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Symphony in E (Sullivan)

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The Symphony in E, first performed on March 10, 1866, was the only symphony composed by Arthur Sullivan. It is frequently called the 'Irish' Symphony.


There are four movements:

  • Andante – Allegro, ma non troppo vivace
  • Andante espressivo
  • Allegretto
  • Allegro vivace e con brio
  • The playing time is about thirty five minutes (or slightly longer if the exposition repeat is taken in the first movement).


    Sullivan began work on his symphony in 1863, very early in his career, when he was 21 years old. From holiday in Ireland, he wrote that "as I was jolting home through wind and rain... in an open jaunting-car, the whole first movement of a symphony came into my head with a real Irish flavour about it – besides scraps of the other movements." The composer later wrote, "I always meant to call it the 'Irish Symphony', but I modestly refrained, as it was courting comparison with the 'Scotch Symphony'." [i.e. Mendelssohn's Symphony No 3.] The title did not appear on the published score until after Sullivan's death, in the Novello edition of 1915.

    The first performance of the symphony was at The Crystal Palace in March 1866, thanks to the popular singer, Jenny Lind, who sponsored the concert and attracted an audience of 3,000 for her singing in the first half of the programme. The conductor was August Manns, who had previously conducted the London première of Sullivan's incidental music to The Tempest.

    The symphony was well received, though the music critics, both then and later, observed the influence of other composers. The Times wrote, "Mr Sullivan should abjure Mendelssohn, even Beethoven and above all Schumann, for a year and a day." In his 1960 study of Sullivan's music Gervase Hughes also detects echoes of Schumann, and of Schubert as well.

    The symphony was performed frequently during Sullivan's lifetime, but received few performances in the twentieth century. It has, however, been performed more frequently in recent years and was the major work of the opening concert of the first English Music Festival (broadcast by the BBC) in October 2006. Four CD recordings of the piece are available, and a new study score edition has been published by a German firm, Musikproduction Jürgen Höflich and is available here (a reprint of the out-of-print Novello & Co edition, with a new introduction).

    Musical structure

  • The Andante introduction opens with the alternation in octaves of tonic and dominant in dotted rhythm, played by the brass, answered by a 'Dresden Amen' motif on the strings (a Mendelssohnian touch). The main Allegro part of the first movement has divided critical opinion. The Gramophone in 1969 commented, "The first theme in E minor may be very Mendelssohnian in shape, rhythm and key, but it provides the first real sign of Sullivan's genuine vitality of imagination," whereas Hughes considers that though sonata form is competently handled, the first subject, "a violin cantabile of soaring promise, falls to pieces at the seventh bar."
  • The second movement, in B major, is based on "a very Mendelssohnian melody" which "survives The Salvation Army treatment on horns and alto trombone in octaves, only to culminate in an outrageous crib of the second movement of Schubert's Unfinished, a phrase first on oboes and then on violins."
  • The scherzo third movement, in C major, has attracted the most favourable comments from critics. Hughes notes that it is not in conventional symphonic scherzo form, following instead a pattern ABCA with a short coda based on B in which Edward Greenfield heard an astonishing similarity to the finale of Schubert's Great C major Symphony. The jaunty main theme of the movement is given to the oboe, always one of Sullivan's favoured instruments.
  • The finale contains no unconventional features, though Greenfield comments that it brings "one of those descants (fast dotted rhythm against a conventionally soaring melody) that became one of the trademarks of the operettas".
  • Hughes sums the symphony up thus: "In spite of the promising first movement and a modicum of competent thematic development, the symphony cannot be counted as a satisfactory achievement. Too much of the material is machine-made – as yet we find few signs of true spontaneity." By contrast, Greenfield concludes that the symphony is "a charming example of Victorian art at its least inhibited."


  • Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (EMI, 1968)
  • BBC Concert Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes (cpo, 1993)
  • BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Hickox (Chandos, 2000)
  • Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos, 2007)
  • References

    Symphony in E (Sullivan) Wikipedia

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