Wagner said, Do something new! Not something silly or meaningless, but something that exposes the core of his philosophy, the depth of character and drama and spiritual content of his works.
I[Gilbert to Wagner]
March 3, 1875
Dear Mr. Wagner
As you may know I often collaborate with Arthur Sullivan in the writing of comic operas which have been performed with some success in England in recent years. Unfortunately, Sullivan is a man of uncertain temperament, and has refused to write the score of my next opera on the grounds that he is going to be engaged for the next three years on a vast oratorio (he does have ambitions to make a name in serious music). I am therefore enquiring if you would like to undertake the task?
I enclose a copy of the first draft. As you will see, the plot concerns a group of pirates at Penzance, a fishing port in Cornwall, England, one of whose number, named Frederick, leaves them and falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a major-general. Various complications ensue which you will see from the manuscript, but in the end all are reunited and everything ends happily. I particularly draw your attention to the chorus of comic policemen in the second half of the piece, which should give great opportunities for the exercise of your musical genius, knowing your talent and skill in choral work. Perhaps you would be kind enough to read the draft and give me your opinion. I might add I am a great fan of your work. I often hum The Ride of the Valkyries in the bath.
[Wagner to Gilbert]
March 19, 1875
Dear Mr. Gilbert,
I am thanking you for your letter and the manuscript which I enjoyed very much. My wife Cosima says I have not laughed so much since her been father died. Yes, I believe I could undertake the task of writing a score but first let me offer some suggestions.
I take it that Frederick, the central figure, represents the eternal Wanderer or Vogelgeist and that the daughters of the Major General are Sea Maidens or Wasserleitung. This I shall explain with a short song by Frederick in the first Act, Himmel, Wo Ist Mein Doppelganger? This will take up most of Act One, about three-quarters of an hour, and then the Wasserleitung appear and render a spirited chorus of number, Du Bist Ein Klott. But do not fear - I shall not neglect the humour in this part. As Frederick is singing, an old woman (Mathilde) appears in the background and tries to climb up the cliff. We shall have much mirth watching her pitiful efforts to climb the rocks and then just when we think she has succeeded she falls off the top and is killed! When I read this idea to Cosima she could not stop laughing. Now for the pirates. I think it would be better if they were all dwarfs (Nibelung), symbolising the underworld. They should wear gnome's hats and have long beards down to their waists as then the audience will know they are dwarfs. They will naturally sing a merry chorus every time they appear:
ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!, Curses on everybody. Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho! Curses on everybody.
(I have given the English version as the German is a little difficulty.)
And so we come to the policemen. I am afraid that here, Mr. Gilbert, I am finding myself in slight disagreement with you. It is most important that these jovial fellows have a mirth-making chorus but I find your version rather sad. It is not very merry, is it not, to suggest the life of a policeman is not a happy one? I would suggest instead a new chorus for the police, viz.: Leb' wohl, leb' wohl, leb' wohl, hier ist das Krankenhaus. This will make much mirth.
However, the climax of the opera, which is the clash between the pirates and the policemen, is a magnificent piece of writing, symbolising the eternal struggle between the forces of Evil Dominant, represented by the pirates, and Right Triumphant, represented by the police. Would it not, incidentally, be better if the police were giants? I am merely making the suggestion. But let us not be too serious, Mr. Gilbert. I would suggest that the pirates gain their victory over the police by putting out their eyes with tiny arrows! I can almost see you laughing at this idea. Thus it appears that Evil has triumphed, but then the Gods cause an earthquake in which all the dwarfs are killed (that is because being so small they slip down the cracks in the earth - I have thought out the details you see) and the opera ends with Frederick and the Wasserleitung singing Donner Und Blitzen, Mein Vater Ist Ein Feuerwerk while the maiden's father, the Major-General, commits self-immolation (Purification by Fire).
This I think will be a most amusing opera and if you like I will add some risible jokes to the libretto.
With best wishes,
[Gilbert to Sullivan]
Please forgive me for those harsh words the other night. For various reasons which I will not go into, I implore you to return to our partnership on any terms you want to lay down.
W. S. Gilbert