The Martyr of Antioch

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The Martyr of Antioch is an oratorio (originally described as "A Sacred Musical Drama") by the English composer Arthur Sullivan. It was first performed on 15 October 1880 at the triennial Leeds Music Festival, having been composed specifically for that event. It formed the first half of the programme, followed by a performance of Beethoven's Mass in C and Schubert's Song of Miriam in the second half. Sullivan was musical director of the Leeds Festival in 1880 and conducted the performance.

The Martyr of Antioch is based on the 1822 epic poem by Henry Hart Milman (the Dean of St. Paul's) concerning the martyrdom of St. Margaret of Antioch in the 3rd century. The libretto was adapted for the occasion by Sullivan's friend and collaborator, the librettist W. S. Gilbert. Their fifth opera, The Pirates of Penzance, had premiered in London earlier that year.

Like many of Sullivan's large-scale choral works, The Martyr is theatrical in conception and was even presented as an opera by the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1898. At the Leeds Festival of 1886, Sullivan would premiere an even more successful choral work, The Golden Legend.

The Martyr is rarely performed today, though two recordings are available. A professional recording was made at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in 2000,[1] and an amateur recording was issued by The Sir Arthur Sullivan Society in the 1980s. In addition, various selections from the work have been recorded over the past few decades.[2] During much of the 20th century, Sullivan's serious classical compositions were overshadowed by the Savoy operas, but more recently, revived interest in these works has led to recordings and more frequent performances.


On 2 January 1878, the secretary of the triennial Leeds Music Festival's Provisional Committee wrote to Sullivan to encourage him to accept the committee's invitation to compose an oratorio for the 1880 Leeds Festival: "I need hardly tell you with what completeness, force, and exceptional choral power we should perform your work, for our recent production of Macfarren's Joseph will be fresh in your memory, if you read or heard the universal praise bestowed upon the Leeds Festival Performance." Sullivan was in the south of France at the time, where he was trying to recover from illness. On his return in March, he answered that he could compose a shorter piece of perhaps an hour and a half, but not a full-length oratorio. The committee accepted his offer.[3] Despite all Sullivan's protestations over the years, his reluctance to compose a full-length oratorio on more than two years' notice casts some doubt on his willingness to devote himself to serious composition. The historian Michael Ainger noted, "He was still only thirty-five, but most of his serious work already lay behind him."[4]

At first, Sullivan intended to prepare a libretto himself based on the biblical David and Jonathan story. After struggling with this for a while, he accepted the advice and assistance of Gilbert and selected the Milman poem, The Martyr of Antioch, as a subject. Nevertheless, when a suggestion was made that, in view of the economic and political situation in England, the Festival be postponed for a year, Sullivan expressed approval of that idea in a letter dated 30 June 1879:

If you carry out the idea of postponing the Leeds Festival till 1881, it will be a very great relief to me and a weight off my mind, because, in consequence of my approaching visit to America [where Gilbert and Sullivan would premiere The Pirates of Penzance], I should have very little time to write for the next six months, and I have been seriously perplexed how to manage it.[3]
Sullivan in the early 1880s

Ultimately, the festival was not postponed. Gilbert arranged, cut, and in part re-wrote Milman's poem to make it into a libretto suitable for the work. Dean Milman's sons authorised Sullivan to say that the alterations made to adapt the poem to musical requirements had been made with judgment and good taste, and in complete accordance with the spirit of the original work.[1] Sullivan acknowledged Gilbert's contributions in his preface to Martyr: "To his friend, Mr. W. S. Gilbert, is due the change which in one or two cases (marked with an asterisk [numbers 2, 8, and 10]) has been necessary from blank verse to rhyme; and for these and many valuable suggestions, he returns Mr. Gilbert his warm acknowledgements." For his assistance, Sullivan gave Gilbert a silver cup inscribed "W.S. Gilbert from his friend Arthur Sullivan. Leeds Festival 1880. The Martyr of Antioch." In return, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan on 3 December:

Dear Sullivan, It always seemed to me that my particularly humble services in connection with the Leeds Festival had received far more than their meed of acknowledgement in your preamble to the libretto - and it most certainly never occurred to me to look for any other reward than the honour of being associated, however remotely and unworthily, in a success which, I suppose, will endure until music itself shall die. Pray believe that of the many substantial advantages that have resulted to me from our association, this last is, and always will be, the most highly prized."[2]

In January 1880, the festival committee, after considering other conductors, asked Sullivan to conduct the Leeds Festival, which was to run from 13 to 16 October. This was a popular choice, as one columnist wrote, "...for an English Festival we are to have an English conductor. Too long have we in this country bowed down to foreign talent, even when it has been far inferior to English talent." When Sullivan stood before the festival chorus of 306 voices for his first rehearsal in Leeds on 4 June 1880, he was greeted with cheers and applause by the chorus. On 31 August he first rehearsed The Martyr of Antioch at Leeds. He outlined the narrative of the new work to the chorus before proceeding with the rehearsal, which was reported in a local newspaper:

[T]he warm praise that the composer-conductor bestowed on the singers at the conclusion of the rehearsal was well deserved.... These pleasant congratulations were not all on one side, for after several of the choruses the vocalists manifested their appreciation of the composer's success and talent.[3]

The performance[edit]

The premiere of The Martyr of Antioch took place on 15 October 1880 at Leeds Town Hall, employing impressive forces: The orchestra numbered 111 instrumentalists, and there were 306 choristers.[4]

The performance of The Martyr of Antioch at the festival under Sullivan's baton earned praise, and he was asked to conduct the next six festivals.[5] The Leeds Mercury wrote on 16 October 1880:

