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Thomas Sullivan, a proto Dukie

Chris Crowcroft

  'Thomas Sullivan, instrumental professor at the Royal Military School of Music in 1862. Hired to tutor clarinet, as an ex-bandmaster he taught and played all instruments, hence the bombardon (e flat bass).  

The father of the famous composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, Thomas Sullivan was entered by his mother Mary into the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea aged 9 on the 24th June 1814, the predecessor of the Duke of York's Royal Military School, Dover.
     From an Irish family, his father Thomas (whom he had not seen for 3 years) was a veteran of the Peninsular War, having enlisted in the 58th Foot in 1806 at the late age of 29, probably due to famine conditions in Ireland where he had been a labourer, the year after his son's birth. He was from near Tralee in County Cork. He transferred into the 57th Foot (later the West Middlesexs) and after service in Jersey, he was posted to Portugal in 1811, seeing active service there and in Spain. He even ran into trouble with the Duke of Wellington when on 17th November 1812, with other members of his regiment, he went after hundreds of wild black pigs in nearby woods. Wellington had two of the men hanged - Sullivan prudently stayed in the woods, not the first time this 'fair-haired, blue-eyed little Irishman' (height 5'3") would go AWOL. He re-emerged during the Christmas festivities and talked his way back in. In 1813 he took part in the battle of Vitoria after a 400 mile march in 40 days, followed by an engagement at snowbound Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees and then at Nivelle 'with positions being decided at bayonet point.' The day his son was entered our school, he was on board ship to fight in the American War where he was in action around the St Lawrence River before the peace treaty of 24th December 1814.Now his regiment was summoned back to Europe to confront the escaped Napoleon where Wellington had dire need of his best veterans. On 16th May 1815 the 57th was due to sail for the continent from Portsmouth. Thomas Sullivan went AWOL again - he had been away from his family 4 years. As it happens, the 57th arrived the day after Waterloo and so were not needed. Thomas Sullivan talked his way back in again, joining the 66th Foot (later the Berkshires). In 1817 he was posted to guard Napoleon on St Helena, reduced to 7d a day (2.5p+) from the wartime shilling (5p). He returned to England in 1821 where he was discharged at the age of 43 as 'worn out and undersize,' with an unblemished record of conduct marked 'very good.' In 1830 he followed his son to Chelsea becoming what we would call a Chelsea pensioner - his wife went on the staff as a nurse - where he died in 1838 aged 6o.
     Thomas junior, father of Sir Arthur, served in the RM Asylum band and aged 15 went into the band of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst where he met a local girl, Mary Clementina Coghlan (Clemmie) of mixed English/Italian ancestry (her Italian forbears were called Righi, from Nice when it was part of Italy). In 1834, aged 29, the age his father was on enlistment, Thomas junior left the Army, returning to London where he set up as a music teacher before marrying Clemmie in 1836. They lived in Sloane Square before moving in 1838 to the newly redeveloping, formerly slum area of Lambeth south of the river where they rented a new house, 8 Bolwell Terrace. By 1841 they had to share this with another family, when Thomas took a supplementary job at a guinea a week (21'- or £1.05) playing clarinet in the Surrey theatre. On 13th May 1842, their second son Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born. Thomas could not make ends meet so on 28th April 1845, he re-enlisted in the band at Sandhurst, this time as sergeant bandmaster, 3 shillings a day (15p) but with accommodation found.
     A word about military bands (the writer's father was an army bandmaster); members of the corps of drums are considered soldiers, members of the band, musicians. This was because drummers, buglers and fifers were drawn from regimental ranks. Band musicians were civilians originally recruited from local players, at the cost of the officers, to provide private music. Thus bandmasters were usually civilian, often German. When in the reforms conducted by the Duke of Cambridge in the 1850s, a commission was offered to these bandmasters to join the service, most refused (baulking at foreign service for example in India away from the fashionable home fleshpots). So the post was offered to their band-sergeants, but the authorities baulked at giving them a commission. So it is that bandmasters today start at the rank of WO1, although they may make Lt.-Col. after progression and further selection. Mind you, as my father wryly remarked, there were special perks - shares of fees from public engagements, and an annual dress allowance of £40 in his time (1949-69) to go towards the frock coat and sword. This hacked off some 'old sweat' RSMs who found themselves at twice the age of a young bandmaster some hundred pounds and more a year down on the young sprig who was moreover welcomed to provide music in the officers' mess. NB my father had, curiously, served in the 8th Army as a sergeant of the gun during WW2, including at El Alamein, so he had 'done his bit.'
     The young Arthur Sullivan reported making his first discoveries on the piano when he was 4 or 5, then acquiring a good knowledge of the instruments in his father's band, 'managing to achieve a degree of proficiency on many.' He composed his first anthem when he was 8. 'Church music and military music were his foundation.' When Arthur composed his 14 comic operas with WS Gilbert, a partnership of 25 years, he specified cornets not trumpets in the orchestrations, from military practice.
     In 1851 Arthur was sent by Thomas to a small, private day school in Bayswater, London. It was Arthur who, aged nearly 12, begged his father to get him into the Chapel Royal as a treble chorister. Thomas Sullivan enlisted the aid of a local clergyman, but the letter of application went unanswered. So Arthur trudged off to see the Chapel's organist, who referred him to the Chapel's principal - another walk. The Revd Thomas Helmore heard him and was impressed. Helmore was a remarkable man and a great reformer in church music. He reclaimed for the Anglican liturgy the great masterpieces of earlier centuries, right back to plainsong, and published collections of hymns (which Arthur was to help him with - 'Onward Christian Soldiers' is a Sullivan composition). Sullivan became his star pupil; aged only 14 he won the newly inaugurated Mendelssohn scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Aged 16 he was sent to the music conservatory at Leipzig where he mingled with Brahms, Grieg and Liszt and was taught by a pupil of Beethoven. Returning to England, barely 20 with his debut orchestral work under his arm - a suite of incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest - he found himself famous overnight. He composed a symphony, a cello concerto, hymns, art songs, cantatatas and oratorios before he even started on what he is most remembered for, the Gilbert & Sullivan operas (1871-96). These made his fortune, twice (his stockbroker went bankrupt in the 1880s).
     What did this mean for his father Thomas? He left the Army for a second time in 1859 after a combined 26 years service, but he had already secured a post at the newly-formed Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall as professor of clarinet ('KH' my own father affectionately called it, who was in the fanfare trumpet team there, playing at the wedding of our Queen, and onstage at the Royal Opera House in its revival season postwar). His salary was the rather better £115 annually. Thomas moved his family back to London, 3 Ponsonby Street in Pimlico. His boy was still a charge on him, for example needing 2 guineas (42'- or £2.10) to pay for a recommended subscription to a season's Philharmonic concerts. Every day, Thomas walked across Vauxhall Bridge to catch a train from Vauxhall Station to Kneller Hall in Twickenham. Again the rent proved too much, so the Sullivans shared their house and had no servant (in the days when all homes, from the lower middle class up, had at least 'a maid of all work').
     A local connection got Thomas supplementary work, teaching at Broadwoods, the piano makers. Its proprietor contributed £30 towards his son's expenses in Leipzig. By 1860, Thomas was working four nights a week there in addition to his Kneller hall duties, to help support his talented son's education. It was with his father's encouragement that Arthur pushed hard to finish his Tempest suite, very well received in Leipzig in 1861. It was premiered in London in 1862, to major acclaim. It was repeated at Crystal Palace - think BBC Proms in a suburban glass-house setting. Arthur was launched. A trip to Paris introduced him to Rossini who showed a genuine interest in his music.
     In 1863 Arthur began to pay back. He moved his parents to 47 Claverton Terrace in Pimlico where they had the house to themselves, and a maid! He wrote a cantata for the Birmingham Festival and a ballet for Covent Garden. His Irish Symphony was premiered in 1866 - very tuneful it is, as modern recordings attest. He published songs, three of which endure in the repertoire today. And, for private performance he composed the one act comic opera 'Cox and Box,' still performed today.
     Despite warm invitations from their son, there is no record of Thomas and Mary Sullivan attending performances of Arthur's music - perhaps they felt that grand world was above them? Thomas's last written words to his 24 year-old son were to encourage him over lack of inspiration for a commission he had accepted from the Norwich Festival: 'something will probably occur which will put new vigour and fresh thoughts into you.' Around midnight on 22nd September 1866, Thomas was seized by chest pains in bed and died within minutes, aged 61.
     Arthur remembered him with an 'In Memoriam' overture for Norwich, still available today in recording. He took over the support of his mother; in later years, though living independently, she was his housekeeper in his fashionable flat near the Royal Albert Hall. She died in 1882 aged 71. He also supported his sister-in-law and her large family when she lost her husband Fred, Arthur's elder brother (who took leading roles in G&S's first two operas, 'Thespis' and 'Trial by Jury,' in which he created the part of the Judge); both in London and when she remarried and emigrated to California. There he travelled to visit her when Los Angeles was a nowhere place in the back of beyond; and he continued to pay, after her premature death, for the education of his nephew and nieces, his nephew Herbert becoming his main heir for Sullivan never married; instead he conducted an affair for many years with the American socialite Mrs Landon 'Fanny' Ronalds.
     Arthur Sullivan, grandson of an Irish private, son of a proto-Dukie was knighted aged 41 for services to music in 1883 - with absolutely no mention by Prime Minister Gladstone of his work with WS Gilbert.

