Happy leap (birth) day

How many people do you know who can (this year), go up to their sibling on 29th February and say “Happy 44th and (oh, yeah), 11th Birthday too, big bro.”

Having a birthday every four years means it’s much cheaper for the rest of the family!

Happy Leap Year Day!

February 29, also known as leap day or leap year day, is a date added to most years that are divisible by four (although years that are divisible by one hundred, but not four hundred, such as 1900, are not leap years). A leap day is added in various solar calendars including the Gregorian calendar, which is standard throughout most of the world.

Years not containing a leap day are called common years. February 29th is the sixtieth day of the Gregorian calendar, with 306 days remaining until the end of the year. In the Chinese calendar, this day only occurs in the years of the monkey, dragon, and rat. 2020 is the Year of the Rat.

As a music librarian, as well as having a very personal link to leap year, there is of course a musical link too.

London : Chappell ; Chatto & Windus, 1886. (MR463.c.85.1)

The Pirates of Penzance, by William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, tells the story of a young apprentice pirate named Frederic who is coming to the end of his indentured period.  He is about to turn 21, and will be free to leave, much to his relief.

Frederic was originally indentured by mistake as his half-deaf nurse, Ruth, was instructed to apprentice him as a “Pilot” but ended up indenturing him instead as a “Pirate”.

Piratical life is not for Frederic, and he decides to leave the Skull and Crossbones forever, but until the stroke of midnight on his birthday, he is still officially bound to the flag. After pointing out to the pirates, that this particular crew are far too soft-hearted, (they always release captives if they plead they are orphaned); Frederic leaves for the shore, where he chances upon a group of beautiful young maidens, the daughters of Major-General Stanley. Frederic is stunned, as the only woman he has previously met is his old nurse.

One in particular, Mabel, melts his heart, when she sings Poor wandering one.

An excerpt from the film of the Broadway revival (1983) starring pop singer Linda Ronstadt as Mabel.

Overwhelmed by Mabel, Frederic forgets that there are still pirates about; and is swiftly surrounded by his old comrades. The lonely pirates are delighted by the beauty of their captives, and recognize the situation as a “first rate opportunity of getting married with impunity.” Luckily the girls’ father, the Major-General, arrives just in the nick of time and, suspecting the pirates’ weakness, claims untruthfully to be: An orphan!

Although winning a brief reprieve for his daughters, the General is terrified that the pirates will uncover his lie. Frederic eases the General’s fears, promising to apprehend the band of pirates. However, to Frederic’s horror, he then learns that, due to a technicality, he is still an apprentice pirate. Born on February 29th, he must remain an apprentice until his “twenty-first birthday” – another sixty-three years away!

Bound by his own sense of duty, Frederic continues as a pirate, solaced by the thought that Mabel has agreed to wait for him.

John Clark (Signor Brocolini) in the role he created, the Pirate King.
TCS 1.3651, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University
Public Domain.

The Pirates of Penzance was the only Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to receive its premiere in the United States. It opened at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York on December 31, 1879 with a cast that included J.H. Ryley (the Major General), Hugh Talbot (Frederic – a critical disaster), Irish-American singer, John Clark, better known by his stage-name of Signor Brocolini (Pirate King), Fred Clifton (Sergeant), Blanche Roosevelt (Mabel), and Alice Barnett (Ruth).

There have been over 400 revivals since. A major Broadway revival (first staged in Central Park) featuring Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, Rex Smith (Frederic), and Linda Ronstadt (Mabel), was particularly successful, and was filmed in 1983 (see above). It also transferred to the West End where it featured Paul Nicholas as the Pirate King, and Pamela Stephenson as Mabel.

The Pirates of Penzance / Gilbert and Sullivan.
New (full score) edition by Carl Simpson and Ephraim Hammett Jones.
Mineola : Dover Publications, c2001.

Pirates has been widely performed in the UK. One of its most unusual performance spaces was on board the Cutty Sark. It has also graced the stage of a former music hall, and one of the largest stages in London, at ENO‘s home, the London Coliseum. It remains a perennial favourite at small stages across the country for both professional and amateur companies. It has been turned into a ballet, and been re-set in the Caribbean; and still remains one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular, and most performed, operettas.

Frederic supporters will be pleased to know that his indenture finally came to an end on February 29th, 1940 (according to W.S. Gilbert).

It is not known how he would have celebrated this momentous event, but I suspect he and Mabel would not have gone to a production of Pirates of Penzance; although, who knows, he may have graduated to the role of apprentice Pirate King by then, and be thoroughly enjoying the life.

Happy Leap Year!


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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