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In contrast to previous Sullivan biographers, who have suppressed references to Sir Arthur's sex and gambling activities, Jacobs lingers weightily over each and every hint in the bachelor-composer's letters and diaries. Unfortunately, however, these occasional revelations (or speculations) don't really contribute much to a sense of Sullivan's elusive personality--and this long, stolid, competent biography is oddly flat and lifeless. With conscientious scholarship and a welcome breadth of musical knowledge, Jacobs follows child prodigy Arthur (of Irish/English/Italian ancestry) through early influences: boy chorister duties; studies with Thomas Helmore, leader of the Church of England's musical revival; the Royal Academy, a scholarship to study in Leipzig, the exposure to Offenbach as well as Austro-German masters. Detailing Sullivan's non-G&S composing career, Jacobs is frank about the ""banality"" of The Lost Chord and other pieces, about failures like Ivanhoe (""an unhappy and longwinded compromise between the old 'ballad' style and the newer 'Wagnerian' allusiveness""); he makes modest claims for more successful pieces--as well as Onward, Christian Soldiers (""subtle and truly original compostion""). On the other hand, he shrewdly notes the parodies of grand opera in the G&S operettas; he acknowledges that Sullivan's best music was written for Gilbert--with a few perceptive specifics about the words/music interplay. Disappointingly, however, Jacobs brings little apparent enthusiam to his discussion of the D'oyly Carte operas and no drama whatsoever to the Gilbert] Sullivan/Carte tensions--material which has been so vividly evoked elsewhere. (As for the shattered partnership: Gilbert ""was undoubtedly to blame,"" and ""Sullivan was caught in an animosity between Gilbert and Carte."") Likewise, there's scant illumination of Sullivan's well-known conflict between profitable ""low"" music and dreams of becoming the English Mendelssohn. (""Habituated to luxury, he evidently lacked the nerve to say no to Carte's proffer of a goldmine."") And, above all, Sullivan-the-man emerges as a bland enigma here: Jacobs notes his family, loyalties, his gambling, compulsive socializing, and intellectual narrowness; evidence of visits to Paris brothels is made much of; but, despite intense speculation about frequency of sexual intercourse (with labored diary-decoding), Sullivan's long, on/off relationship with Mrs. Fanny Ronalds remains a shadowy sketch. Thick, sturdy, and authoritative life-history, then--but with neither enough musical/psychological substance for commanding biography nor enough color and brio to engage most Savoyards.

Pub Date: Aug. 30th, 1984
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press