Composer Profile: Gilbert and Sullivan

Modern Major General.jpgSo closely linked are the names of William (W. S.) Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) in the minds of most that I figured there was no point in discussing them separately. But although their professional partnership was incredibly fruitful the two men, who had very different personalities, were never personally close.

Gilbert was the son of a naval surgeon who later turned writer, and inherited his father’s way with words in spades. Although his family life was far from warm, Gilbert received a sound education and spent time abroad before joining the civil service and later becoming a barrister. However, his practice struggled and around 1861 he turned to writing to supplement his income. He had a gift for the absurd, writing and illustrating humourous stories and poems in which ridiculous premises were taken to their logical conclusions. Having also written plays in school, in 1863 he wrote his first professionally-produced play, ‘Uncle Baby’. He would continue to write for the theatre with modest success until the late 1870s, when producer Richard D’Oyly Carte introduced him to Arthur Sullivan.

Arthur Sullivan
Sir Arthur Sullivan

The son of a military bandmaster, Sullivan grew up surrounded by music. He could play almost every instrument in the band by the age of eight, which was also when he composed his first work, and anthem called ‘By The Waters of Babylon’. Knowing how perilous a musical career could be, his parents endeavoured to discourage their son from pursuing his passion, but at the age of eleven he convinced them to let him join the choir of the Chapel Royal, where he became a soloist. In 1856 he received the first Mendelssohn Scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music, and subsequently went on to study at the Leipzig Conservatory. In other words, Sullivan was a classically-trained composer of extraordinary talent. Throughout the 1860s he worked as a church organist and music teacher as well as composing a number of works, including a symphony, a concerto, and a ballet. And yet outside of his collaboration with Gilbert, perhaps the only work of his which remains widely known today is the hymn ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’

W S Gilbert
Sir William S. Gilbert

It was 1875. Richard Carte needed a short piece to fill out a bill at the Royalty Theatre, where he was manager. Remembering a libretto by Gilbert and the talent of Sullivan, he brought them together and the result was their first collaborative work, ‘Trial By Jury’. The work was a hit, and it wasn’t long before the pair were working exclusively together. Over the next fifteen years they would write twelve more comic operas, including ‘H. M. S. Pinafore’ (1878), ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ (1879), ‘Iolanthe’ (1882), The Mikado (1885), and ‘The Gondoliers’ (1889). They would receive accolades, including knighthoods, and the Savoy Theatre, the first public building entirely illuminated by electric lights, would be constructed specifically to host their works.

Lithograph from The Mikado
Lithograph from an early production of The Mikado

And they would leave a legacy to the English stage which is still alive over a hundred years later. When I was a teenager a boyfriend of mine performed in a high school production of H. M. S Pinafore. In my late 20s my father, a long-time Gilbert and Sullivan fan, would take me to my first professionally performed G&S production, ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ (incidentally, one of the key points on which this work hinges is the similarity in pronunciation of ‘orphan’ and ‘often’ when spoken in an upper-class English accent, something which was lost in the production I attended). Even in small-town New Zealand, performances are still frequent, and while I missed ‘The Gondoliers’ when it was here a couple of years ago I have seen ‘The Mikado’ and, of course, ‘Iolanthe’.

The works of G&S are comic, not serious, but their sophisticated language and expertly-crafted scores make them an unmissable piece of English culture.

What do you think of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan?

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