Confession of a G & S aficionado

I heard my first G&S in the Nye Hall in 1966, Pirates of Penzance starring James Jones, today Bishop of Liverpool. In 1968 (once I was sure my voice had broken - no crinolines and bonnets for me!) I joined the chorus of The Mikado. For Iolanthe I played the bass part of Private Willis, and for Ruddigore, ditto, Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. In a gap year before university I was trained by two old stars of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company 1926-51, Radley Flynn and Ella Halman, who had been trained by WS Gilbert's stage manager. At university I performed in and/or directed, at the Oxford Playhouse, Yeomen of the Guard, Iolanthe and Patience. A 25 year moratorium followed. Then I joined Grosvenor Light Opera Company, London, taking bass roles in 7 of the operas (adding Princess Ida, Pirates of Penzance , The Gondoliers and Grand Duke to my list). In 2007/8 I promoted and produced, at the revived Normansfield Theatre ( a Victorian gem, dark for a century), a version of Patience directed by Anthony Baker, featuring Timothy West supported by the Carl Rosa Opera; also a reconstruction by Anthony Baker & Timothy Henty of Thespis, the first, 'lost' opera. Both were well covered in the national press and on BBCTV/Radio. Since then I have written occasional historical feature articles for Carl Rosa which tours G&S internationally. I still have 3 of the operas to do……

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