Sullivan, Scott, and Ivanhoe: Constructing Historical Time and National Identity in Victorian Opera

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Arthur Sullivan's Walter Scott-based opera Ivanhoe, despite attaining great success at its 1891 premiere, has since quickly fallen from musicological grace. Substantive criticism of this work in the twentieth century has concentrated on the static, tableau-like dramaturgy of the opera, a lack of dramatic coherence, and its undeniably conservative musical language. Taking its bearings from such criticisms this paper explores Sullivan's problematic magnum opus from the perspective of its relationship with time, understood from multiple levels – his opera's musical-dramaturgical, historical, and music-historical temporalities. Starting from Michael Beckerman's insightful analysis of what he terms the ‘iconic mode’ in Sullivan's music, Ivanhoe can be viewed as an attempt at creating a different type of dramaturgical paradigm that emphasizes stasis and stability located in the past – highly apt for a work seeking both to crystallize past history and to found a new tradition for future English opera. Moreover, investigating this work and the composer's stated aesthetic concerns more closely reveal a conscious desire to opt out of continental European narratives of musical progress and build a composite, pageant-like vision of English history, therefore inevitably partaking in a process of constructing national identity. These features are teased out in the context of Scott's impact on the Victorian mind and their affinities with other historicist tendencies in the arts such as the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)295-321
JournalNineteenth-Century Music Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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