Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan & Sir William Schwenk Gilbert

Arthur Seymour Sullivan and librettist William Schwenk Gilbert have delighted audiences for over a century with their distinctive operetta style. Sullivan crafted charming tunes in familiar musical forms to seamlessly pair with Gilbert’s clever use of language. To illustrate their satirical commentary on English Victorian society, they interspersed light, comic songs with spoken dialogue rather than the more common recitative style. As the most influential music duo of their time, their works welcomed the development of 20th century musical theatre, and have since been quoted, referenced and imitated in popular culture.

Born in London to an Irish Bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Arthur Sullivan (1842 – 1900) was exposed to music at an early age. Sullivan excelled at all the wind instruments in his father’s band. Composing by age eight, Sullivan won the first Mendelssohn Scholarship and attended the Royal Academy of Music in London. He would later continue his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany.

In 1861, Sullivan gained public notoriety with the success of incidental music written to accompany Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He explored diverse musical styles including hymns (“Onward Christian Soldiers”), large choral works (The Light of the World, The Martyr of Antioch and The Golden Legend), grand opera (Ivanhoe) and, of course, comic opera. Sullivan worked with writer F.C. Brunand on comic opera (Cox and Box and The Contrabandista) before establishing a partnership with W. S. Gilbert in the 1870s.

William Schwenk Gilbert (1836 – 1911) was born in London to a retired naval surgeon. Gilbert pursued different career paths before writing for theatre. They included a twenty year service in the militia, a brief legal career as a layer, and a stint as a journalist contributing humor and dramatic criticism for the popular British magazine, FUN. He accompanied his writings with his own cartoons and sketches under the pseudonym, “Bab.” Between 1869 and 1873, his works, The Bab Ballads and More Bab Ballads, were published and later served as inspiration for his future operetta stories.

1866 brought about Gilbert’s first work for theatre. Within two weeks, he wrote the comedic Christmas piece, Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack, which was a loose farce, based on Donizetti’s opera The Elixir of Love. This successful piece garnered Gilbert further commissions.

By 1871, Gilbert, thirty-five, and Sullivan, twenty-nine, were well known in their respective spheres. Producer John Hollingshead presented the duo with their first collaboration: a Christmas piece, to be presented at his Gaiety Theatre in the West End. The ensuing work, Thespis, blended political satire and grand opera parody, characteristics they would continue to integrate into much of their work. Despite Thespis’s unremarkable debut, the team followed with a twenty-five year partnership that produced comic operas, including H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), targeting the navy; The Pirates of Penzance (1879), poking fun at the police; and The Mikado (1885), caricaturing figures in society.

While the duo is most known for their work together, they also produced work separately. Sullivan wrote other operas and in 1876, became the principal of the National Training School for Music (later the Royal College of Music). He was an active conductor and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883. Sullivan died after a long illness on November 22, 1900.
After their collaboration ended, Gilbert continued to write librettos for other composers. He, too, was knighted in 1907 by King Edward VII before dying of a heart attack in 1911.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations highlighted England’s Victorian Age, named for the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria (1819-1901). This period was represented by restraining moral values that addressed character, propriety, earnestness, hard work, respectable comportment, and thrift; virtues that were supposed to be embraced by all class divisions of society. By the late 19th century those Victorian values surrendered to hypocrisies and were criticized. Victorians were ridiculed because of their smugness and unwillingness to face unpleasant realities.

Thanks to their clever storytelling, Gilbert and Sullivan were seen as leaders in the movement of exposing Victorian era frailties. Gilbert used mockery of government and politics to perfect his unique style of rhymed couplets, puns, and parody. Sullivan, the musical dramatist, matched his partner’s wits by setting the text in ingenious musical style.

Aubrey Baker