The Symphony in E, first performed on March 10, 1866, was the only symphony composed by Arthur Sullivan. Since Sullivan's death, it has frequently been called the "Irish" Symphony as it was composed in Ireland, and as a homage to Mendelssohn's "Scotch Symphony".
The piece was generally well-received at its early performances.
Sullivan began work on his symphony in 1863, when he was 21 years old. From holiday in northern Ireland, he wrote to his mother that "as I was jolting home ... through wind and rain on an open jaunting-car, the whole first movement of a symphony came into my head with a real Irish flavour about it – besides scraps of the other movements." The composer later wrote, "I always meant to call it the 'Irish Symphony', but I modestly refrained, as it was courting comparison with the 'Scotch Symphony'." [i.e. Mendelssohn's Symphony No 3.] The title did not appear on the published score until after Sullivan's death, in the Novello edition of 1915. Sullivan wrote in 1899 to his cousin, the music critic B. W. Findon: "Had I known that Stanford would name his work an 'Irish Symphony', I think I should have knocked my modesty on the head."
The first performance of the symphony took place at The Crystal Palace on 10 March 1866, conducted by August Manns, who had previously conducted the London première of Sullivan's incidental music to The Tempest.[n 1] The symphony had its second performance on 11 April at St James's Hall at a concert of the Musical Society of London; the conductor was Alfred Mellon. On 11 July, it was given a third performance, at what was billed as "Mr Arthur S. Sullivan's Grand Orchestral Concert". The programme consisted mainly of Sullivan's works, including the overture to The Sapphire Necklace and excerpts from The Masque at Kenilworth, conducted by the composer. Among the performers was the popular singer, Jenny Lind, who co-sponsored the concert, sang four musical numbers including two Sullivan songs, and attracted a capacity audience.
The symphony was well received, though the music critics, both then and later, observed the influence of other composers. The critic in The Times wrote, after the first performance, "The symphony [is] the best musical work, if judged only by the largeness of its form and the number of beautiful thoughts it contains, for a long time produced by any English composer. ... Mr Sullivan should abjure Mendelssohn, even Beethoven and above all Schumann, for a year and a day." In his 1960 study of Sullivan's music Gervase Hughes also detects echoes of Schumann, and of Schubert as well. In a 2000 analysis, Andrew Lamb comments that the symphony predates the well known symphonies of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, and concurs with earlier analysts that the principal influences on Sullivan's score were Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Lamb remarks on the themes for trombones and lower strings in the second movement, which "lend the work an especial solemnity", and finds the general mood of the symphony quite serious. Nonetheless Lamb finds that work "also displays Sullivan at his lightest, above all in the joyous third movement … with its jaunty theme for oboe and delightful interplay between pizzicato strings and bubbling woodwind." In 2006 the analyst Andrew Burn commented that the finale displays an early example of one of the composer's favourite devices: a melody, first heard on the oboe, is combined in counterpoint with a rhythmic theme in the first violins: "Such a device was to become a hallmark of the composer in the double choruses of his operettas".
The symphony was performed regularly during Sullivan's lifetime. It received few performances in the twentieth century, but it has been heard more frequently in recent decades and was the major work of the opening concert of the first English Music Festival (broadcast by the BBC) in October 2006. Four CD recordings of the piece have been issued, and a new study score edition has been published by a German firm, Musikproduction Jürgen Höflich
The symphony has four movements:
The playing time is about thirty five minutes (or slightly longer if the exposition repeat is taken in the first movement).
Hughes sums the symphony up thus: "In spite of the promising first movement and a modicum of competent thematic development, the symphony cannot be counted as a satisfactory achievement. Too much of the material is machine-made – as yet we find few signs of true spontaneity." Greenfield concludes that the symphony is "a charming example of Victorian art at its least inhibited." Lamb finds that despite the serious tone of much of the work, the symphony has "an all-pervading charm" and demonstrates "a thoroughly proficient handling of the orchestra".