[T]he cheers which greeted the arrival of Mr. Sullivan were renewed with still more vigour and enthusiasm at the close of his new work. The masculine members of the chorus hailed him with a hearty Yorkshire "hooray", while the ladies waved their handkerchiefs in token of congratulation. The whole assemblage, indeed, joined in a hearty tribute of praise.... the strength of The Martyr of Antioch lies in its beautiful Pagan choruses, so full of character and colour; in the first and last airs of Margarita...; in the Funeral Music of the Christians; in the love music of Olybius; and, with reference to the entire work, in charmingly varied and appropriately coloured orchestration.... the dramatic portions of the Cantata... are inferior in treatment, and consequently in result, to those of a lyrical nature. Hence a comparative want of effect in the scene between Margarita and her father, and between the same person and her lover, when revelation is made of a change of faith, meaning nothing less than death to the convert.... This opinion, however, is based upon purely dramatic considerations. Regarding the situation from a musical point of view, there is nothing in the work we would willingly have sacrificed to make room for dramatic expansion.... A word is certainly called for by Mr. Sullivan's orchestrations. Few living musicians know better than our composer how to employ the resources of instrumentation... He uses the orchestra, as not abusing it, charming attentive ears by touches of delicate fancy in form and pleasing cultured taste by a harmony of colour.... All this the scoring of The Martyr of Antioch proves beyond dispute. It never wearies by sameness or repels by eccentricity. It is never presumptuous in forcing its way unduly to the front, and it serves to curtain the general interest of the work without distracting attention from points on which attention should be fixed....[6]

Critics agreed that the music had much to admire, but the work failed to achieve sufficient dramatic effect.[5]

Characters and original cast[edit]



  • Fabius, Bishop of Antioch (bass) –
  • Margarita, daughter of Callias (soprano) – Emma Albani
  • The Christian Congregation.


Sullivan (top right) and colleagues at the 1880 Leeds Festival where The Martyr of Antioch was premiered

The action of the piece is laid at Antioch, in Syria, in the latter part of the third century.

Olybius is in love with Margarita, and she returned his love. This, however, was in her heathen days. She is now a Christian, and with her conversion, of which both her lover and her father are ignorant, she, although still not indifferent to him, rejects all idea of union with a heathen. The chorus of sun-worshippers gather preliminary to a solemn sacrifice. The Prefect calls for Margarita to take her accustomed place and lead the worship. During her non-appearance, the Priest charges him with lukewarmness in the cause of Apollo, and he avows his firm intention to put all Christians to death.

Later, in the Christian cemetery, where one of the brethren is buried, a hymn is sung over him. After the funeral, Margarita remains behind and pours forth her feelings in adoration of the Saviour. Her father finds her thus employed, and learns for the first time of her conversion. Next, in the palace of the Prefect, the maidens of Apollo sing their evening song. Olybius and Margarita are left together; he begins his old endearments, and dilates on the glories which will be hers when they are united. She then confesses that she is a Christian; he curses her religion, and she leaves him for prison.

Finally, outside the prison of the Christians, on the road to the Temple of Apollo, the maidens of Daphne chant the glories of the god, while from within the prison are heard the more solemn and determined strains of the Christians. Margarita is brought forward and required to make her choice. She proclaims her faith in Christ. Her lover and her father urge her to retract, but in vain; and she dies with the words of rapture on her lips:

The Christ, the Christ, commands me to his home;
Jesus, Redeemer, Lord, I come! I come! I come!

Structure of the Oratorio[edit]

Scene I – The Front of the Temple of Apollo
  • Introduction
  • No. 1. Chorus: "Lord of the Golden Day"
  • No. 2. Solo: (Callias) "Break off the Hymn"; ARIA: (Olybius): "Come Margarita, Come"
  • No. 3. Duet: (Olybius & Callias) "Great Olybius"
  • No. 4. Chorus: "Long Live the Christian Scourge"
Scene II – The Burial Place of the Christians - Night
  • Organ Solo
  • No. 5. Funeral Anthem: "Brother, thou art gone before us"
  • No. 6. Solo: (Fabius) "Brother, thou slumberest"
  • No. 7. Solo Recit. & Hymn: (Margarita) "Yet Once Again"
  • No. 8. Duet: (Margarita & Callias) "My Own, My Loved, My Beauteous Child"
Scene III – The Palace of the Prefect
  • No. 9. Chorus: (Evening Song of the Maidens) "Come Away with Willing Feet"
  • No. 10. Recit. & Air: (Olybius) "Sweet Margarita, Give Me Thy Hand"
  • No. 11. Duet: (Margarita & Olybius) "Oh Hear Me Olybius"
Scene IV – The Temple of Apollo
  • No. 12. Chorus: "Now Glory to the God Who Breaks"
  • No. 13. Solo: (Julia with Chorus) "Io Paean!"
  • No. 14. Scene: (Margarita, Julia, Olybius & Callias with Chorus) "Great is Olybius"
  • No. 15. Quartet: (Margarita, Julia, Olybius & Callias): "Have Mercy Unrelenting Heav'n"
  • No. 16. Finale: "The Hour of Mercy's O'er"


  1. ^ Shepherd, Marc, The Martyr of Antioch (2000 recording), Oakapple Press .
  2. ^ Shepherd, Marc, The Martyr of Antioch (1880), Oakapple Press .
  3. ^ a b "The Martyr of Antioch", Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, Boise State .
  4. ^ Ainger, p. 153
  5. ^ Excerpts from several reviews of the original performance of The Martyr of Antioch, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, accessed 6 November 2013


  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan – A Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514769-3. 

External links[edit]