Ian Bradley goes out on a limb in his refreshingly succinct and bracingly revisionist biography of the greatest English composer between Purcell and Elgar: he claims that although Arthur Sullivan will inevitably be remembered and revered for his partnership with W S Gilbert, church music was ‘his most abiding love’ and his largely undervalued oratorios, hymns and anthems are marked by ‘spiritual sensitivity’, ‘artistic competence’ and ‘daring innovation’.
A battery of musicologists stretching back more than a century might take issue with him. Yet amid claims that Sullivan was guilty of ‘sanctimonious vulgarity’ and ‘abysmally cheap sentimentality’, Bradley holds his ground. Might the tide be turning in his favour? He notes that the first ever recording of The Light of the World, Sullivan’s full-dress oratorio based on the life of Jesus, was hailed on its release three years ago as ‘truly revelatory’ and ‘brimful of captivating melodic charm, communicative flair and technical confidence’.
Of course, such terms have long been used to describe Sullivan’s Savoy operas. Perhaps one useful effect of Bradley’s stance is to urge consideration of his oeuvre as a whole rather than a thing of two halves: he encourages us to set the lighter and more ‘accessible’ qualities of his