Thursday, February 25, 2016

measuring Gilbert and Sullivan

When I wish to quantify something subjective, I like to find an objective thing to measure that can serve as a proxy for what I'm curious about.

A while ago, in the continuing search for music to listen to while I'm engaged in the tedious task of exercising, I ripped my Gilbert and Sullivan collection. But not the whole thing. Why listen to the songs I don't like that much?

What now occurred to me was that the amount I chose to keep of each opera might correlate to how good I think the work is. So I counted up the percentages of the vocal tracks on my CDs that I'd put on the MP3 player. Of the 13 extant operas, there are two, The Sorcerer and The Grand Duke, that I don't have, but neither would have a high rating. Here's what I got:
  1. Iolanthe 92%
  2. The Mikado 90%
  3. Ruddigore 89%
  4. Patience 73%
  5. The Gondoliers 63%
  6. Princess Ida 62%
  7. The Pirates of Penzance 61%
  8. H.M.S. Pinafore 60%
  9. The Yeomen of the Guard 55%
  10. Trial by Jury 39%
  11. Utopia, Limited 37%
Both the top of the list and the bottom accorded closely with my subjective perceptions, though the middle had a few surprises. Iolanthe is unquestionably my favorite G&S. There is not a number in the first act, even a recitative, that I would do without. I think the act's finale is the greatest extended stretch of music that Sullivan ever wrote. And up there with it and the incomparable Mikado goes the somewhat neglected Ruddigore, equally great. I'd have thought I'd rank Pirates higher than Patience, but I think it's just more dichotomized: Patience is more even in quality, while the parts of Pirates I like I really, really like (The Sergeant of Police! The cat-like tread! The doctor of divinity!), but the dull parts (the Major-General's weepy songs in Act 2) are duller than Patience. On the same lines I also want to stick in a word for Princess Ida, not all of which is good, but what is good is really choice. Down at the bottom, Utopia, Limited is excellently composed, it just lacks a certain genius, except in the one brilliant Christy Minstrels number. Trial by Jury, by contrast a very early work, is bright and diverting but doesn't yet come together.

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