About Gilbert & Sullivan
William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) collaborated for a quarter of a century, and their collaboration yielded 14 comic operas.
The London-born Gilbert's father was an eccentric sometime naval surgeon; and a writer of portentous quasi-Dickensian novels. Gilbert trained in the military; and had a brief, entirely unsuccessful legal career. In 1861, he began working for a popular British magazine, FUN, where he wrote dramatic criticism and humorous verse. He wrote and illustrated his "Bab Ballads" and much other comic material (farce, comedietta, burlesque), and established himself as a popular dramatist with two very successful plays.
The London-born Sullivan's father was a military bandmaster (at the Royal Military College) and teacher. At age 8, Sullivan composed his own anthem. By the age of 10, Sullivan could play all the wind instruments in his father's band. He was a Chapel Royal chorister and the first Mendelssohn scholar; he had studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire. At age 20, he composed "The Tempest," which made him famous. He was the great white hope of England's musical establishment, and quickly came to be regarded as the leading composer of his day. Among his most famous works was the hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers." He was also a professor of music. It is said that his most beautiful music was composed while he was in great pain from his kidney stones.
Gilbert and Sullivan were first introduced to each other around 1870. Their first opera collaboration, "Thespis" (1871) was a forgettable flop, and is now largely lost to history. But when Richard D'Oyly Carte (1844-1901) presented their next piece, "Trial by Jury," in 1875, it was clear that he had backed a winning partnership. There followed "The Sorcerer" (1877), "HMS Pinafore" (1878), "The Pirates of
Penzance" (1879), "Patience" (1881), "lolanthe" (1882), "Princess Ida" (1884), "The Mikado" (1885), "Ruddigore" (1887), "The Yeomen of The Guard" (1888), and "The Gondoliers" (1889). Their last two comic operas, "Utopia Limited" (1893) and "The Grand Duke" (1896) were unsuccessful, although "The Grand Duke" contains some musical gems (several of which have been included by Carl Davis in the score for
Most of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1870s shows were performed at the dilapidated Opera Comique Theatre. To better capitalize on their successes, Carte built them their own theater in 1881: the Savoy Theatre, which was the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity.
Gilbert and Sullivan were practical masters of their art. They created their works to the strengths and limitations of their ensemble of actors; and
both were responsible for producing the shows. Gilbert was a pioneer of what is now called "directing" - - a vocation that didn't really exist before this late Victorian period - - and Sullivan rehearsed his actors and musicians diligently.
They fell out on numerous occasions, often through Sullivan's reluctance to carry on with Gilbert's "topsy-turvy" stories; and, once, in 1889, over the cost of a theater carpet.
But Sullivan's more serious music never earned him anything like the money he made from the comic operas, so his extravagant lifestyle always brought him back to the Savoy. His desire to write grand opera was only fulfilled once, with "Ivanhoe" (1891), which was fairly successful yet has rarely been revived.
The collaboration came to a close with "The Grand Duke" (1896). Gilbert would continue his writing (for the stage and otherwise) for another 15 years.
Gilbert's marriage to Lucy "Kitty" Blois Turner, the daughter of an I
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