Minimalism Invented in England, It Turns Out

With all of the classical prototypes for musical minimalism that are so perennially trotted out – Perotin, the first six minutes of Das Rheingold, Bolero, Vexations and other Satie works – I’m surprised no one ever mentions the duet between Point and Elsie, “I have a song to sing-O,” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard. The entire, rather long song is sung over a drone on D, and the verses follow a strict additive process, adding four new measures with each verse, somewhat akin to the early works of Glass and Rzewski:

Point-Elsie Duet

This strikes me as a much more truly minimalist impulse than the Das Rheingold opening, which is nothing but a spectacularly long dominant preparation of a type Beethoven would have recognized. I suppose Gilbert gets credit for the additive process idea, since his lyrics necessitate it – and Sullivan carries it off so gorgeously. This I can accept as a minimalist prototype.

UPDATE: To stave off further ludicrously off-topic comments, let me clarify the context of this post. That Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass were inspired, in their early minimalist efforts, by John Coltrane, Indian music, African drumming, Ravi Shankar, and other non-European traditions is well documented. I have written many times, in many places, that minimalism was an irruption of non-Western influences into the Western tradition – even, American music’s attempt to connect with the rest of the world. This blog entry is not about the actual origins of minimalism.

This blog entry is about what I see as a simplistic tendency, which I’ve written about here repeatedly before, on the part of people who don’t know much about minimalism to identify various relatively static examples in the classical repertoire as precursors of minimalism. I find it ridiculous to think of Das Rheingold or Bolero as minimalist, but I did find this one G&S song to which I thought the term could legitimately apply. Perhaps, as Doug Skinner suggested, G&S were channeling some ancient Saxon archetype foreign to the European mainstream. I find this interesting as a comment on the occasional originality of G&S. Believe me, I am not sitting around wondering where the minimalists (Young, Riley, Reich, Glass) got their ideas and jumped on this song as the only thing I could think of because Western classical music is the only thing I know. I do not imagine that La Monte, Terry, Steve, and Phil started minimalism after seeing The Yeomen of the Guard together.




  1. says

    This is one of my very favorite G&S numbers. It’s not only gorgeous, but if done right it can be incredibly moving. Martin Green could break your heart with it. And each addition in the music, culminating in the C-naturals in the 4th verse, is perfectly calculated to contribute to the total shape. I never thought of it in minimalist terms, but yes, absolutely. In addition to the additive structure, there is the utter simplicity of the melodic-rhythmic figures.

  2. says

    For additive precedents there is also the the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes, O”.

    I also believe that the big band riff tunes were a precedent, such as those by Jimmy Mundy. Not only were phrases repeated as the chords change but under soloists the brass would often play more or less the same chord with just the inner notes changing as needed.
    There is also the unchanging single notes riffs, played by the tenor and baritone saxophones, in rock and roll. Lionel Hampton’s recording of flying Home uses minimalist techniques.
    I wonder if minimalist techniques are related to drones which were used in early European music?

    KG replies: For additive process, there’s also the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and I imagine there’s probably a whole genre of similar folk songs. There are many forerunners – it’s the purported ones in classical European music that I tend to find specious.

  3. Juhani Nuorvala says

    The minimalist I’m most reminded of by that Gilbert and Sullivan piece is Tom Johnson. – For additive process, there’s also the striking example that Wim Mertens gives in his book, a passage from the medieval Italian hoquet ‘Cum Martelli’. You can hear it here at 52’10”:

  4. Gene says

    “Das Rheingold” opens with six minutes of tonic, not dominant.

    KG replies: But after six minutes of E-flat the curtain opens to reveal the Rhine maidens singing in A-flat, so it is heard in retrospect as a dominant. I wonder if perhaps that’s the only thing Wagner could imagine doing with a triad held for that long. A true minimalist wouldn’t have felt a need to resolve it.

  5. Paul Schleuse says

    The additive process is clearly there, but the harmony isn’t really static. The alternation between D and D maj7/sus4 is used as a kind of subdominant substitute to articulate quasi-plagal cadences (with accelerating harmonic rhythm) at the end of each stanza. The connection between additive processes in folksong (especially in children’s counting songs, etc.) and in minimalist composition is certainly intriguing, and seems like something Rzewski, for one, might actually have done intentionally.

    KG replies: Well, yeah.

  6. Steven Ledbetter says

    Sullivan did, indeed, brilliantly solve the problem set him by Gilbert’s lyric, but he didn’t find it easy. In fact he felt stuck at first and actually went to Gilbert (who was no musician) because G. had once told him that he had a song in mind while planning the rhythmic structure for his lyrics. Of course Sullivan normally insisted that he not be told what that tune might be, but in this case he needed a hint. I don’t think the identity of the tune was ever written down, but Gilbert did try to sing or hum some folksong, and Sullivan evidently got the point after a few seconds.

    KG replies: Thanks, Steven. Could I ask your source? I’ve been looking for a good G&S history.