Gilbert & Sullivan’s American Ally

The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell.

Born on February 21, 1855, in Lynn, Massachusetts, George Lowell Tracy grew up in a musical and religious milieu which influenced the course of his life. His father, Cyrus, was an accomplished poet as well as an amateur flutist and composer. His mother, Caroline, was an adept pianist who sang in her church choir. Tracy’s pious Christian household was no doubt where he acquired his understanding of chorales and canticles. His appreciation for Christian liturgical music can be observed in the multiple manuscripts he composed and compiled throughout his life. “Reign Thou Jehovah!” by Tracy is included in the cache of his religious pieces, as are two titles by Jean-Baptiste Faure. The French composer, who was also an illustrious operatic baritone, penned a number of sacred works, most notably “The Palms,” a song for Palm Sunday. Manuscript parts with the song’s alternate title “Palm Branches” are housed in the George L. Tracy Collection of Music Manuscripts at the Library of Congress.

As a child, Tracy displayed a musical precocity that saw him studying the violin, piano, and organ and obtaining a paid conductor position by the age of ten. Later in life, he would boast that he could “play and teach any orchestral or band instrument.” Likely it was this prodigious talent that attracted the attention of English theatrical artists Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, better known as Gilbert and Sullivan. Shortly after Tracy’s November 27, 1883, wedding to choir singer Martha Agnes Walker, Tracy was summoned to London by the British duo. Tracy’s assignment was to write piano arrangements of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas Princess Ida and The Mikado as well as to assist with obtaining American copyrights for their material.

Sir Arthur Sullivan, photograph taken before 1900. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress. 

Before Sullivan’s partnership with Gilbert made him an international sensation in the late 1870s, Sullivan had supplemented his income by working as a church organist and music teacher. It was during his pedagogical career that Tracy came under his tutelage for three years. Perhaps inspired by his teacher’s Irish heritage, Tracy arranged or composed several works that paid homage to Celtic culture and are currently housed within the George L. Tracy Collection of Music Manuscripts. Among them are his Medley of Old Irish Songs and Kathleen: an Irish Opera in 3 Acts.  Celtic-themed pieces by other composers found in the Tracy Collection include “Where the River Shannon Flows” by Irish-American vaudeville performer James I. Russell and “The Weddin’ o’ Sandy MacNab” by Sir Harry Lauder, a world-renowned Scottish comedian, composer, and singer.

By the start of World War I, Tracy had returned to the United States, and he began orchestrating patriotic songs. In order to encourage national support for the war, boost the morale of troops, and provide comfort for American citizens stateside and abroad, music publishers churned out thousands of titles during the era. Tracy’s nationalistic compositions expressed the characteristic themes of hope, loss, separation, pride, and victory. Some of his titles which are available at the Library of Congress include “Good Bye, Ma,” “Three Cheers for the Red Cross,” “Old Glory: National Flag Song,” and “Spirit of the Navy” March. The latter two songs can be found amid the documents which comprise the Tracy Collection.

Harry Lauder in Costume

Harry Lauder, [between 1906 and 1909]. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tracy and his wife, Agnes, traveled to England three times while he was a paid Savoyard of Gilbert and Sullivan. His time associating with his former instructor and his affiliates left the young composer with indelible sentiments of gratitude and indebtedness. Later, Tracy would remark that the experience refined his musical sensibilities and broadened his appreciation for the arts in general. Indeed, he regarded it as one of the crowning achievements of his life. Music critics would hasten to add his opera Uncle Tom to that category. Still lauded as his chef d’oeuvre, and based on the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, its music was declared, at the time, to be “exquisite in melody and composition.” The 126-page manuscript full score and 35-page piano-vocal score of the opera are both housed in Box 9, Folder 1. As with other materials in the Tracy Collection, they can be requested by researchers in the Performing Arts Reading Room.

Throughout Tracy’s career, Massachusetts periodicals praised the character and capabilities of their homegrown artist. An article in the January 6, 1900, edition of the Boston Home Journal deemed him “the most versatile composer in America.” Fifteen years later, The Boston Globe declared that he was a man of “fascinating ambition.” And, according to Boston College’s independent student newspaper The Heights, Tracy had “a habit of turning ambition into music.” This was said of the local celebrity shortly after he joined the faculty of Boston College in 1920. On August 21, 1921, the music director and professor died from an undisclosed illness. Less than two decades later, his papers were donated to the Library of Congress and have since been processed as the George L. Tracy Collection of Music Manuscripts. Additional compositions by Tracy are accessible through two digital Library collections: The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America and World War I Sheet Music.

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