Gilbert & Sullivan

Sir W.S. Gilbert

gilbert1William Schwenk Gilbert was born near the Strand in London in 1836. As a young man he tried many professions, including civil servant, soldier and barrister, but discovered that his real talent lay in writing, and he became known for his comic verse and stories, many of them appearing in the magazine Fun (a rival to Punch). His series of comic poems known as theBab Ballads, complete with his own whimsical drawings, remains his best-known work apart from his collaborations with Sullivan. Many of the plots of his operas had their origins in theBab Ballads.

Gilbert was also drawn to the theatre, and his early efforts in musical and non-musical productions in London in the 1860s and 1870s lay the foundations for his later success. At the time, London theatrical productions were characterized by pantomimes, farces and burlesques on operatic and dramatic works, replete with low humour and bad puns. Over his career, Gilbert was able to raise the standards of the somewhat disreputable London theatrical world, with his insistence on realistic acting, careful preparation, fidelity to the text, and the avoidance of vulgarity. Gilbert also began to branch out into political satire and social commentary in his plays.

Gilbert worked with a number of composers, including Sullivan for the now-lost Thespis in 1871 and the one-act Trial by Jury in 1875. By their third collaboration, The Sorcerer (1877), Gilbert and Sullivan’s partnership solidified under the careful attention of impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, a partnership that would bring them great fortune and put them at the top of their professions. Gilbert was not only the writer of the dialogue and lyrics – he was also a very exacting stage director, and was heavily involved in almost all other aspects of the production (sets, costumes, stage management, etc.) except the music. During the 1880s, most of Gilbert’s works were successful comic operas written for Sullivan. These were generally known as the Savoy Operas, after the Savoy Theatre where they were premiered, a modern facility built by Carte on the profits from the early G&S works.

In 1890 the partnership foundered on a dispute over expenses, although things were patched up for two final collaborations in the 1890s. Gilbert collaborated with other composers, but with none of them did he recreate his success with Sullivan. Even in semi-retirement in a grand estate just outside of London, Gilbert still wrote and produced notable plays, and he returned to the Savoy Theatre to supervise new productions of the Savoy operas beginning in 1906. The following year he was knighted by King Edward VII. Gilbert died of a heart attack in 1911 while saving a drowning woman.

Opera and light opera librettists were traditionally afforded little recognition compared to composers, so Gilbert’s standing as Sullivan’s equal is a tribute to the high standard of his librettos. Although he took aim at the foibles of his day, many of Gilbert’s quips are as funny today as they were when they were first delivered. Gilbert is remembered today not only for the Savoy Operas, but for the significant impact he had on the on the London stage of his time and on countless writers in succeeding generations.

Sir Arthur Sullivan

sullivan1Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in somewhat more modest circumstances in the Lambeth area of London in 1842. His father was a military band master, and Sullivan acquired a talent for music early on, qualifying as a chorister of the Chapel Royal, where he also started to compose music. He attended the Royal Academy of Music and was then sent to Leipzig for musical studies. As a young man, he produced music in many genres – a symphony, a cello concerto, chamber music, overtures, etc. – and he was seen as a great hope for English music. His affable personality made him popular in high society as well, and he became a fixture at the parties of the well-to-do and at the gaming tables.

To the chagrin of those who wanted him to focus entirely on “serious” music, Sullivan was drawn to the stage, and collaborated with several writers in creating comic operas. However, it was with W.S. Gilbert that he found his lasting success.

Sullivan also wrote many hymn tunes and song settings during this period. His song “The Lost Chord” was immensely popular in its day, and his setting of “Onward Christian Soldiers” remains one of the most famous of hymn tunes. In addition, he worked as a teacher of music and as an organist, and later in his career he turned to more ambitious choral works. His contributions to the musical life of the nation resulted in his being knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883.

In spite of the popularity of the Savoy operas, Sullivan was frustrated by nonsensical plot ideas that Gilbert tried to foist on him. Even though Gilbert wrote The Yeomen of the Guard in part to satisfy Sullivan’s desire for a more substantial theatrical work, Sullivan had to seek out a different librettist to realize his dream of writing a grand opera. Sullivan’s opera Ivanhoewas acclaimed at the time, but it is largely forgotten today.

As was the case with Gilbert, in the 1890s Sullivan also collaborated with other writers to produce comic operas, but none of these proved to be as lasting as the Savoy Operas (or even Sullivan’s earlier non-Gilbert collaborations, Cox & Box and The Zoo). Sullivan died in 1900 at a relatively young age, having been plagued by kidney disease for many years. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Queen Victoria’s instructions.

After the Victorian period, Sullivan’s reputation rested almost entirely on his scores for the Savoy operas; however, in recent decades much of his other work has been recorded and reappraised. Sullivan’s ability to create so many song tunes that are familiar even to those who have never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan opera is a tribute to his amazing musical talent.