Notes on Sullivan's use of percussion

These notes are intended to help a conductor, orchestra manager, or percussionist understand Sullivan's use of percussion instruments in his orchestrations for the Savoy operas, so those people can make better decisions about their own performances of these works.

Standard instruments

Sullivan consistently calls for the following percussion instruments:

Optional/occasional instruments

The percussion parts have been added to over the years, in some cases by Sullivan himself in D'Oyly Carte revival productions. In other cases, the origins of the additions are unknown, and sometimes highly questionable.

A few of these additions call for chimes, including:

Gondoliers and Utopia call for tambourine. Gondoliers also calls for castanets.

It's up to the conductor to decide whether to use these additional passages (and instruments), perhaps based on research into historical performance practices, perhaps simply based on dramatic and musical taste.

Bass drum and cymbals

This combination, common in Sullivan's day (and also, for example, in John Phillip Sousa's), consists of a cymbal mounted horizontally atop the bass drum, facing upward, by means of a special bracket clamped to the drum's rim. A second cymbal with a T-handle completes the rig. A single percussionist plays this contraption, beating the drum with a fuzzy-ended stick held in the right hand, and clashing the cymbals vertically with the left.

The cymbal sound that Sullivan had in mind probably had more in common with the "high hat cymbal", found in today's trap sets, than with the hand-held pairs of cymbals commonly used by orchestral percussionists today. Especially when the bass drum and cymbals are called upon to sound together (very commonly the case), the idea is a crisp, quick, high-pitched sound to complement the low thud. A more ringing, flashy cymbal technique would only require the rest of the orchestra to play louder, and should be reserved for fortissimo passages.

What are the options for achieving Sullivan's BD&Cym sound in today's productions?


The parts were apparently designed to be played by just one player, with occasional quick changes of instrument that might be difficult or impossible depending on the skill of your player and the efficiency of your pit layout. Here are some reasons you might choose to use two players, or even more:

Alas, the complex passages for percussion almost always accompany brass passages. So although both percussionists and brass players count a lot of rests, it isn't practical for a trombonist to leap up and seize the cymbals now and then!

Ordering/printing considerations

Consider providing multiple copies of percussion parts, to accommodate:

Or, just copy the few pages required. Percussion parts are neither lengthy nor complicated.

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