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  • Graham Abbott

Sullivan with Gilbert

Not long ago I devoted a post to the life and work of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Sullivan is of course remembered today mainly for his theatrical collaborations with Sir William Schwenk Gilbert, but in that article I decided to look at the rest of Sullivan's work, a large and fascinating output which is mostly unknown today. Here I want to assure you that I have nothing against Sullivan's collaborations with Gilbert by devoting this post to the most famous collaboration in British theatrical history, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, or, if we might for a moment choose to put the musician first, "Sullivan with Gilbert".


Holl: W S Gilbert (1886)

Arthur Sullivan was born in 1842 and by the time he came to write his first theatrical piece with Gilbert (who was six years his senior) he was already a respected figure in the English musical establishment. He had been a boy in the choir of the Chapel Royal, and had studied in Germany. On his return to London he'd written ballets, incidental music for Shakespeare plays, an oratorio, overtures, a cello concerto and a symphony, chamber music and church music. He had also written a couple of lightweight comic pieces with the librettist FC Burnand (including Cox and Box) but there was before 1871 nothing really to indicate the future which awaited him.


Millais: Arthur Sullivan (1880)

Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration was Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, first performed at London's Gaiety Theatre on Boxing Day 1871. Most of the music is now lost although one chorus ("Climbing over rocky mountain") was to be re-used in The Pirates of Penzance a few years later. The collaboration on Thespis shows no sign of having been a catalyst for further collaboration on the part of either man; it would be more than three years before they worked together again. Their second piece was a one-acter without dialogue which was performed as an afterpiece on the same program as Offenbach's La Périchole. Called Trial By Jury the work instantly showed the potential of the men's collaboration and it contains in its half-hour time span a microcosm of all the things which would make the partnership famous.


Thespis (London Illustrated News)

The G+S formula as it developed often revolved around five characters: the young, innocent soprano, the dashing young tenor, the crotchety baritone (who usually got a patter song), the aging contralto, and the slightly less-important bass. Trial By Jury contains four of these (there really isn't time to introduce the contralto) and it also contains other elements which would show Sullivan's musical skills. Foremost among these is parody. Gilbert's librettos usually lampooned some aspect of Victorian society and Sullivan's music could lampoon some otherwise sacred aspect of music as well. In Trial By Jury the judge is introduced by the chorus in a brief but unmistakable imitation of Handel. Later (in the ensemble and chorus "A nice dilemma") the style of Bellini and Donizetti is given a beautiful tongue-in-cheek treatment. [listen]


Trial by Jury

A few months after Trial By Jury, Sullivan collaborated with Benjamin Charles Stephenson to write another comic one-acter, The Zoo. But someone remembered Trial By Jury. The sub-manager of the theatre on that occasion was Richard D'Oyly Carte and he brought Gilbert and Sullivan back together in 1877 to produce a two act piece called The Sorcerer. This was performed at the Opera Comique in London in November of that year and this really marks the start of the G+S tradition, with D'Oyly Carte as the vital third member of the creative team. Carte's aim was to establish an English form of comic opera which would replace the bawdy burlesques and French works then dominating the London stage, and The Sorcerer did the trick. The sorcerer in question, John Wellington Wells, was the character provided with one of the first of Gilbert and Sullivan's famous tongue-twisting patter songs. [listen]


Richard D'Oyly Carte

The following year, 1878, saw an even greater success for the team: HMS Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor. The good-natured attack on class and privilege, the last minute twist in the plot which makes everything right, and the simple catchiness of both the words and the music made Pinafore an international hit for the collaborators. [listen]


Pinafore's initial London run was a staggering 571 performances. During the run D'Oyly Carte parted company with his investors (not without some acrimony) but this resulted in him setting up the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company which would oversee all the remaining works created by Gilbert and Sullivan. The international popularity of Pinafore, though, led to countless pirated performances being given in the United States, with no return for the creators at all. The next operetta, appropriately titled The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty, was previewed (in part) in London on 30 December 1879, with a full premiere given in New York on the following day. This attempt to secure American copyright protection was not successful but the piece itself was a hit from the start.


The Pirates of Penzance: an early poster for the New York season

Pirates pokes fun at the conventions of opera itself, as well as parodying duty, obligation and respectability in Victorian society. Yet it contains one of Sullivan's most touching and beautiful melodies. Sentimental, yes, but no less beautiful for that. [listen]


The Pirate King

1881 saw the next G+S creation, Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride, a witheringly effective parody on the aesthetic movement which was then all the rage in both Britain and the United States. The colourful figures of affected aestheticism, such as Oscar Wilde, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are easily discernible in aspects of the characters of Reginald Bunthorne ("a fleshly poet") and Archibald Grosvenor ("an idyllic poet"). The milkmaid Patience, on the other hand, is the epitome of simple country values. The contrast is made all the more pointed by the conflict between the twenty lovesick maidens, all vying for Bunthorne's affections on one hand, and the chorus of dragoon guards, who just don't get all this aesthetic stuff at all.


