On Saturday, May 17th, the Spectrum Singers will be performing Steven Ledbetter’s critical edition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury under the direction of John W. Ehrlich. BMint caught up with the musicologist this week to ask what such work entails and what difference it makes.
BMInt: Why is a serious musicologist doing research on something so lighthearted as the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas?
Steven Ledbetter: For two major reasons: I love their work, and performers have been crying out for good editions for decades. I think it’s safe to say that the music that is performed most often is more seriously in need of good accurate editions than anything else.
But didn’t you focus on Renaissance music during your graduate studies?
Oh, yes…I went to New York University in the fall of 1964 especially to study Renaissance music with Gustave Reese, who became my dissertation advisor when I chose to work on the great Italian madrigalist Luca Marenzio (ca1553-1599).
But as a singer and choral conductor with a love for the theater, I had pursued G&S throughout my undergraduate years at Pomona College, having performed Patience, Utopia, Ltd., The Pirates of Penzance, and Ruddigore before going to NYU. Later on, while I was on the faculty of Dartmouth College, I was involved with a community theater that did Iolanthe, The Gondoliers, and Ruddigore again. Although I don’t make my living as a performer, I have always enjoyed performing the music that I studied as a musicologist and working as a scholar on music I performed.
So how did you happen to switch from Marenzio to Gilbert & Sullivan?
Actually, I didn’t switch—I just added another string to my bow.
It was a great piece of luck that got me involved in a critical edition of the G&S operettas shortly after I finished my Ph.D. and started teaching. One day, like a bolt from the blue, I got a phone call from Ronald Broude, the owner of the music publisher Broude Brothers Limited, which was then still located in Manhattan (they later moved to Williamstown, MA). Broude Brothers had begun to plan an edition of the full orchestral scores, vocal scores, and orchestral performing parts of all of the G&S works for which the music survives. (Their very first score, to Thespis, is unfortunately lost.)
He had already assembled an editorial board consisting of the leading American specialist on W.S. Gilbert, Jane W. Stedman, and the British musical writer and editor Percy M. Young, and himself. He wanted to add an American musicologist to the group, and had sought to find someone willing to take part. Joshua Rifkin had told him that I had taken many opportunities over the years to regale my classmates with various G&S tidbits—so frequently, in fact, that they urged me to choose it for my dissertation topic. In the 1960s it seemed risky for one’s career to proceed with a “frivolous” topic, and I was delighted to work on Marenzio in any case.
But once I joined the editorial board of the Gilbert & Sullivan edition in 1972, I was equally delighted to have two very different areas, which offered different intellectual challenges with a different style of music, on which to hang my musicological career, both of which I also loved performing.
We had confidently planned to work out the editorial guidelines in short order and to start publishing volumes in perhaps two or three years, five at most. But things never go quite as one plans. At that time the manuscript for Trial by Jury was in private hands and the owner was unknown, so I was to start with the second operetta in the series, The Sorceror, while Percy edited HMS Pinafore. I’m not sure we’d have had the heart to go on if we had known that it would take twenty years before the first volume actually came off the press!
There were several reasons for this. The good reason was that the owner of the Trial by Jury manuscript decided to offer it for sale in 1975, the centennial of the original production. It was purchased by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York as a capstone for its extraordinary Gilbert & Sullivan collection that had been assembled over many decades by Reginald Allen, who had ended up giving it to the Morgan Library and who remained as its curator for the rest of his life. With Trial by Jury close at hand, my assignment changed, both because it came at the head of the line, and because its smaller size (one-act) meant that we could solve the editorial issues in the compact form before turning to the evening-length shows.
But soon after I presented the manuscript of my edited score in 1977, more frustrating problems arose. A difference of opinion regarding editorial policies was decided in Percy’s favor (as the senior figure among us), and I had to redo my work. Still, the publisher consulted Philip Gossett, the leading Rossini and Verdi scholar of this generation, who was supervising critical editions of the works of both men. Since the Italian composers were writing for the popular theater, like Sullivan, many of the editorial issues were identical. I was pleased that Phil strongly agreed with my approach, which became fixed in the revised editorial policy—but it meant that I had to undo all the changes I had just made and put everything back to the previous state.
By this time (1980) I had joined the staff of the Boston Symphony and was busy writing program notes, but since I had essentially finished my work on Trial by Jury, except for proofreading, I was eager to see the final publication.
Unfortunately another problem arose, this time a legal issue. The D’Oyly Carte company, descendant of the original organization that originally produced most of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, had never been happy that a publisher—especially an American publisher!—was producing these materials, though we had every right to do so, since Sullivan’s music had gone into the public domain in 1950 and Gilbert’s words in 1961.
