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David Owen Norris: ‘The songs show us that Sullivan is no pale imitation of something else’.

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s songs are the work of a singer, and a good singer at that – he was First Boy after only a couple of years in the Chapel Royal. Thomas Helmore, the choirmaster, took singing seriously. He was famous for the beauty and purity of his one-note chanting – Sir George Elvey, the organist at Windsor, hearing Helmore on a day when there was no choir and no organ, remarked: ‘I never in my life heard anything to approach the grandeur and solemnity of that monotone service.’ The young Sullivan took this lesson to heart – his most famous song, The Lost Chord, begins by quoting the versicle ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’.

John Hullah, the Gareth Malone of his day, helped to teach the Chapel Royal boys to sing, and Sullivan learned something of his later breezy comic style from Hullah’s catchy compositions. So Sullivan’s early musical life was spent under the influence of two great singers. ‘Mr Hullah grinds them, and I strop them’, said Helmore, referring to the processes applied to cut-throat razors.

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Opera Now
April 2017

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