The Master of the Tricky Lyric, W.S. Gilbert

The Master of the Tricky Lyric, W.S. Gilbert

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWSome time ago I was giving a seminar on the history of the American operetta and I thought it would be a Good Thing if I typed out the lyrics and ran off copies for my senior citizens. In doing so, one thing impressed me greatly: the utter banality of the words that composers like Victor Herbert had to set to music.

There was an episode on “The Avengers” (one with Emma Peel, not Captain America) in which a publisher of romances had a machine into which you simply punched buttons that plugged stock situations into a computer and the end result was a novel. Many of the lyrics I encountered seemed to be drawn from a boxful of clichés that were merely shuffled and reshuffled. All of which, I suppose, was okay, since the lovers in one operetta could not be distinguished from those in most others.

Example from “The Desert Song”:

                   Why waste your time in vague romancing

                   When life itself is at your call?

                    I come to you, my heart advancing.
Oh, come to me and be my all.

One from “The Red Mill”:

                    Only because you are you, dear.

                    Not that you are fair, dear,

                    Not that you are true.

                    Not your golden hair, dear,

                    Not your eyes of blue, etc.

Of course these horrible examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. But to be fair, so could many fairly clever lyrics that are found in the satirical (usually anti-feminist) songs of the period. But the great majority of songs from early musicals have lyrics that would have given a D to any student in a poetry writing class; and the reason for this situation is the same as that for today’s television fare: (1) the public did not demand any better and (2) it is simpler to write poor stuff than good stuff.

Opening night program for the first authorized production

Now in 1878 something called “HMS Pinafore” happened in London that got people very excited. Here was a work in which the music was superb and the lyrics were actually intelligent, clever, and amusing all at once! Now the team of Gilbert and Sullivan had already created three works before this, but “Pinafore” was the first to reach these colonial shores and the theatergoers went wild. In New York City alone there were about 10 productions in competition with one another, all using pirated scores that had been  hastily jotted down in London by agents from America in those days before international copyright agreements had been achieved.

Did you ever notice in most composer-writer teams, the composer always comes first? Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, for example. In fact who can really name off the cuff the lyricist for any given Romberg musical? I know that P.G. Wodehouse did the lyrics for several Kern shows in 1917 and thereabouts. But I could not tell you for certain who wrote the lyrics for (say) “Sally” or “Sitting Pretty.”

Now a lyric can be “clever” in what it says and how it says it. “Tea for two and two for tea” is not a very profound remark but its beautiful symmetry makes it clever in one sense. “When I’m not with the girl I love I love the girl I’m near” is even better though less palindromic. On the other hand, the rhymes with the lines I have not quoted are nothing special.

download (4)
The entire cast of “Cox and Box”

Except in the lyrics of the few writers being considered in this series of articles, you can go far and wide before finding any truly clever rhyme in American lyrics. On the London stage, however, Sullivan had words like this in the non-Gilbert “Cox and Box”:

 My master is punctual always in business

          Unpunctuality even slight is in his

          Eyes such a crime that my showing my phiz in his

          Shop I thought there’d be the devil to pay.

Not only do we get a triplet, but also the single word “business” is rhymed with three monosyllabic words in the next two lines. On top of that, Larry Hart is anticipated by several decades in that the rhyme words are broken off from the words to which they grammatically belong, thereby increasing the humor even more.

The miracle is what wonderful music was set to even the low-grade lyrics in so many of the operettas that have remained favorites because of the memorable melodies, certainly not because of the words. In fact Romberg boasted that he never cared what words were set to his music. (“Who knows for lyrics?” was his remark.) And that alone brings out a very interesting fact. Many if not most composers wrote the music before the words. The lyricists then were duty-bound to match their meters and moods to already existing notes. Note too that the great teams, especially the two with Rodgers as composer, were not so rigid in their collaboration: sometimes a musical idea would present itself, sometimes a verbal one. And of course, composers like Berlin and Porter, who wrote both music and lyrics, had no such problems!

[Notice that just about every other composer-lyricist team are referred to in that order: George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so on. But with Sullivan and Gilbert, they are forever Gilbert and Sullivan. Strange.]

On the other hand, only on one occasion did Gilbert ask Sullivan to write the music first, but that was for a quick revision of the finale of their penultimate work. In all other cases, the words came before Sullivan’s music.

