Chester Martin: Did Gilbert & Sullivan Influence The Music Life Of Chattanoogans?

Sunday, February 20, 2022 - by Chester Martin

Think with me:  I am sitting here wondering if the influence of the great English duo, Gilbert and Sullivan, might indirectly have given Chattanooga our best moment in music - ever? Let me explain.....

If you have ever heard of those two famous Englishmen, Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur S. Sullivan, then you doubtless know of the extremely high popularity of their work together, and their profuse production of it.

OR, if you have never heard of those two great masters of the international stage, then their names may still be familiar to you through a popular Irish singer of the 1970's, called Gilbert O'Sullivan, a pop/early rock performer, who sang songs like, "Alone Again, Naturally". There is no family connection to either side. But 100 years ago any reference to "G. & S." would have had about the same impact as the name "Disney" does today; it was known everywhere.

A hundred years ago nearly anyone in the entire English-speaking world could have sung you at least one line from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, such as, "I'm Called Little Buttercup", or quipped a line like, "Here's a Howdy Do!" Gilbert, the librettist, and Sullivan, the composer, had just the right turn of expression or melody to please any audience. Pirated versions of their work spread like wildfire "throughout her (England's) wide dominions" (another Gilbertian line) to be soon replaced by authenticated versions. Their music was rapidly lapped up by amusement parks where carousels and Ferris wheels churned out Sullivan's catchy rollicking melodies, and I have no doubt that Chattanooga's music halls were unable to escape this delightful English reconquest of the U.S!

Gilbert and Sullivan worked together on a total of 14 "operettas", as some people called them, and other people called them "comic (or light) operas", while the French called them, "Opera comique". Whatever the terminology, their cheerful themes were designed to set them apart from "serious" opera, and were never meant to be a put-down of "real" operas. Basically, the distinction lay only in the subject matter, for if the lead character died, it would be declared an "opera"; otherwise only an "operetta". Gilbert and Sullivan only produced one work which included such a protagonist's death: Jack Point's, in, "Yeomen of the Guard", which was considered their "most operatic" work - though never quite achieving full operatic status in the minds of critics. This does not mean that Gilbert and Sullivan were ever on anything but the very highest of musical levels, as Gilbert was knighted first, before Sullivan, and both by Queen Victoria. Knighthood was very hard to achieve, and any blemish, no matter how small, could have prevented that crowning honor. Sullivan was also a composer of then-popular religious music called oratorios, and random pieces still heard occasionally today, as "The Lost Chord", and the music for, "Onward, Christian Soldiers". He jealously guarded his professional reputation, and there was never any repudiation of him as being in any way second rate.

These operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan were translated into languages besides English, and I know of one version in German, for sure. Seems that the Germans were also lovers of similar comic musical productions, having done a booming business in that genre well before the year 1900. Musicians were not politicians and have enjoyed cultural exchanges from country to country. Germany was already steeped in a very high degree of musicianship, as witnessed by all their famous city orchestras, (Berlin, Leipzig, etc.) and so it was that a certain Dr. Werner Wolff, one of those many firmly grounded German musicians, became a Holocaust Survivor in 1943, and, along with his wife, Emmy Land, was able to flee to America. They spent a short time in NYC before coming to teach music at Tennessee Wesleyan College (now University), and ultimately winding up here in Chattanooga. Together they had accumulated years of musical and stagecraft experience for German operettas which qualified them for a secure niche in Chattanooga's ever-evolving cultural scene. This was, in my humble opinion,  Chattanooga's finest musical moment - ever. (The Wolffs' major contributions here also coincide very closely with the founding of the Hunter Museum of American Art.)

With Dr. Werner and Mrs. Wolff as principals, now local and within easy reach, it was then decided that Chattanooga needed to have its own opera association. This would be the very first opera society in Tennessee. Academic support from our local Cadek Conservatory of Music, and from the University of Chattanooga (now UTC) got it all started in the right direction. The Wolffs' main problem to overcome here was the scarcity of professionally trained singers and musicians. A few of those who were still students, such as Nancy Spotswood, (who lived only a few doors from me), were pressed into immediate service. Through some strong ties that Chattanooga had to New York City (about 1950) we were able to get professional singers from "THE MET!" to sing the lead roles. Our art classes at Kirkman Vocational High School made a lot of the first stage props for those early productions of the Chattanooga Opera Association. (I remember a very energetic and agile Mephistopheles - from the "Met" - prancing about on-stage singing in a rich and forceful baritone voice to a plaster skull from our Kirkman HS Art Department: "Ha ha ha ha Ho ho ho", in a most appropriately diabolical style). That would have been for about the 1951 or '52 season.

There is no doubt in my mind that the music and cheerful repartee created by Messer’s Gilbert and Sullivan was still pulsating through the heads of many a Chattanoogan (as, for example, my mom's!). Jazz and the Big Band era could not totally wipe out the lingering G & S spirit, as even modern radio stations played an occasional song of theirs, and people such as the very erudite TV newsman, Edwin Newman, (of NBC) employed an occasional Gilbertian turn-of-phrase to lighten the load of an otherwise heavy topic. Newman was not alone.

Yes, I continue to think that those old English boys, Mr. G. and Mr. S., did more to promote really high quality music in America than any other influence to that date. They had also shown how to make the Chorus actually come alive and interact with the main performers on-stage instead of just singing from an inert standing position. And they were the very first to add the new ELECTRIC LIGHTING on-stage! Without their creative thinking, the "wind sweeping down the plain" (as in "Oklahoma") might not have had quite so dramatic a rush, and our fledgling Chattanooga Opera Association might not have had so many stage tricks and innovations to work with. G.& S. definitely paved the way for our American Broadway hits which followed. From the past and from afar they helped influence and mold the careers of such Americans as Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Rogers and Hammerstein/Hart, Louis Armstrong, George and his brother, Ira Gershwin, etc. Chattanooga was definitely enjoying these same benefits as well, with Dr. Werner, and wife, Emmy Land, Wolff passing along all their lifetime of gleaned theatrical information for future generations to share in.

As an un-apologetic lover of Gilbert and Sullivans' music I consider myself very fortunate to have seen one of their productions in London's former Sadler's Wells Theater, in 1953, AND I also got to meet Dr. Werner Wolff about two years later. I was with a friend that evening who spoke fluent German and I didn't understand a single word they said! WAAAW! So, no nuggets of wisdom for today, folks! Incidentally, there is a small book by him in our Chattanooga library. You might like to take a look at it.

Since 1985, our symphony and opera associations have been sensibly merged into one organization called the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association. Watch their snippets on You Tube, and if you think you might like an intro to G.& S., you might try, "The Pirates of Penzance", starring a very young and lovely Linda Ronstadt. Her voice is incredible!

Chester Martin

cymppm@comcast.net


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