term “Gilbert and Sullivan” refers to the 14 highly successful comic
operas written by W.S. Gilbert and composed by Arthur
Sullivan for the London stage between 1875
and 1896. Loved for their tuneful melodies, witty dialogue and
absurd but amusing plots, they poked fun at the government, the
armed forces, the aesthetic movement, and Britain’s class-
GILBERT AND SULLIVAN (Vc)
WILLIAM SCHWENCK GILBERT
ARTHUR SEYMOUR SULLIVAN
by the English portrait painter Frank Hol (1845-
xxxxxThe term “Gilbert and
Sullivan” refers to the series of fourteen comic, light-
xxxxxThexpartnership was brought about by Richard
D’Oyly Carte (1844-
humorist and satirist W.S.Gilbert was the son of a naval surgeon, and in his early
years he travelled around Europe with his parents. He started his
schooling in Boulogne, but completed his education in London,
graduating from King’s College in 1856. For four years he worked
as a civil servant, and then briefly as a barrister, but he had no
liking for either career, and turned to full-
successful at this time were the pantomimes Hush-
xxxxxArthur Sullivan was born in
Lambeth, south London. His formative musical training was gleaned
from his father, a military bandmaster and clarinet teacher, and
from serving as a choirboy at the Chapel Royal in his early teens.
In 1856 he won the Mendelssohn Scholarship, and this gained him
entrance to the Royal Academy of Music. He studied there for two
years and then spent a further year at Leipzig Conservatory,
where, amongst others, he met the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt
and the Austro-
xxxxxOver the next fifteen, while working as a church organist and giving private piano and singing lessons, he composed a wealth of orchestral works, oratorios, cantatas, hymns, songs, and piano pieces, mostly in the style of Mendelssohn. Notable among these were his choral and orchestral work The Masque at Kenilworth, his Irish Symphony, his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, his Overture in C (composed on the death of his father), and two oratorios, The Prodigal Son and The Light of the World. He wrote incidental music for a number of plays, including The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and among his seventy plus hymns were Onward Christian Soldiers and Nearer My God to Thee. Also worthy of note are his song cycle The Window, or The Songs of the Wrens, composed in collaboration with the English poet Alfred Tennyson, and his famous ballad The Lost Chord. His first attempt at opera, The Sapphire Necklace, proved a failure, but his Cox and Box, composed in 1866, went on to achieve outstanding success at the Royal Gallery of Illustrations, and it was this work, as already noted, which caught the attention of Richard D’Oyly Carte and brought about the famous partnership.
xxxxxGilbert and Sullivan had worked together some years earlier on the production of Thespis, a Christmas play, but this had met with a disappointing response. Trial by Jury, produced in March 1875 was quite a different matter, and was to lead to one of the most successful musical partnerships of all time. Over the next twenty years, by his tuneful melodies and his inventive musical settings, Sullivan was to show a remarkable, uncanny talent to complement and embellish Gilbert’s clever rhymes, sparkling wit, and comic plots. Together they achieved, in the words of the famous conductor Henry Wood, “a rare harmony of words and music”.
xxxxxBut this harmony did not extend to their personal relationship. Whilst Gilbert was known for his kindly acts, he was, on the surface, a prickly individual who was quick to react to criticism. Sullivan, on the other hand, was a quiet man who avoided open conflict and tended to make his views known on paper. They did not particularly like each other.
xxxxxThe main disagreement between the two centred around
Sullivan’s constant concern that, as a talented composer, he was
not making enough of his musical ability. Whilst Gilbert -
xxxxxAmong the fourteen operas produced by Gilbert and Sullivan there was a small number of failures. The Sorcerer of 1877, for example, was not well received, and Ruddigore, ten years later, failed to attract a large audience, but eight of them were immensely successful and are produced to this day. The one act opera Trial by Jury was a spoof on the legal profession, and proved so popular that Carte promptly set up his own company to promote further productions. HMS Pinafore followed in 1878. This nautical theme gently poked fun at the Royal Navy and the English obsession with social status, and the set characters it created reappeared in different guises in most of the subsequent operas. It proved highly successful. The colourful Pirates of Penzance, an amusing tale about law and order, was produced the following year and opened in New York. Patience followed in 1881, a gentle but nonetheless cogent satire on the aesthetic movement of that time, led by the likes of the English poets Swinburne and Rossetti. It was while Patience was running that Carte opened his Savoy Theatre in the Strand, built expressly for the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
xxxxxThe “Savoy Operas”, as they then came to be known,
continued with Iolanthe in 1882, a
fairy story that takes a not too gentle swipe at the House of
Lords and the Establishment in general. It was soon after this
that Sullivan was knighted and this brought about renewed calls
from the critics, urging him to return to “serious music”. A
musical knight, commented one, must not soil his hands by writing
“shop ballads”. 1885 saw the first performance of The
Mikado, one of the most successful of the Gilbert and
Sullivan productions. Set in Japan and making the most of its
exotic location, it was, in fact, an ill-
famous American bandmaster and composer John
Philip Sousa (1854-
xxxxxA famous American musician and composer who
particularly liked The Mikado -
xxxxxToday, however, Sousa is remembered above all as an outstanding bandmaster. He composed no less than 136 marches, and their lively, rousing tunes earned him the title “The March King”. Among the best known marches are Semper Fidelis, The Washington Post, The Liberty Bell, Stars and Stripes for Ever, and Hands Across the Sea. He wrote music, he said “for the feet instead of the head”, and he certainly succeeded in his aim.