So it would be a valuable thing to examine the lyrics of the man who began it all, and now we shall examine the tricky lyrics of  William S. Gilbert.

 During a televised colloquy of funnymen, Milton Berle brought up the difference between a “comic” and a “comedian.” The first, he explained, says funny things while the latter says things funny. Gilbert, of course, did both. No one before him had turned out such intricate rhymes to better comic effect; and almost always the humor of Sullivan’s music kept in step with the librettist.

Program for the “lost” and first G&S opera

Their earliest collaboration was “Thespis,” in which Gilbert was already dealing out such “weak” rhymes as “function-junction/exceeding-breeding/Directors-inspectors/fivers-drivers/compunction-unction-function-junction” in a single stanza of a patter song. [In case your English 1 is far behind you, a “strong” rhyme comes on the last syllable as in “today-replay” while a “weak” one comes on an earlier syllable as in any of the above examples.]

“The Sorcerer” was a spoof of  “The Elixir of Love” and had to contain a patter song to match that of the quack in the Donizetti work. Now since Italian has more vowels per linear foot than does English, very weak rhymes were called for. As witness this:

                         Barring tautology

                         In demonology


                         Mystic nosology

                         Spirit philology

                         High-class astrology

                         Such is his knowledge he

                         Isn’t the man to require an apology!

Rutland Barrington, the first Pooh-Bah

Many times, Gilbert will set himself a challenge and rhyme where no man had rhymed before. For example, in “The Mikado” he forces himself to find rhymes for “executioner” in Pooh-Bah’s Act I song. So Nanki-Poo is called a “very imperfect ablutioner” (which rhymes but makes little sense), Pooh-Bah calls himself “Of your pleasure a diminutioner,” and ends by advising “so you shun her!”

And witness how he rhymes proper nouns in the Major-General’s Song and the “Private Dragoon” numbers, which are too long to quote here.

When he does use strong rhymes (and how can one avoid them?), he will often make a triplet in a single line as when Pooh-Bah sings “Now though you’d have said that head was dead.” Or he will alternate two strong with two weak as in the Nightmare song:

                            When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose

                                       is taboo’d by anxiety,

                            I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in

                                       without impropriety.

In “The Grand Duke,” a most inferior libretto compared to what has gone before, he rhymes “lowest” with “ghoest” and compounds the groaner with the explanation

    When exigence of rhyme compels

                         Orthography forgoes her spells

                         And “ghost” is written “ghoest.”

Getting back to “The Mikado,” Gilbert gives us one of the greatest tongue-twisting alliterations of all times:

                          To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock,

                          In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,

                          Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,

                          From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Possibly one of his happiest thoughts is a seldom quoted song from “Patience” in which the titular heroine claims she never loved except in babyhood  and “He was a little boy.” Her confidante insists that “He WAS a little boy”; to which Patience replies that “He was a LITTLE boy”; to which the friend retorts that nevertheless “He was a little BOY”–proving how the same sentence can mean so many different things depending on the accent.

One of the expanding and shrinking Lady Jane’s

One typical Gilbertian trick is to prove one thing in one stanza and to prove quite the opposite in the next. In “Princess Ida,” the tenor wonders how he was twice the age of his intended when they were betrothed at ages 2 and 1 respectively, and now that he is 22 “she has gained upon me since.” In “Patience,” Lady Jane manages to convince us how the ravages of time will result in “little will be left of me in the coming by and by” while at the same time her spreading shape will result in “too much of me in the coming by and by.” The funny thing is that both cases seem quite valid.

For once, in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” this antithesis is used seriously as a prisoner condemned to die ponders that if life is a “boon” we should be glad to live even one extra day, while if life is a thorn we should be content to leave it as soon as possible.

A true blue Englishman–but by choice?

But when he seems at his most serious, you can never quite be sure if his tongue isn’t firmly in his cheek. When he has the chorus exclaim, “He is an Englishman” and praise him for not choosing to be “a French, a Turk, or Proosian,” it might take us a moment to realize how silly some real patriotic songs are if analyzed semantically. In fact, in his salute to the English Girl in “Utopia” it is still being debated whether he is praising her or … heaven knows what Gilbert might have had in mind.

At any rate, I would need a book to really do a thorough job on the subject. But when you see what the other Masters of the Tricky Lyric have done in the decades after Gilbert, you will clearly see the influence of this Victorian innovator.