Patience: George Grossmith as Bunthorne (1881)

In the middle of it all is Lady Jane, one of the team's most delicious creations in the bosomy contralto line which had already included Buttercup (in Pinafore) and Ruth (in Pirates). She sings of her fading charms while accompanying herself on the cello… [listen]


Patience: Alice Barnett as Lady Jane (1881)

Encouraged by his successes with Gilbert and Sullivan, D'Oyly Carte built a new theatre during the run of Patience. The Savoy Theatre was to be the company's permanent home and Patience eventually transferred to the new venue. The Savoy was the first public building, let alone a theatre, to be entirely lit by electricity, and Patience eventually ended its run there after 578 performances.


Original facade of the Savoy Theatre (1881)

The first opera to open at the Savoy was Iolanthe, or The Peer and The Peri. The premiere took place in November 1882. The law was again on the receiving end of Gilbert's wit, as was the battle of the sexes, another hot topic at the time. Alice Barnett played the Fairy Queen, a character who continued the line from Lady Jane in Patience, and pictures of her in the role show that she was clearly designed to suggest Wagner's Brünnhilde. Wagner's Ring had its London premiere that same year so this was clearly another topical subject seized upon by Gilbert in his staging. Opening in November 1882, Iolanthe was regarded by a number of critics as Sullivan's finest work to date. [listen]


Iolanthe: Alice Barnett as The Fairy Queen (1882)

During the run of Iolanthe Sullivan received his knighthood, an honour explicitly designed to reward his work serious music and not comic operetta. Indeed, the occasion was used by many to encourage Sullivan to abandon such frivolities and turn to more lofty things, such as oratorio and grand opera. Fortunately, he did no such thing, although he did produced isolated works in both genres in time.


Iolanthe: Poster for the premiere season (1882)

Gilbert's libretto for Iolanthe had portrayed the introduction of men into the world of women with chaotic consequences. The next collaboration with Sullivan took this further. Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant is the only G+S work in three acts, and it took a pounding at the box office, compared to the partnership's previous standards. An unusually hot summer didn't help and the run of 246 performances seemed a failure. It was not revived in London until 1919 and even today it is one of the G+S works which doesn't get heard all that often. This is not to say it doesn't contain some fine music. [listen]


Two months after Ida opened, Sullivan gave Carte notice of his desire not to write any more works with Gilbert, and as the run came to close Carte realised there was no new operetta to take its place. A revival of The Sorcerer was put on while Carte got composer and librettist working together again. They were, after all, under contract to him, and in March 1884 Carte gave them six months' notice that a new work would be required.


It was at this time that Gilbert attempted to pressure Sullivan into writing a work with supernatural elements, specifically a magic lozenge that would effect some useful transformation in the characters. Sullivan steadfastly rejected this; not only was it similar to elements of The Sorcerer, but it just seemed too easy and artificial. Gilbert reluctantly agreed to avoid such things in his next libretto and the resulting work was by far the most successful work they ever produced. Sending up British bureaucracy, albeit in an exotic setting, The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu opened in March 1885 and ran for 672 performances in its initial run. [listen]


The Mikado: early program cover

The Mikado rapidly became and remains the most successful and popular of all the G+S operettas. It capitalised on the craze for all things exotic, and the desire for exoticism is something which in one form or another is always with us. But the institutions lampooned are as English as can be; Gilbert said on more than one occasion that the Japanese setting was incidental. No real Japanese institution - least of all the Japanese monarchy - was the target of the satire. Everything parodied in the piece is English, regardless of the costumes. The Mikado also contains one of the subtlest musical allusions for Sullivan's more sophisticated listeners. At one point the words refer to "fugues by Bach" and almost imperceptibly, Sullivan quotes one of Bach's organ fugues in the woodwinds.


The Mikado: three little maids

After The Mikado, the run of "only" 288 performances which attended their next operetta must have seemed like a return to the difficulties of Princess Ida. Ruddigore, or The Witch's Curse received mixed reviews, and the piece was revised substantially by both librettist and composer. It has never been one of the more popular G+S operettas which is a shame; Ruddigore contains some wonderful dramatic effects (such as when the portraits of the Murgatroyd ancestors come to life) and some excellent music, such as this song from the second act. [listen]


Ruddigore: various scenes, from the London Illustrated News. Note the original spelling of the title, which raised a few eyebrows and was changed. (1887)

When Ruddigore closed there was again no new G+S to take its place. Gilbert again pushed the lozenge idea, and Sullivan again said he wanted to withdraw from the partnership. D'Oyly Carte left them to fight it out while he mounted revivals of Pinafore, Pirates and Mikado.