There were, however , a few—very few—song texts that Gilbert had written but that had been cut and remained unpublished. These were still covered by what is known as “author’s copyright.” The rights to them had passed to the Royal General Theatrical Fund (a charity for aged members of the theatrical profession) according to the terms of Gilbert’s will. We applied in the normal way for permission to reprint these few verses in the footnotes to the edition, but the board of the RGTF was very close to Miss Bridget D’Oyly Carte, the manager of the company, and they managed to cause several years of delay—claiming, for example, that they only met once a year and that our request had come just too late to be considered for another twelve months.
Finally, when it appeared that they were not going to give us any response or might charge an outrageous fee for permissions, Broude invited a lawsuit by sending a formal notification: our legal counsel maintained that such a small part of the overall work fell into the “fair use” practice of American copyright law that we were not obligated to pay any fee whatever for this minuscule us. He invited them to get an injunction against us, because we fully intended to print the material in question. When they failed to act, we finally went ahead to print the edition—a full twenty years after our first editorial meeting.
That’s quite a tale! Were you able to keep your spirits up in all that time?
I frankly began to wonder if I would live to see even one of the twelve scores, much less the entire series! And even now only HMS Pinafore has been added to the shelves, owing to a number of deaths over the last forty years. Still three more volumes have been prepared by their editors (Patience, Iolanthe, and Princess Ida), so I hope that finally they can start being house-edited for publication.
You’ve referred frequently to this work as a “critical edition.” Just what is that?
It is a publication that seeks to produce the most accurate, the most satisfying finished text (of both the words and music), the version that we think Gilbert and Sullivan would want to see put on the stage today.
Because it is a work for the theater (rather than, say, a novel), there are many participants who had some hand in producing the final results. First of all, Gilbert himself, with the plot and the words for both spoken dialogue and all the songs, then Sullivan with the score, including the full orchestration. But the materials that document words and music may exist in several versions, and it is the editor’s task to determine which is definitive, if that is possible. Both words and music get adjusted in rehearsal. Even after opening night, the creators will do some polishing—usually by cutting songs that are not especially successful. And such changes can go on for at least a few weeks in the original run, by which time both author and composer are ready to let well enough alone and give their work up to the gods of the theater for better or worse. In a few cases, a substantial part of a work might be rewritten for a revival—a new “definitive” reading.
Soon after opening night the piano-vocal score gets published, and it may carry corrections of text and changes in the music. Yet it can equally well introduce new errors, so every printing of the vocal score must be examined in a note-by-note comparison to determine whether it contains corrections. Each divergence from Sullivan’s musical autograph and Gilbert’s best text needs to be evaluated to determine whether it is a correction or another error.
Up to the 1960s, British law required that any play to be acted on the public stage had to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s office to be read, and censored, if necessary, before production. The texts sent for this purpose would have been prepared some time before opening night and so might tell us how the authors were dealing with any imperfections that they felt in the work and how the final version for opening night was produced.
That is a lot of very detailed labor. What is it that you get at the end?
Well, ideally, we get a score and text that is accurate and easy to use. And since these works have proven themselves successful for well over a century, we do not rush them into print, but take great pains to make them clean and legible, far beyond the printing style of the days when they were first published. When the orchestral parts were prepared, the publisher found a G&S troupe that was planning to produce the show in question and let them “beta test” the orchestral parts for accuracy. Only after they had been through an actual run of rehearsals and performances, as well as all our earlier proofreading, were they formally published.
Will the result sound different?
That depends on which show you are talking about, and what part of the show.
When it comes to the orchestral sound, American performers have always been at a disadvantage because they were not able to get access to the orchestral parts that the D’Oyly Carte company rented out for productions in England. Most of the productions I have performed in were given with piano only, but there was a production of The Mikado at Dartmouth College in the early 1970s for which the conductor rented no fewer than three sets of orchestral parts, only to find that none of them corresponded to the D’Oyly Carte recordings. In that case he was able to check the parts against Sullivan’s manuscript score, since it had been published in facsimile. It was easy to see that none of the three versions was identical, or even similar, to Sullivan’s own. I am convinced that these versions—still available for rental today—have descended from the versions used by the pirate companies that performed the popular G&S works in 1880s and 1890s America.
At the time there was no effective copyright protection between the U.S. and England. Once the piano-vocal score had been published, any company on this side of the water could hire an arranger to create his own orchestration and produce the show without paying a penny in royalties. When Gilbert and Sullivan tried to sue to collect from these pirates, an American judge issued a decision that was hardly a model of jurisprudence: “No Englishman has any rights that a genuine American needs to obey.”
During their first visit to America, when they attempted to collect some income from HMS Pinafore by mounting their own authentic productionat a time when there were six different pirated productions taking place all over New York, Gilbert and Sullivan went incognito to check them out. They were appalled at the puerile changes made in the scripts and the inartistic orchestrations. (Sullivan expressed pleasure at only one orchestration that he found to be very musical. It had been prepared and was conducted by an unknown young musician named John Philip Sousa.)
