Program Notes

2007 Spring – Festival Te Deum – Sullivan

The Festival Te Deum by Sir Arthur Sullivan

Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was a trial to his parents: An unmotivated student as a child, he nonetheless matriculated at Oxford, and later transferred to Cambridge. He did not, however, graduate, and his extracurricular interests and escapades caused numerous family rows; while on maneuvers with the Grenadier Guards, for instance, he concealed a young actress in his tent, which brought his father, Prince Consort Albert, to Cambridge to remonstrate. Two weeks later, the Prince Consort contracted typhoid fever, and shortly thereafter died. The Queen blamed the strain caused by her son’s antics for Albert’s death, and indeed the often-scandalous deportment of the Prince of Wales may have been the incentive that kept Victoria on the throne for such an extended period. (He finally succeeded to the throne at her death in 1902, already 59, as Edward VII, and reigned until his own death in 1910– a more effective monarch than many anticipated.)

But much of that changed in November, 1861, when Albert Edward (or Bertie, as he was generally known) contracted typhoid himself. He had been staying at Londesborough Lodge- undoubtedly a hunting excursion, of which he was fond- and at least one other guest at that time, Lord Chesterfield, died as a result of the disease. Bertie, however, recovered, and the happy ending to his ordeal improved relations with his mother, and with the British public (although it did not end his eccentric behavior!). In an elaborate spectacle of gratitude, the Prince’s recovery was feted at a grand concert on May 1, 1872, organized by the Prince’s brother, the Duke of Edinburgh. Several composers wrote music for the celebration, including 29-year-old Arthur Sullivan, who composed the subject Festival Te Deum. The concert was held at the Crystal Palace, located on one of the highest hills in south London; it was attended by as many as 30,000 guests, and the musical forces numbered over 2000, including orchestra, band, and chorus.

The composer, Arthur Sullivan, was born in London in 1842 to an army bandmaster and his wife; Arthur learned to play every instrument in the military band by the age of 8. He was a chorister of the Chapel Royal, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music; from 1858 he studied in Leipzig, the musical capital of northern Europe, completing his studies in 1861. Incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which had been his final project at Leipzig, was performed in London in 1862 and made him an instant celebrity- though it did not confer lasting wealth. He was engaged thereafter in other large-scale projects- a ballet, a symphony, a concerto for cello- and was quickly recruited for stage music, including the first of his operettas- not, however, collaborating with William S. Gilbert; that collaboration had its first outing, Thespis, during the writing of the Festival Te Deum. Sullivan composed other commissioned works during the same period- an oratorio for the Birmingham festival, a cantata for the opening of a London exhibition; the celebration for the Prince of Wales’ recovery was really little different, except that the commission was a royal one, and the subject was sacred, at least on its face.

Strictly speaking, a Te Deum is a choral work in praise of God. Originally, these were chants, sung at the end of Matins on Sundays and feast days, and also occasionally as a processional or as a song of thanksgiving. Around 1500, polyphonic settings began to appear, and in the eighteenth century the Haydns, among others, elaborated that tradition. English settings for Anglican services began with Purcell at the end of the seventeenth century, and have continued to the present. A typical Te Deum, for example, might include the following:

“Te deum laudamus” (We praise Thee, we acknowledge Thee, O God)
“Te ergo quaesumus” (We beseech Thee, O God, to help thy servants)
“Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis” (Make them numbered with thy saints in glory)
“Salvum fac populum tuum” (Save thy people, O Lord)
“In te, domine, speravi: Non confundar in aeternum” (In Thee, O Lord, is my hope; let me never be ashamed)

While the above represents one possible setting, it must be noted that the texts, which date from the fourth century A. D., embody up to 29 separate statements, and settings show great variation as to which words are used, in what order, and how they are combined. Sullivan’s English setting divides the text into seven sections, but, of more importance, concludes with words which are definitely NOT part of the traditional framework: “O Lord, save the King… Amen”. Since the original was composed 30 years before the end of Victoria’s reign, this presumably originally read “Queen”. However, the Chorus in this instance will use an alternative ending which instead extends the “non confundar” text.

Sullivan is well known as a writer of hymns- most modern Protestant or Anglican hymnals contain three or four, and his entire output of that form may approach 60- and his most famous tune, St. Gertrude, is the usual setting for the well-known hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, with text by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould. However, much of Sullivan’s music gathers dust in these times, in which nineteenth-century music is regarded as too affected, or perhaps too saccharine, for current tastes. (That of course does not apply to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; some directors, however, have sought to ‘update’ those– this author remembers a Mikado which opened with the hero riding into a corporate board meeting on a Harley!) But Sullivan’s vast output of religious and quasi-religious music- for example, The Lost Chord, which has been little heard since the late Jimmy Durante’s memorable postscript, “I’m the Man Who Found the Lost Chord!”– has been whittled down to a very few items We have no information on where, or how frequently, it has been performed; it is possible that what you are hearing is being performed in America for the first time.

J. R. Fancher, Feb. 2007