xxxxxSousa was born in Washington, D.C, and began his musical career at the age of 13, when he was apprenticed to the Marine Band, the President’s official band. He became an orchestra violinist from the age of 18, but in 1880 he was appointed bandmaster of the US Marine Corps, and it was then that he showed his rare ability at the composing of tuneful, stirring marches. He formed his own Sousa Band in 1892, and his music then became hugely popular during extensive tours of the United States, Europe and Australia. During the First World War he served as the director of the Navy Band, and after the war he wore his naval uniform for most of his public appearances. In 1929 he began making radio broadcasts, and these added to his reputation. His autobiography, published in 1928, was aptly entitled Marching Along. He died of heart failure at the age of 77 while staying in a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery.
xxxxxIncidentally, Sousa led the President’s own band for no less than five presidents, and his band played at two presidential inaugural balls. In 1893 the “sousaphone”, a kind of large tuba, was expressly made for his band by an instrument maker in Philadelphia, and the instrument was improved upon five years later. ……
xxxxx…… His exuberant The Washington
Post, composed in 1889 was written for a competition
organised by the newspaper The Washington Post,
hence its name. It was an immediate worldwide success, especially
because it was synonymous with the two-
John Philip Sousa
and Scott Joplin
xxxxxAnd another American who got people’s feet tapping at
this time was the pianist, cornet player and composer Scott Joplin (c1867-
xxxxxRag music or Jazz, as it is now called, evolved from the folk music of the black American slaves, and Joplin, born near Texarkana, Texas, was himself the son of a former slave. He worked for some years as a travelling musician, and first came to prominence at the Chicago World Fair of 1893, when his small band, playing a number of his own compositions, attracted a large audience and made ragtime music a national craze. One newspaper, the St. Louis Dispatch, described it as a “call of the wild” which “mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people”.
xxxxxFollowing the success of Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin established his own Ragtime Opera Company in 1903, and settled in New York four years later. His two operas, A Guest of Honour (since lost) and Treemonisa were not successful, but his 44 ragtime pieces, such as The Entertainer, Pine Apple Rag and Wall Street Rag, created a new kind of sound and ushered in the Age of Jazz. Sadly, by 1916 he was suffering both physically and mentally from the increasing effects of syphilis. He died in a mental hospital in New York the following year.
American musician at this time who got people’s feet tapping was the
pianist and composer Scott Joplin (c1867-
xxxxxBut the Gondoliers was their last great success. It
was at this time that a dispute arose between Gilbert and Carte
over the cost of a carpet for the Savoy Theatre. Gilbert argued
that this should not be paid for by the partnership, and this soon
led to questions being raised about Carte’s general handling of
the company’s financial affairs. Sullivan supported Carte -
xxxxxAmong Sullivan’s later works were the cantata The Golden Legend, incidental music to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his grand opera Ivanhoe, and music for Tennyson’s The Foresters. In 1883 he was knighted for his services to “serious music”. After the break up with Gilbert, his works included a popular song The Absent Minded Beggar, based on a text by Rudyard Kipling, the comic opera The Rose of Persia, the ballet Victoria and Merrie England, and a Te Deum to mark the end of the Boer War, though he did not live to see it performed. He died of heart failure in November 1900 and, by order of the Queen, was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. As a composer of serious music he produced a number of notable works, but the public at large will always associate him with the music he produced for the Savoy operas, and it is there that his fame resides.
xxxxxAfter the end of the partnership, Gilbert collaborated with a number of other English composers, including Fallen Fairies with Edward German Reed in 1909, but they made little impact with the public. However, his last work, The Hooligan, a marked departure from his comic parodies, was well received. A drama about a young prisoner awaiting execution, it was inspired by the arrest of the murderer Doctor Crippen in 1910.
knighted for his services to drama in 1907 during the reign of
Edward VII -
xxxxxIncidentally, a memorial to Sullivan, erected in the Victorian Embankment Gardens, London, is inscribed with words from The Yeomen of the Guard: Is life a boon? If so, it must befall that Death, whenever he calls, must call too soon. ……
xxxxx……xxGilbert’s ashes were buried at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Stanmore. The inscription on the memorial plaque reads: His Foe was Folly, and his Weapon Wit. ……
xxxxx……xxMany sayings from the Savoy operas have come into general usage, including: Let the punishment fit the crime, A policeman’s lot is not a happy one, I’ve got a little list, they’d none of ‘em be missed, What never? Well hardly ever, and short sharp shock. ……
actor and singer George Grossmith (1847-