1911 No. 2: W.S. Gilbert

W.S. Gilbert died 100 years ago. Here is part of a letter he wrote to Sir Arthur Sullivan in May 1884, following Sullivan’s rejection of his latest plot for a Savoy opera – Richard D’Oyly Carte had given them six months to come up with another one.

They patched up their differences, however, and Gilbert, the story goes, was inspired by a Japanese sword falling off the wall of his study to come up with The Mikado.

After the lapse of a week during which I wrote three lyrics and a considerable amount of dialogue, I received a letter from you to the effect that you could not bring yourself to like the plot, and that you wished me to construct a story in which there would be no supernatural or improbable element. This specification of your wishes, expressed as it was, for the first time, some four months after the production of Princess Ida, seemed to me to be so wholly unreasonable that I had no alternative but to express my regret that it was impossible for me to agree to your suggestion. Upon this you wrote to me that you felt convinced that my decision was final, and that therefore further discussion was useless. And so ends a musical and literary association of seven years’ standing – an association of exceptional reputation – an association unequalled in its monetary results, and hitherto undisturbed by a single jarring or discordant element. In justification of the course that I adopted in declining to construct a new libretto, I must point out to you that your own course of action in desiring me to do so, can only be justified on the assumption that, by the terms of our agreement, I am bound to go on constructing new libretti until I hit upon one which meets your views as to what a libretto should be. That you regard my relation towards yourself as of this servile nature, I do not for one moment believe. As reasonably might I suppose that a composer of your distinction is bound to set to music any words with which I might think fit to supply him. You must remember that we are not absolutely free agents – that I am not in the position of an author who comes to a composer with a suggestion which the composer is at entire liberty to reject – this would be our relation to one another if no agreement existed. But as a matter of fact, an agreement does exist – an agreement entered into presumably on the assumption that we have sufficient confidence in each other – you to accept my plots as belief to be good enough for your purpose, I to accept your musical setting as adding an invaluable element of attraction to my libretto. That my duty is to supply you with a series of pieces ‘on approval’ I cannot for one moment admit.

If you desired to devote a year to the composition of (say) a grand opera, I should, with Carte’s consent, have been most willing to forgo, for such a period, the agreement by which we are bound. I would even have accepted the subordinate position which the librettist of such an opera must necessarily occupy, if you considered that a work of such an ambitious class would, in any way, be furthered by my co-operation. But I need hardly remind you that such a work would be wholly and ridiculously out of place at the Savoy Theatre.

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