xxxxxThe 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-conscious society. Considered among the best of their productions were HMS Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), The Mikado (1885), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889). Their partnership achieved a rare harmony between words and music, but there personal relationship was often strained, mainly because Sullivan, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, was often concerned that these comic operas were not worthy of his ability. He wished to spend more time composing orchestral pieces, cantatas, oratorios and grand opera. Gilbert, on the other hand, a one-time civil servant and barrister who had turned to writing in the early 1830s, wanted to continue with these highly popular operettas. After a dispute over financial matters, the partnership eventually came to an end in 1896, following the comparative failure of Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke.


WILLIAM SCHWENCK GILBERT   1836 - 1911  (W4, Va, Vb, Vc, E7, G5)

ARTHUR SEYMOUR SULLIVAN    1842 - 1900  (Va, Vb, Vc)


Gilbert: detail, by the English portrait painter Frank Hol (1845-1888), 1886 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Sullivan: detail, by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896), 1888 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Caricature: contemporary image, artist unknown. Sousa: as bandmaster of the US Marine Band, by the American artist Lt/Col John Joseph Capolino – US Marine Corps, Philadelphia, USA. Joplin: portrait based on a photograph by an unknown artist, first published in the newspaper St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 1903 – Library of Congress, Washington.

xxxxxThe term “Gilbert and Sullivan” refers to the series of fourteen comic, light-hearted operas that were written by W.S. Gilbert and composed by Arthur Sullivan for the London stage between the years 1875 and 1896. Loved for their tuneful melodies, their witty dialogue, and their ludicrous but amusing plots - all but one with a happy ending -, they delighted audiences throughout the late Victorian era. Gently poking fun at the establishment, the aesthetic movement, and Britain’s class-conscious society, they have remained popular in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world. Best known among these light operettas are HMS Pinafore, Patience, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado of 1885, and The Gondoliers.

xxxxxThexpartnership was brought about by Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) an English-born talent agent and, later, theatre impresario and hotelier. With the public growing tired of titillating burlesques and second-rate adaptations of French operettas, he wanted to meet the need for a respectable, family-friendly comic opera which catered for the somewhat caustic British sense of humour. Having read Gilbert’s libretto for his one-act play Trial by Jury, produced in 1873, and been impressed by the success of Sullivan’s short comic opera Cox and Box (with libretto by F.C. Burnand), he brought the two Londoners together in 1875. Sullivan composed the music for Trial by Jury, and his lively, good-humoured melodies, together with Gilbert’s droll satire, enjoyed a huge success when it was staged in March. The partnership had a magic touch and, over the next twenty years, was to produce a series of 13 comic operas which were to rank among the very best of their kind. Such was their popularity, that D’Oyle Carte formed a company to promote them, and built the Savoy Theatre in The Strand, London, to stage them.

xxxxxThe English 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-time writing in his early thirties. For some ten years he contributed a large number of amusing articles and poems to a variety of periodicals - particularly the magazine Fun -, wrote the words for several farces, comedies and pantomimes, and turned his hand to stage management and the directing of plays and operettas. For a time he was dramatic critic for The Illustrated London Times, and in 1870 was sent out by The Observer to report on the Franco-Prussian War.

xxxxxParticularly successful at this time were the pantomimes Hush-a-Bye Baby and Dulcamara, his burlesque Robert the Devil, and a series of six musical entertainments for the English theatrical manager Thomas German Reed. And two collections of humorous verse, composed under his pen name Bab, and published in 1869 and 1873, also proved extremely popular. Well illustrated with his own comic drawings, these Bab Ballads - neatly summed up in the sub-title Much Sound-Little Sense - scarcely had any meaning in themselves, but they provided a weird and wonderful vehicle for his satirical, sometimes cynical humour, and they showed, too, his remarkable ability for conjuring up witty and amusing rhymes. In all he produced 71 works for the stage. Such talent, as we shall see, was to be put to good use in his partnership with Sullivan, beginning in earnest in 1875.


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-Hungarian violinist and composer Joseph Joachim. His graduation piece in 1861, incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was performed at the Crystal Palace the following year and marked him out as composer of great promise.

