Overtura di ballo (1870)

By Jeremy Dibble, University of Durham, England

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It was always to be a source of regret to Arthur Sullivan that the huge international success of his “Savoy” operas would diminish or even completely conceal his reputation as a composer of “serious” music. The son of a distinguished Irish bandmaster, Sullivan grew up within a sympathetic musical environment and his gifts soon became apparent as a student at the Leipzig Conservatory (1858-1861) where his incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest was performed in 1861, a work his fellow student (and later British contemporary) Edward Dannreuther was to consider one of his finest works. In the next nine years Sullivan produced a clutch of orchestral works, which included the “Irish” Symphony (1866), a cello concerto (1866), and the two overtures In memoriam (1866) and Marmion (1867). While these more “serious” instrumental essays contained music of undoubted craftsmanship along with moments of true inspiration, they also revealed a composer whose style was less at ease with the pathos of large-scale Romantic structure. Indeed, during the 1860s Sullivan’s career had already begun to plough that furrow of entertaining, exquisitely-wrought music of a lighter nature, as revealed in his ballet L’ile enchantée (1864) and the excerpts of his first opera The Sapphire Necklace (1863-4). It was a style he had assimilated through close study of Italian opera and especially the music of Rossini (whom he met in Paris in 1862), the French operettas of Offenbach, and the orchestration of Mendelssohn. The Overtura di ballo, arguably the composer’s most popular orchestral piece, dates from 1870 and was written for the Birmingham Festival. Unabashedly Italian in the rhetorical gestures of the slow introduction and “cabaletta” of the coda, the main body of the work foreshadows that instrumental pointillism deployed so effectively in the overture to Iolanthe (1882).