Giggles with Mr Gilbert; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Daily Mail (London), April 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

Giggles with Mr Gilbert; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS


Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge

QUESTION Did Arthur Sullivan put music to W. S. Gilbert's poem Etiquette? Would I be in breach of any copyright if I did so?

ETIQUETTE was one of W. S. Gilbert's Bab Ballads, a collection of light verse comically illustrated by the author, which he wrote before he became famous for his comic opera librettos with Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900).

Most appeared in the magazine Fun. Bab was Gilbert's childhood nickname, short for 'baby'.

Gilbert (1836-1911) explained how the ballads came about: 'In 1861, Fun was started, under the editorship of Mr H. J. Byron. With much labour, I turned out an article three-quarters-of-a-column long and sent it to the editor, together with a half-page drawing on wood.

'A day or two later, the printer of the paper called upon me, with Mr Byron's compliments, and staggered me with a request to contribute a column of ''copy'' and a half-page drawing every week for the term of my natural life.'

Gilbert wrote for Fun for ten years. He was paid [pounds sterling]1 a column; the cashier measured each contribution with a piece of string.

Bab Ballads became Fun's most important feature -- regularly recited at dinner parties and in speeches.

However, Gilbert thought little of them; they were 'composed hastily, and under the discomforting necessity of having to turn out a quantity of lively verse on a certain day of each week'.

Etiquette was seen as the pinnacle of this work, containing all the classic elements of a Bab Ballad -- satire, nonsense, absurdity and a masterful, though topsy-turvy, use of English verse. It began:

'The Ballyshannon foundered off the coast of Cariboo, And down in fathoms many went the captain and the crew; Down went the owners -- greedy men whom hope of gain allured: Oh, dry the starting tear, for they were heavily insured.

Besides the captain and the mate, the owners and the crew, The passengers were also drowned excepting only two: Young Peter Gray, who tasted teas for Baker, Croop & Co, And Somers, who from Eastern shores imported indigo.'

Etiquette has never been set to music, though many of the ballads became a source for plots and songs for the G&S operas.

Perhaps the most famous of these was the ballad Captain Reece: '... the worthy Captain Reece Commanding of the Mantelpiece Who was so devoted to his crew That there was no conceivable Luxury he did not provide for their comfort; for example:

'A feather bed had every man, Warm slippers and hot water can, Brown Windsor from the Captain's store, A valet, too, to every four.' Gilbert renamed the Mantelpiece HMS Pinafore and Captain Reece became Captain Corcoran -- thus a great comic opera was born.

You would not be in breach of copyright if you set Etiquette to music. Modern copyright law states that the author's rights expire 70 years after their death.

In Gilbert's time, it was 50 years. In fact, this was the saving of the pairs' reputation.

For the 50 years after Sullivan's death, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was the only professional body allowed to perform their most popular works. By 1950, they had fallen out of fashion, but the tide began to turn with the expiry of Sullivan's copyright.

A young Australian conductor, Charles Mackerras, arranged music from 12 of Sullivan's operas (and a snippet from the Overture di Ballo) into the ballet score Pineapple Poll, which was a huge success.

A flurry of professional productions followed the expiry of the Gilbert copyright at the end of 1961, and his work has been popular ever since.

Arthur Bales, Grimsby, Lincs.

QUESTION Were the Japanese and Chinese once the same people?

THE origin of the Japanese people is not clear, but while many of their ancestors came from China, they were by no means exclusively so. …

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