Until the appearance of the Broude Brothers edition of Trial by Jury and HMS Pinafore, conductors—even at the D’Oyly Carte company!—had to work from the piano vocal scores. They could not check Sullivan’s original orchestration and had been no way of being sure that they were giving correct information when players asked about a questionable passage in their parts.
But are there actual perceptible musical differences?
If you have heard Trial by Jury on recordings by the D’Oyly Carte company, the work will sound pretty much as you remember. Still, there is one surprising mistake that quick ears may catch right in the second measure of the score. Somehow Sullivan’s version of the melody—in both his original sketch and his manuscript full score—got changed in every edition of the vocal score. I once had occasion to show my edition and a photostat of Sullivan’s manuscript to two conductors who had led performances at D’Oyly Carte and they were amazed to see so prominent a misprint, which they had been conducting for decades. The Broude edition was clearly correct—and they had never played it that way in their lives.
Here is Sullivan’s autograph manuscript :
Here is the beginning of the original vocal score:
From the conductor’s and orchestra’s point of view, there is something far more important than the correction of a couple of wrong notes: The critical edition provides beautifully printed vocal scores and orchestral parts that correspond exactly with one another. Older rented parts are very hard to read, have badly planned page turns, and even have missing measures between, say, the first violins and the oboes. Such materials waste huge amounts of time in rehearsal as the players constantly have to get corrections in order to make any sense of their parts. And when the conductor lacks a full score (as previous productions have done), there is no way to confirm the accurate reading; the conductor can only offer guesswork. An important result of the new materials is that they can save an entire orchestral rehearsal that would normally be spent searching out the errors.
You said that only two volumes of the edition have appeared as yet. What next?
Well, I hope that I can live long enough to help shepherd the remaining eleven comic operas through the editing process, though it is highly unlikely that I myself will edit more than one or perhaps two more. But I’m sure that the completion of the edition will generate many more productions from lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan grateful for truly accurate and usable editions. And future audiences from schoolchildren to adults will all benefit.
6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
This is a wonderful event in the realm of G&S, and I wish Steve and Spectrum Singers all success with the performance. Tragically (as my children like to say), I’ll be out of town when it happens, but I look forward to reading all about it here.
But oi, Ledbetter! There’s nothing frivolous about Gilbert & Sullivan. Give them the respect they’re due! They consciously undertook to create a British operatic genre essentially out of whole cloth, and succeeded beyond their most optimistic expectations. Gilbert’s libretti are great literature in their own right, with razor-sharp social satire mixed with genuine human feeling; and Sullivan’s music, while brilliantly witty and satirical in its own way, can also reveal great depth of feeling (sometimes even when the words it’s setting are flat-out hilarious). The fact that these operettas have held the boards for over 140 years (from the first one) all over the English-speaking world is testimony to their high quality and universality.
And by the way, although the *music* (not the text) for Thespis is mostly lost, owing to the fire at Sullivan’s publisher that destroyed many of his manuscripts including his cello concerto (which Sir Charles Mackerras reconstructed from memory of having played it in the orchestra), there have been numerous attempts to reconstruct or even recompose appropriate music. One such attempt in the latter vein, by the famous record producer Thomas Z. Shepard, will be performed in the New York City area in June and July.
Comment by Vance Koven — May 12, 2014 at 7:02 pm
Vance, I certainly did not mean to imply that I myself thought G&S to be frivolous, only that the tenor of academic musicology at the time strongly suggested that a proper dissertation topic involved 16th century chansonnier manuscripts, or Beethoven sketch studies, or analysis of the handwriting and paper in the sources for Bach’s cantatss. And of course Queen Victoria considered them frivolous. But that was HER problem.
Comment by Steven Ledbetter — May 12, 2014 at 10:32 pm
Bravo, Steven, you are the very model of a modern major musicologist (now try singing THAT).
Comment by Joel Cohen — May 13, 2014 at 4:09 pm
Well, leave out “major” and it scans perfectly.
I am the very model of the modern musicologist,
I’ll riff on Palestrina and for Herbert be apologist;
American Romantics such as Chadwick are high on my list:
Arcane obscurities whose explication to my mill are grist.
I’ll babble with prolixity on all the dodecaphonists
And pile on all the details of Gesualdo’s psychopathic trysts.
In short, for mystic exegesis of the “bottom 50” list
I am the very model of the modern musicologist!
Comment by Vance Koven — May 13, 2014 at 9:24 pm
Vance, thanks so much for that added verse… I wish I could it into the critical edition of The Pirates of Penzance, but I’m likely to be overruled!
Comment by Steven Ledbetter — May 13, 2014 at 9:55 pm
Bravo, Vance: a tour de farce in less than five hours!
Comment by Martin Cohn — May 14, 2014 at 3:16 pm
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