About half way through the second act of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sorcerer”, Dr Daly, a vicar, signs the lament “Oh, my Voice is Sad and Low” whilst consoling himself by playing on a flageolet. The flageolet is given three short passages to play: four bars in the introduction and two repeated sections during the second half of the song. This brief guide is hoped to help actors and directors to choose the correct instruments for this scene and to show how easy it is to play the flageolet part on stage (compared to having it mimed from the pit or even omitted altogether).
The first Dr Daly was the baritone Rutland Barrington who gives us an insight into the history of the piece in his autobiography “Rutland Barrington - By Himself”:
“There was a song in the second act [of The Sorcerer] demanding an obbligato on the flageolet, which Sullivan suggested should be played in the orchestra; but I demurred to that, and received permission to play it for myself. A part was written out for me (it was only two notes), and it added enormously to the success of the song.”
From this it can be seen that Sullivan had intended that entire part to be played off stage and that Barrington probably only played the latter two fragments (which are particularly simple if not “only two notes”), omitting the more complex introduction. The key sentence is, of course, the last one, which should strongly encourage any productions to do as Barrington did and play the instrument live!
Flageolets, popular amateur instrument since the 17th century enjoyed a revival throughout the 19th and, at the time that Gilbert and Sullivan were active, a number of notable personalities (of whom Robert Louis Stevenson is, perhaps, the most famous) were keen players. However, these amateur players were often criticised for a lack of musical talent and for choosing an instrument which, it was perceived, has a ghastly sound (see, for instance, the article entitled Le Flageolet, published in L’Illustration in March 1902). Therefore, by making Dr Daly a flageolet–player, Sullivan was sending up a common stereotype of the amateur musician.
Flageolets have been made in a number of shapes and sizes over the centuries. For “The Sorcerer”, the instrument required is an “English” flageolet in a similar shape to one of the following:
English flageolets are distinguished from the other main type (the “French” flageolet) by having six holes on the front and none (or very occasionally one) on the back. French flageolets have four holes on the front and two on the back. By the 1870s, most English flageolets were made out of dark–coloured hardwoods (such as grenadilla) rather than the more traditional boxwood. They were also made with any number of keys (from one to six or more), although the music in the “The Sorcerer” can be played without any. Antique English flageolets are available in many places and are not particularly expensive. If you cannot find one, anywhere, you could probably get away with using a high–quality tin whistle (made out of dark wood or resin), although the unique profile of 19th Century flageolets is not replicated exactly in any other instrument and a whistle might struggle to produce some of the chromatic notes accurately.
The flageolet plays three fragments of music during the aria “Oh, my Voice is Sad and Low”: four bars during the introduction and two two-bar phrases which are interspersed with the singing. The introduction is more difficult than the other two sections and seems not to have been played on stage during the original production. However, it is still possible to play it, if desired. The flageolet is held, like a recorder, with the first three fingers of the left hand working the top three holes and the first three fingers of the right hand working the bottom three holes. If the instrument has a hole on the back, it should always be covered with the left thumb.
All three passages are played in the top octave of the instrument which is achieved by “overblowing”. If one takes the flageolet, covers the top three holes with the first three fingers of the left hand and blows gently, a G should sound in the lower octave. By increasing the intensity of the blowing, the instrument should overblow and the note should suddenly jump an octave. This higher intensity of air is required for all the notes and it might take some practice to be able to judge it correctly. Occasionally, an instrument might be unwilling to play in the top octave. In which case, the introduction passage should probably be played on a piccolo in the pit (as it cannot be played in the lower octave) and the two fragments in the song can be played an octave lower.
The following charts show the passages with the fingering given above. Each space represents a finger-hole (from top-to-bottom) and the squares show when the hole is covered.
The D♯, marked with a “+” is best played by using the lowest key on the instrument (opened with the little finger), in addition to all six fingers. In the absence of a key, only half cover the bottom hole. The C♯, marked with an “°”, is played by not covering any keys.
Even if the part is to be played off–stage with the performer miming, then it is probably worth trying to use the correct fingering and to practice playing a small fipple flute (such as a recorder or tin whistle). This will help ensure that the miming looks believable. Too many theatrical illusions are destroyed when an actor plays an instrument badly!
If it is not possible to source a English flageolet to play in the pit then the next best instrument is a good-quality descant (soprano) recorder. This has the closest timbre to the flageolet. The next best to that is probably a piccolo as this at least shares the octave transposition of the flageolet.
I would like to thank William Revels for his assistance with this article. Indeed, his success in teaching himself to play these parts (as revealed in the Guestbook) encouraged me to put the proverbial pen to paper and to finally write this guide. The colour photograph is of him playing Dr Daly at the 2007 Buxton Festival (and is used with his permission).
The two black–and–white photographs are taken from the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive and are used with permission. The GoS Archive includes a variety of interesting resources on “The Sorcerer” which are very much worth reading.