In their next collaboration Gilbert acquiesced to Sullivan's desire for a more serious plot and the work which resulted was their only collaboration with a serious ending. The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid opened in October 1888, and for this 16th century story Gilbert wrote in a quasi-Shakespearean style of English. British institutions are not satirised and the piece, despite containing some humour, is by far the darkest of all their works. Sullivan's music is more formal, including an overture in sonata form (rather than a potpourri of themes from the opera put together by an assistant, which was the usual practice) and the more lofty results were praised by many critics. [listen]


During the initial season of Yeomen of the Guard Sullivan wrote a revealing letter to Gilbert in which he said: "I have lost the liking for writing comic opera, and entertain very grave doubts as to my power of doing it… You say that in a serious opera, you must more or less sacrifice yourself. I say that this is just what I have been doing in all our joint pieces, and, what is more, must continue to do in comic opera to make it successful."


Sullivan wanted to write grand opera; Gilbert admitted this was something he could not do, and that comic texts were his speciality. The compromise was that Sullivan would do both. While writing his ultimately unsuccessful grand opera Ivanhoe with another librettist, the two would again write another comic operetta. The idea of connecting the new comic piece with Venice was attractive to Sullivan, and thus was born the next Savoy opera, The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria.


The Gondoliers: Courtice Pounds and Rutland Barrington as Marco and Giuseppe (1889)

Class distinction again comes into the spotlight in Gilbert's libretto for Gondoliers, and the new piece was a huge success. It premiered in December 1889, and the second act contains two of Sullivan's best quintets. The first is famous Gavotte, in which the elegance of courtly behaviour is reflected in the composer's use the Baroque dance form. [listen]


The other quintet is one of Sullivan's most beguiling. Gilbert's words are clever and verge on the absurd, while Sullivan's music - which has always seemed to me to be inspired by the quintet from Bizet’s Carmen - captures the moment perfectly. [listen]


The Gondoliers had the third-longest initial run of any of the G+S operas and it was, in fact, their last major success. Two years after the premiere, it was given a command performance in the presence of Queen Victoria and the royal family at Windsor Castle but by that stage the two creators had become somewhat estranged. They were never close, preferring to refer to each other by their surnames and maintain considerable emotional distance. Each felt their own work was at the mercy of the other's, and by the early 1890s Sullivan wanted more seriousness in his creative output than Gilbert was willing or able to provide.


It was Carte who brought things to the boil during the run of The Gondoliers by charging the costs of a new carpet in the theatre's foyer to the partnership rather than to himself alone. Gilbert challenged Carte on this and made further accusations of financial mismanagement against the entrepreneur. Sullivan sided with Carte, who was building a new theatre for grand opera and who intended to open it with Sullivan's Ivanhoe. The "carpet quarrel", as it became known, made its way into the courts and therefore into the public domain. It was very messy.


The two sides were eventually reconciled after the efforts of their publisher, Tom Chappell, but the exact details of the settlement were never completely finalised.


Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan are reconciled after the carpet quarrel

Sullivan and Gilbert collaborated on two more operettas but despite having their admirers, these pieces are generally regarded as less-successful than the earlier G+S works. Utopia Limited, or The Flowers of Progress premiered in October 1893. Gilbert takes a massive swipe at British business methods, the armed services, the law, and county councils. The complications of the plot seem to have beaten Sullivan, who nevertheless managed to write some music worthy of his past successes. [listen]



Utopia Limited had a reasonable run of 245 performances and returned a profit. The same could not be said, however, for their next and last collaboration, The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel. It opened in March 1896 but closed after 123 performances. It was the only one of the G+S operettas to make a loss and after this neither creator could see any reason to continue working together. Gilbert's libretto lampoons the wealthy and noble classes, elements already familiar from many of his previous stories. It even goes right back, in one respect, to the very first G+S collaboration, Thespis, in that the story involves a group of actors taking political power. The review in The Times wasn't completely damning, laying the blame with Gilbert rather than Sullivan, but The Grand Duke has been only rarely revived in the century or so since its premiere. [listen]


The Grand Duke: Original set design for Act 1

Three and a half years after the opening of The Grand Duke, in November 1900, Sullivan died. Richard D'Oyly Carte died five months later. Gilbert lived until May 1911. He didn't receive his knighthood until 1907, the first British writer to receive such an honour for his plays alone.


Discussion of The Grand Duke always seems to make a sad ending for what was, after all, the most successful and popular partnership in British theatrical history. The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas comprise a prodigious collection of works which have appealed to people for more than a century and which are still performed the world over. And yes, I really love them!


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2009.

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