So far reaching is the effect of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or comic operas of 130 years ago that contemporary entertainment media continues to belt out the songs in everything from an episode of The Simpsons to an episode of The West Wing. While the influence of the playwright/lyricist Sir W.S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan can still be felt today, in Victorian England they defined a new kind of theatre with their fifteen timeless collaborations.
Sir W.S. Gilbert (1836–1911) was born in Strand, London on November 18, 1836. He spent much of his youth touring Europe with his father (a retired naval surgeon), mother, and three sisters until he was about thirteen years old. Little is known about his family except that his parents were inflexible and stern people and that his relationship with them was strained. He finished college at Kings College London and then went on to try a couple of different careers in government as a clerk and barrister.
Finally, at around the age of twenty-six, Gilbert found his true calling in the creative arts and started writing short illustrated poems in the magazine Fun. He used his childhood nickname “Bab,” and the poetry collection is now known as The Bab Ballads. Some of these first creative ventures became the base concepts for several of his liberatti, including H.M.S. Pinafore and Trial by Jury. Not long after his poetic beginnings Gilbert produced his first professional play, Uncle Baby in 1863. It ran for only seven weeks. He had no more dramatic successes until 1866. In 1867 he married Lucy Agnes Turner.
In 1871 Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on their first comic opera, Thespis. Although it was moderately successful, the musical score was never published and most of the songs were lost to posterity, although some were recycled into later works. In addition to his initial collaboration with Sullivan, Gilbert premiered no fewer than seven plays in 1871. “He was writing farces, operetta libretti, extravaganzas, fairy comedies, adaptations from novels, translations from the French and even the occasional serious drama” (Andrew Crowther, The Life of W.S. Gilbert, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive [http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/html/gilbert_l.html), 3).
Despite Gilbert’s sizeable repertoire, it was his work with Sullivan that would always be the most successful. Four years after Thespis, Richard D’Oyly Carte commissioned Gilbert and Sullivan to write the one-act play, Trial by Jury. It was their first major hit and the beginning of the trio’s highly successful but often tumultuous partnership that would last for twenty years and twelve more operettas, until their break-up over a quarrel about a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre. Gilbert’s stoic and much more thrifty nature finally got the best of him, and he ended the partnership. He did, however, team back up with Sullivan to launch two other productions Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke.
After The Grand Duke, in 1896 Gilbert went into pretend retirement at his home in Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald. He went on to write four more plays, The Hooligan being produced just four months before his death. On May 29, 1911 he was giving swimming lessons to two young women when he tried to rescue one of the women and died from heart failure. He left behind a legacy of plays that were a mixture of cynicism and topsy-turvydom. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the world of theatre was his style of directing which helped create a more polished and dignified play. Gilbert flouted the trend of the day to write plays for a specific performer. He insisted that a performer interpret his work as he intended and held auditions. After the success of The Sorcerer in 1877, “Gilbert would no longer hire stars, he would create them. He hired the performers subject to veto from Sullivan on purely musical grounds” (Wickipedia [http://en.wickipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_and_Sullivan] 2).
Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) was born in Lambeth, London on May 13, 1842. Sullivan’s musical destiny was discovered early. His father was a military bandmaster, and, by the time he was eight years-old, Arthur could play all the instruments in the band. After four years of private school at Bayswater, Sullivan was admitted to the choir at Chapel Royal School where he was often one of the choir’s soloists. During his three-year stay he began to compose anthems and songs. At age fifteen one of those compositions became his first published piece. In 1856 he received the first Mendelssohn prize and was then accepted to the Royal Academy of Music.
After leaving the Royal Academy of Music, Sullivan furthered his education in a German conservatory. The time in Germany helped mature his music sensibilities and talents. In 1862 he was back in London and ready to win her over. His orchestral suite concert to Shakespeare’s The Tempest garnered the attention and praise of Charles Dickens. The next several years his work continued to grow in popularity. Between 1863 and 1870 his work included the Irish Symphony, in Memoriam (inspired by the death of his father), The Prodigal Son, and the popular hymn, Onward, Christian Soldiers. Sullivan also wrote religious music which was highly popular during his time.
But it was not his serious music that would give his name immortality. “In the lighter vein of song, Sullivan proved himself to be incomparable,” said David Ewan (Arthur Sullivan, Gilbert and Sullivan Archive [http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/html/sullivan2.html], 3). Thus, the success of his collaborations with Gilbert; somehow their minds met perfectly in the productions of their comic operas that continued to grow in popularity, each more successful than the last. After the success of HMS Pinafore, they traveled to America to quell the copyright infringement of that work. While there they produced The Pirates of Penzance. New York loved them.
Sullivan’s style of music in the Savoy Operas has been well-praised by critics. Cecil Forsyty points out that Sullivan’s “recognition of the fact that it was not only necessary to set his text to music which was pleasing in itself, but to invent melodies in such close alliance with the words that the two things become indistinguishable. . . In this respect. Sullivan did more for the English stage than any musician of his time” (David Ewan on Arthur Sullivan, Gilbert and Sullivan Archive [http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/html/sullivan2.html], 4).
Sullivan and Gilbert were a phenomenal team, each of them contributing the best of their talents. Both of them received knighthoods from Queen Victoria and both of them were successful both together and apart. It is unfortunate that such distinct personalities had to split up eventually. But Gilbert was a stoic and Sullivan was a lover of indulgence. Sullivan died after a boisterous life and a long struggle with health from pneumonia in London on November 22, 1900.