lord Shrewsbuy's voice calling out 'Mr. Sullivan' a sudden dread came upon him lest the religious prejudices of the noble President should have been wounded by the treatment of the libretto, and that he was going to hear a protest. He was soon relieved, however, and Lord Shrewsbury's eulogy was warmly supported by the audience.3
The press were equally enthusiastic. The critic of The Standard wrote:
After due reflection the general opinion is that in his oratorio Mr. Arthur Sullivan has enriched the world's musical library with a fine work, distinctly representative of the modern school of composition, and calculated to exist in that sphere where it holds a prominent position as a specimen of the new type of oratorio, the dignity of which it upholds. 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; and to Mr. Sullivan belongs the acknowledgement that he has incontestably secured great honours to himself without robbing his predecessors of a single laurel. The Light of the World has nothing in common with the Messiah; it borrows neither style nor ideas from the Passion Music; and it even steers clear of that magnetic rock, Mendelssohn, upon which so many fair and well-freighted barks have been lured to their doom.
And The Observer of 31 August 1873 commented:
If we have spoken at some length of The Light of the World it is merely because the occasion amply justified our doing so. The oratorio is one of imagination, of not only clever ideas, but of really devotional religious thought. The orchestra is handled throughout in a manner which only one who is fully acquainted with each instrument, its individual capabilities, and its effect in combination, is able to appreciate. The instrumentation is never obtrusive, but it is always delicate and expressive, while many orchestral passages are notable for the beauty of the scoring. The vocal parts, solo and choral, are written with the object of producing the fullest effects by the most legitimate means. They exhibit great talent in treatment, and, considering the nature of the subject, are written with considerable variety. In conclusion The Light of the World is a great production, and we may safely look now to Mr. Sullivan for sacred works of the highest class, since the originality of his genius has escaped the siren-like influence of Mendelssohn, whose fascinating style has proved too frequently the destruction of original talent.
The Duke declared the work to be "a triumph" and Gounod, who heard the work at a later performance in London called it "a masterpiece."
After its premiere in Birmingham, performances followed in other towns and cities: Bootle on 5 January 1874, Nottingham on 21 January 1874 and Manchester on 19 February 1874.
The music lovers of Manchester, perhaps realising that Sullivan would derive little pecuniary reward for the months he had laboured over the score, arranged a complimentary dinner at which Sullivan was presented with a 'handsome silver cup and a considerable sum of money'.
Sullivan also derived income from the sale of scores. According to the contract with Cramer for the publication of the vocal score, dated 4 September 1873, Sullivan was paid £300 in respect of all rights, with further payments of £100 when sales reached 2,000 and again when the 4,000 mark was reached.
But this was considerably less than the income he would derive from one of the Savoy operas, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it would be some years before he would compose another large scale choral work.
By 1899, when he came to write an assessment of Sullivan as a composer, Benjamin Findon could no longer put it in quite the same class as the greatest oratorios:
To maintain the peculiar quality of sacred music throughout a long and diffuse text restrains within too narrow a limit a gift which leans so closely to the dramatic as Sullivan's; but again we are constrained to admire the wonderful art of the part writing and the beauty of the orchestral accompaniments. A fine illustration of his accomplishment in the direction of concerted vocal music is the imposing chorus, "I will pour out my spirit," while his more delicate method is well instanced by the grateful children's chorus, "Hosanna to the Son of David"; and his exquisite handling of four and five part harmony is adequately shown in the unaccompanied quartet and quintet. A somewhat singular feature in connection with this work is that it presents Jesus in the first person, and an inner orchestra is provided especially to accompany the utterances of the Saviour, which throughout are particularly solemn in character. "The Light of the World" may not take rank with the highest examples of oratorio art, but its undoubted merits entitle it to an honoured and intimate companionship with its more favoured brethren. It is a member of the same family, it has the noble traits of a great inheritance; but it is of the younger branch and once removed from the direct line of succession. Its production gave an additional cachet to the composer's fame, and its musicianly qualities will certainly not lessen his reputation in the eyes of the student of the future. 4
1 Letter quoted in Allen, R. Sir Arthur Sullivan, Composer and Personage, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 1875.
2 The Mercury, Birmingham, 3 August 1895, quoted in Young, P. M., Sir Arthur Sullivan, J. M. Dent, London, 1971.
3 The Manchester Guardian, 23 November 1900, quoted in Young.
4 Findon, B. W. Sullivan as a Composer in Lawrence, A. Sir Arthur Sullivan, Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences, Bowden, London, 1899.
17 August, 2011
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