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Friday, 3 April 2015

Gilbert and Sullivan

William Schwenck Gilbert was born on November 18, 1836, in London. While at Ealing School he wrote several student dramas.

As a toddler, Gilbert was kidnapped by bandits in Naples during a family holiday in 1839. The men convinced the child’s nurse they’d come to take him to his parents. He was returned after they paid a £25 ransom.

The verses he wrote while studying law, first published in papers and magazines, were collected in two books, Bab Ballads and More Bab Ballads.

Gilbert (see below) started his working life as a government clerk, before becoming a lawyer, and finally a dramatist, who until he collaborated with Sullivan, had a successful but not outstanding career.


Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in London on May 13, 1842, the son of a poor Irish musician. As a boy he was a soloist with the Chapel Royal choristers.

Sullivan's composing talents won him scholarships at the Royal Academy of Music in London and at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. The Tempest, based on the Shakespearean play, won him fame before he was 20.

Before he met  W S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan was Victorian England's most famous composer of popular and sacred songs and oratorios. "Onward! Christian Soldiers" is his best-known hymn; "The Lost Chord" is one of his songs.


Sullivan did not want to be remembered for his comic operas with Gilbert. "My sacred music is that on which I base my reputation as a composer," he wrote. "These works are the offspring of my liveliest fancy, the children of my greatest strength."



Gilbert and Sullivan first met in 1870, brought together by producer Richard D'Oyly Carte. Their first opera, Thespis, premiered the following year in London at the Gaiety Theatre on December 26 (see below). A Christmas entertainment, it did modestly well, but the two would not collaborate again for four years. Due to the enduring popularity of their later collaborations, reconstructions of Thespis have become increasingly popular since the late 20th century.



In 1875 Gilbert and Sullivan came together again to create Trial by Jury, a parody of serious opera, which made fun of the judiciary.

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Trial By Jury for Richard D'Oyly Carte. Within three years he formed the famous D'Oyly Carte Company to produce Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Gilbert and Sullivan soon developed a distinctive style--elegant, tuneful and witty. Gilbert wrote the words for their operas and Sullivan composed the music. Between 1871 and 1896 they created together 14 operas in total, including: The Sorcerer (1877), H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), The Mikado (1885), their biggest success, The Yeoman of the Guard (1888); and The Gondoliers (1889).

The idea for The Mikado first came to W.S. Gilbert' when an old Japanese sword, which had been hanging on the wall of his study for years, suddenly fell from its place. Gilbert took this as a sign and determined to leave his own country alone for a while and turn his attentiom instead towards the East.

The Mikado opened on March 14, 1885, in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances, which was the second longest run for any work of musical theater and one of the longest runs of any theater piece up to that time. Before the end of 1885, it was estimated that, in Europe and America, at least 150 companies were producing the opera.

The Mikado provided several additions to the English language, including the phrases "a short, sharp shock" and "let the punishment fit the crime."


Because of a tide of unauthorized Gilbert & Sullivan productions in America, the pair opened The Pirates of Penzance in New York - their only premiere outside London.

"I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from The Pirates of Penzance is perhaps the most famous song in Gilbert and Sullivan's operas. It is sung by Major General Stanley at his first entrance, towards the end of Act I. The song satirizes the idea of the "modern" educated British Army officer of the latter 19th century.

The character who sings "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" was said to be modeled on the real-life Sir Garnet Wolseley. Rather than being offended by the caricature, Wolseley would sing the song to amuse his friends.

The Savoy Theatre was built in London's West End to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan's works, which became known as the Savoy operas as a result. When it opened on October 10, 1881, it was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.

The original facade of the Savioy Theatre, facing the London Embankment,

Although Gilbert and Sullivan worked well together, they were much unalike. The differences in their personalities and life-styles brought on frequent spats. After The Gondoliers the pair quarreled furiously--over who should pay for carpeting their theater, the Savoy.

Gilbert's caricatures of government and officials angered Queen Victoria. She knighted Sullivan in 1883. Gilbert had to wait for Edward VII  to ascend the throne before he was knighted in 1907.

Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas made them rich, each of them earning over £10,000 a year, twice as much as the Prime Minister.

Lines from their works have permanently entered the English language, including "short, sharp shock", "What never? Well, hardly ever!", and "let the punishment fit the crime".



Sullivan had suffered from long-standing recurrent kidney disease that made it necessary, from the 1880s, for him to conduct sitting down.

Arthur Sullivan died of heart failure, following an attack of bronchitis, at his flat in London on November 22, 1900. He was aged only 58.

Sir Arthur Sullivan

W. S. Gilbert died on May 29, 1911 of a heart attack while saving 17-year-old Patricia Preece from drowning in his lake. The young woman became an artist connected with the Bloomsbury Group - and enjoyed a scandalous sex life with artists of both sexes.

Sources Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, Top 101 Musicians by Britannica Educational Publishing

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