The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 3

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
The original three little maids from school

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Leading Ladies

W.S. Gilbert always had an eye for the pretty young ‘uns. Indeed he and wife Kitty legally adopted one of them who was the soprano lead in his “Utopia, Ltd.” after practically ruining his own scenario by adding extra songs for her. He repeated this error to an even greater degree when he did the same for a Hungarian beauty whom he cast in “The Grand Duke.” So like his fellow satirists, Wilde and Twain, he could be so perceptive in his writings and so reckless in real life. A victim, one might say, of his own topsy-turvydom.

Ruth Vincent as Josephine

We have the usual Victorian spotless maidens in some of the Savoy plays. Aline Sangazure in “The Sorcerer” is willing to stand up to her fiancé for only so long concerning his demand that she partake of the elixir even though she already loves him, but yields in the second act because the plot demands it. Josephine Corcoran in “HMS Pinafore” is simply in love with a simple sailor lowly born, but she shows a little more intelligence than most of her Savoy sisters in realizing what life would be like living with him “in some back street.” Gilbert will never again lead us to such murky waters, except for a song in “Iolanthe” that was dropped very quickly.

Marion Hood as Mabel

Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” is as good as gold and accepts the ex-(he thinks)-pirate apprentice despite his background; but her sisters ask “had he not been / A thing of beauty, / Would she be swayed by quite as keen / A sense of duty?” On the other hand, she is willing to  wait until 1940 when his 21st birthday finally comes around–and those are points in her favor.

Patience is also a Good Girl, but something of a dipsydoodle when it comes to ideas about love having to be entirely unselfish and she offers herself to a man she cannot abide as a “logical” consequence. And we must give Phyllis credit in “Iolanthe” for rejecting riches and remaining true to her swain–that is, until he insists that the pretty woman he was with, though younger than him, is actually his mother. But who can blame her for that?

Princess Ida, alas, is something of a well-educated moron, to whom it does not occur that posterity without men would be impossible. But at least she is true to her convictions, mistaken or not as they might be. In the next play, “The Mikado,” Yum-Yum can be played as an opportunist who has a chance to marry the heir to the crown; but again we must excuse her for retreating when she finds out that burial alive awaits her after a month. At any rate, she realizes “that I am more attractive than anybody else in the whole world,” and she will always find another.

Tessa and Gianetta share “lead” status in “The Gondoliers”; and like their Japanese predecessor they are not at all averse to becoming Queen of Barataria. They are understandably indignant when they learn that one of them is not really married to her gondolier—[you really have to go over the full plot yourself]—and are quite human about their plans for dealing with the third woman when the time comes. In “Utopia, Ltd.,” Zara already is a princess, but that does not stop her from making a very fatal error in her Anglicizing of her native land. Just what that is will have to wait for another installment in this series.

Angelina, in her working clothes, does her thing

Now, lest you think that all of Gilbert’s leading ladies are Very Nice Little Women, consider Angelina (what a wonderful name) in “Trial by Jury.” The Breach of Promise suit was the only bit of power (other than the sexual one) that Victorian women were allowed; and if you recall the sequence in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” concerning such a lawsuit, you will realize how absurd it is to place a monetary value on “what love and caressing I’ve lost” by the altered affections of the Defendant. At the end, she certainly gets more riches than she bargained for…but at what a price!

Geraldine Ulman as sweet Rose Maybud

Just a tad less greedy is sweet Rose Maybud in “Ruddigore,” whose life is ruled by a book of etiquette that is her constant companion and frame of reference. On the other hand, she will easily switch her engagement from young Robin to the British tar Richard because of the latter’s good looks (he is a tenor, you know) and back to Robin because of his “considerable dairy farm” and other assets.

Many have criticized Elsie Maynard in “The Yeomen of the Guard” for her callous treatment of Jack Point. Now this is the play with the “human interest” that  Sullivan insisted on for their next collaboration after “Ruddigore” proved a disappointment. The leading tenor role, Fairfax, is almost on a moral plane with Pinkerton in the Puccini opera, while Elsie’s conduct concerning her engagement to Jack Point the jester might be defensible in light of how the latter has made light of whatever love he might have felt for her for all those years. Unlike the other high-born Savoy sopranos, she really needs the money that is offered her to make a mock marriage…. But read the script for yourself and consider. Sullivan wanted human beings and Gilbert gave them to him: warts and all.

And so much for the briefest of looks at the leading ladies.