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 - given the enormous success achieved by the operettas - was perfectly happy to continue to produce outrageous, improbable plots in a topsy-turvy world of make believe, Sullivan regarded these productions as trivial, and was anxious to replace the “vulgar catchiness” of his tuneful melodies (as one critic put it) with oratorios, cantatas and grand opera. He only collaborated with Gilbert because this brought in the money to finance his expensive life style - gambling at Monte Carlo, keeping two race horses, and pleasing a mistress or two. This dispute eventually brought about a three-year halt in production in the early1890s, and the partnership finally came to an end in 1896.

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-disguised attack upon the evils of Victorian England. The Yeomen of the Guard, premiered in 1888, was a departure from the norm and, by its serious treatment of a credible story, gave Sullivan wider musical scope. The following year, however, The Gondoliers, set in the colourful city of Venice, returned to light-hearted satire, mainly directed at class distinction. It proved highly successful and was performed for Queen Victoria and the royal family at Windsor Castle in 1891.


xxxxxThe famous American bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was particularly taken with The Mikado. He produced his Mikado March in 1885, and often used Sullivan’s overtures in his concerts. He himself composed a dozen light operas, together with four overtures and some 70 songs, but he is especially remembered today for his stirring, tuneful marches, 136 in total. These included The Washington Post, The Liberty Bell, Stars and Stripes for Ever and Hands Across the Sea. He was bandmaster for the US Marine Corps for twelve years, but in 1892 he formed his own Sousa Band and began extensive tours of the United States and Europe. His marches, “composed for the feet instead of the head”, proved immensely popular and earned him the title “The March King”.

xxxxxA famous American musician and composer who particularly liked The Mikado - the most popular of the G&S operas - was John Philip Sousa (1854-1932). He produced the Mikado March in 1885 - the year the comic opera was produced - and he often used Sullivan’s overtures and other pieces in his concerts. He also composed a dozen light operas - notably The Queen of Hearts and El Capitan -, four overtures, a number of trumpet and drum pieces, and some 70 songs, including Annabel Lee (based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe) and Boots (after the poem by Rudyard Kipling).


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-step, a highly popular dance at that time.


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 (c1867-1917). Dubbed “The King of Ragtime”, his Maple Leaf Rag, published in 1899 and noted for its syncopated or “ragged” rhythm, proved extremely popular and sold over a million copies.

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.

xxxxxAnother American musician at this time who got people’s feet tapping was the pianist and composer Scott Joplin (c1867-1917). Born in Texas, the son of a former slave, his Maple Leaf Rag of 1899, with its syncopated rhythm, proved extremely popular and marked the beginning of the Age of Jazz. Among his other ragtime pieces were The Entertainer, Pine Apple Rag and Wall Street Rag. His music first came into prominence when his small band played at the Chicago World Fair in 1893.

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 - possibly because Carte was in the throes of building a new theatre to stage Sullivan’s opera Ivanhoe - and this put the partnership itself in jeopardy. They were eventually reconciled, but the next two productions, Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke, lacked the magic of their earlier operas, and in 1896 they ceased working together. That marked the end of their troubled friendship.

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.

xxxxxGilbert was knighted for his services to drama in 1907 during the reign of Edward VII - Queen Victoria did not always approve of his poking fun at her ministers! - and for many years he was a justice of the peace for Middlesex. He died in tragic circumstances. He was giving swimming lessons to two young women in the lake at Grim’s Dyke, his home in Harrow, when one of them got into difficulties. He dived in to save her and suffered a fatal heart attack. A man of rare talent, his witty lyrics, satirical humour and inventive rhymes live on in the fanciful, colourful world he created on stage.

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. ……

xxxxx……xxThexEnglish actor and singer George Grossmith (1847-1912) was associated with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas from 1877 to 1889, and was responsible for creating a number of memorable parts. He is best remembered today, however, for his comic novel The Diary of a Nobody, published in 1894. Written in collaboration with his brother Weedon, it records fifteen months in the life of Mr Charles Pooter, a fictitious middle class clerk who is full of his own importance and has ideas way above his station.