A fragment of the long-lost music of the "De Belville Song," from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe, has been discovered, music experts announced Monday.
The first violin part of the song which has survived only in its lyric form since the piece was cut from the opera after its premiere in 1882 provides clues to its melody and musical structure. The part was found by Bruce Miller, a professor at Holy Cross College in
Massachusetts, and librarian Helga Perry.
"While the 'holy grail' of Gilbert and Sullivan is the lost opera Thespis, this is definitely the second on the list that people have been searching for," Miller said. "Most people assumed it was lost for good."
They discovered the fragment in 1998 while digging through a private collection of papers from the London's D'Oyly
Carte opera company. Miller said they withheld news of the find until Monday because they hoped to piece the song together before making it public.
He refused to divulge the owner of the collection and its location, citing privacy issues.
Miller first began going through the collection as part of his role on the editorial board of a new edition of Gilbert and Sullivan operas to be published by Broade Brothers next year. Miller's search initially yielded the orchestration of the lost song "Reflect, My Child," which was cut from HMS Pinafore, before turning up this piece from
Pages of the lost fragment of the "De Belville Song" music were found glued together face-to-face on the backside of other notated scores.
Fragment Provides Insight
While this one section of the music does not contain enough information for the song to be re-created in full, Miller said, it does give an idea of what its tune sounded like.
"We know now how many measures long it was, the rhythmic details, key signature far more than we have ever known before about it," he said.
The song itself has a somewhat mysterious history that suggests a possible explanation for the well-known rift between the two collaborators.
When Iolanthe premiered simultaneously in New York and London, the "De Belville Song" was performed with music and words in the former and with words only in the latter. Shortly thereafter, the song and another, "Fold Your Flapping Wings," were cut from the opera.
"We know Sullivan was not happy with act two," Miller said. "It dragged and he thought it needed to be compressed, and the critics said the same thing, so they took the two songs out ... but that may not be the only reason. The way it was performed suggests there was something problematic from the beginning."
Adding to the mystery was Gilbert's first edition of an anthology he published, "Songs of a Savoyard," which included the lyrics for the "De Belville Song." A second edition, co-edited with Sullivan after their breakup and reconciliation, didn't include it.
"Although nobody seems to have gone on the record as having a problem with that song, there [appears to be] too much of a coincidence," Miller said.
Satirical Slant Cited
The problems may have stemmed from the political content of the song, which tells the tale of a fictitious De Belville and his ascension to the House of Lords, a political bastion of England's wealthy upper class and aristocracy.
"We infer [from the song] that merit is not honored but attained rather through money and heredity, and even that honor is hollow," Miller explained. "It was not a gentle satire. In 1882, there was much debate over what powers the House of Lords should have as it is today. We traditionally look at Iolanthe as a fairy opera, but it
had a deadly serious ring to it. It was noted at the time and it may have been cut because it cut a little too close to the bone."
It is believed that Sullivan may have worried about a song with such a partisan jab because he hobnobbed with the upper classes.
"Something was not quite right about their relationship
over this song," Miller said. "In looking through Sullivan's
diary you see his discontent over his relationship [with
Gilbert], which began two weeks after the premiere of
"These discoveries are of academic interest mostly," said
Albert Bergeret, founder and artistic director of the
New York Gilbert &
Sullivan Players. "As far as I'm concerned,
these pieces were cut for good dramatic reasons as they
can distract from the continuity."
Bergeret said the song's controversy is ironic given that
Gilbert and Sullivan tended to avoid the politics of their
In fact, that is what makes their works timeless, Bergeret
said. "Kids from Harlem can recognize characters in their
plays," he said. "That, in my opinion, is their genius
that they avoided those areas.
"The piece will outlive the [British governmental] institution
in my opinion," Bergeret added. "[Iolanthe] is such a
marvelously structured drama about the human condition.
Its political context wasn't probably necessary for the
Miller will present the sheet music at the 11th annual 19th
Century Music Conference at the University of London
later this month.
"Hopefully this discovery will get people to start looking in
other places and try to find other [lost pieces]," Miller said.