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Setting History Straight


Have you ever heard the name Will Schwenk? Or the name Artie Seymour? Probably not. But you will, you will, when the word gets around about how these two inglorious talents were by-passed, how they missed being touched by the magic wand of Fate. For contrary to popular belief, the series of light operettas commonly attributed to Gilbert and Sullivan were in effect written by the pair of nonentities named above, Artie being the melodist and Will the versifier.

Gilbert had also dabbled in versifying; his cynical Bab Ballads had caused a minor stir a couple of years earlier, but the man had no real talent. Sullivan likewise had plunked out a few tunes on his clavichord, melodies, if one could call them that, on a qualitative par with "Chopsticks." The consequence that Sullivan and Gilbert have always been credited with the fabrication of Ruddigore, Pinafore and a dozen other popular puerilities came about through a curious chain of circumstances.

Schwenk and Seymour were eking out a precarious living in Soho, London's "Tin Pan Alley" of its day, writing ballads and comedy routines to be sung and performed in the sleazy music halls at that time ubiquitous in The City. One day the inseparable Gilbert and Sullivan, both gentlemen of quality-but also scoundrels, as will be seen-were slumming along Carnaby Street when through an open window they chanced to hear Seymour and Schwenk in the throes of composition. The two were concocting a humorous playlet supposedly set in Morning Court, with a parade of panderers, prostitutes, and their pettifogger-solicitors passing before the judge, singing and acting out their diverse woeful tales.

The eavesdroppers stood by, taking copious notes and committing a good earful to memory. They then retired to the Music Room of their club, and by dint of a few ingenious switcheroos and an abundance of gall, came up with their first opus, the well-known Trial by Jury. It was not mere coincidence that in this year of 1875 the element Gallium was discovered by the French chemist Lecoq de Boisbaudran.

No, scratch that-perhaps there was no connection between the two events. In attempting to set history straight, one is occasionally touched by mild paranoia.

It was extremely bad form for two well-dressed gentlemen to be seen loitering about Soho streets and alleys for hours on end, and it wasn't until the invention of the microphone in 1877 that the two plagiarists were able to upgrade their method of filching Will's and Artie's dramatic themes and catchy music-hall melodies. Posing as a pair of itinerant quill-pen inspectors, they persuaded the gullible landlord of the Schwenk-Seymour flat to let them in while the two were absent. They quickly installed a "bugging" device (probably the first instance of Edison's invention being put to such use), leading its wires to a nearby flat they had rented for just such an eventuality.

Will Schwenk and Artie Seymour continued to grind out clever satires, parodies, melodies and patter-songs for the insatiable but poorly-paying music-hall trade. A few yards away Sullivan and Gilbert listened intently, and then rewrote, revised and disguised the arduously-earned creations of the talented pair. H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe and Princess Ida followed one another in almost annual succession, elevating G and S to the pinochle of success, if one may be permitted a small witticism at this point.

It must be emphasized that although the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were immensely popular and widely publicized among the middle and upper classes of society-even among the nobility-Schwenk and Seymour did not move in those genteel circles, nor did the raucous but appreciative audiences who patronized the various music halls and amusement centers where the latter's compositions were being staged. In 1885 the game came close to discovery when a discerning critic, after a night of pub-crawling, remarked in his newspaper column on the similar melodic line in The Mikado's "I've Got a Little List" and one of the ditties in Schwenk and Seymour's Bums and Bangers. Fortunately-or unfortunately, depending on one's sympathies-no budding Sherlock Holmes tracked the clue to its source.

Ah, Fame! Impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte was so enthused that he built a theatre, the Savoy, exclusively for the presentation of G-and-S operettas. Several companies of players traveled throughout the English-speaking world, and every performance was a sell-out. The works were easily translated into other languages; the plots were simple, the tunes hummable, and the patter-songs lent themselves readily to other tongues. On one signal date there were 148 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas being performed simultaneously (aside from time differences) in fourteen languages in theatres all around the world.

The money rolled in, augmenting the personal fortunes of the two cultural swindlers, but none of it trickled down to the actual fabricators of this immensely popular frothy pabulum, Seymour and Schwenk, who continued their daily efforts to make ends meet. Daily the results of their endeavors were siphoned off by G and S.

Ruddigore, Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers followed The Mikado, but by 1889 the two so-called gentlemen, now both wealthy and portly, had wearied of the years-long talent-embezzlement, and decided to desist. Gilbert turned his efforts to the construction of children's mechanical toys, most notably the Erector Set. Sullivan wrote "The Lost Chord" and the dirgelike music to Sabine Baring-Gould's hymn "Onward Hebrew Soldiers" (-Marching as to war/With the Star of David/Going on before, etc.), although Ms Baring-Gould, under strong pressure from the Church of England, was induced to revise the title and lyrics of the latter work.

Will Schwenk and Artie Seymour died in Obscurity, a small industrial town in the Midlands, never having discovered nor even suspected the thefts of their labors over that fifteen-year period.

* * * * *

Author's Note: For the musical-knowledge-deprived, Sir William Schwenk Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan were in fact the actual lyricist and composer, respectively, of the named operettas.

by David Koblick

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