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Gilbert And Sullivan Biography And Visits

The Savoy Theatre in 2010 - showing that modern light opera Legally Blonde.

The lifetimes of composer Arthur Sullivan (1842 - 1900) and lyricist William Schwenck Gilbert (1836 - 1911) represent a time of great change in music. Since the seventeenth century, music had been making its escape from the Church, which until then had enjoyed a virtual musical monopoly. Nineteenth century technical innovations helped make music far more generally available. Factory made musical instruments brought down their price, and made precise standard tuning possible. This allowed musicians to play together in groups more easily, bringing about the development of symphony orchestras at one end of the social scale, and working class brass bands at the other. Pianos were the first mass produced instrument, after Henry Maudsley devised a lathe for use in the production of pianos in 1800. While these excellent assembly line pianos were used by classical musicians, they also became the basic instrument of popular music, in the hands of composers such as Scott Joplin.



Gilbert and Sullivan began their careers in a society which had an uneasy relationship with all this change. In many ways there was an idealistic desire to help change along, to provide universal education, give more people the vote, and generally widen the number of people who could play a significant role in society. In other ways there was a real fear of what these changes would bring. The end of the eighteenth century had seen revolution in France in which traditional social order had fallen apart and been replaced by terrifying anarchy. Music was a powerful form of expression, and many fears were focused on it. French authorities, for example, had banned mass singing classes run by Joseph Meisner in 1839, worrying that they might lead to insurrection. It was in this turbulent atmosphere of change and fear of its consequences that Gilbert and Sullivan were born. Initially it might seem that there was nothing revolutionary about Arthur Sullivan or William Gilbert as they grew up. Arthur Sullivan born in Bolwell Street, Lambeth, was the son of a professional clarinettist. As his father spent much of his career working for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Arthur went to school in Sandhurst. Showing great promise in music, he moved in 1854 to the ancient foundation of the Chapel Royal which had a long history of educating choir boys for use in royal ceremonial. Building on early promise, scholarships sent young Arthur on to the Royal Academy of Music, and then to the finest music school in Europe, at Leipzig. Arthur Sullivan was one of the most promising young British composers of his generation, and much was expected of him in the rarified world of classical music. He was a conservative young man, unhappy with people who did not observe the sabbath. No student radicalism for him. William Gilbert, meanwhile, was seemingly unrevolutionary in a much more understated kind of way. Born on 18th November 1836 at 17 Southampton Street off the Strand in London, W.S. Gilbert was the son of a naval surgeon. This profession meant much travel, and Gilbert spent his early life on the move with his turbulent, argumentative family. He was educated in Boulogne, at Western Grammar School in Brompton, and then at Great Ealing School where he wrote his first plays and got involved in theatrical set design. After a degree at King's College London, there was a drift into detested work as a Civil Service clerk, then an unsuccessful stint as a barrister, with work in a volunteer army reserve in his spare time. From 1861, to supplement his income, Gilbert started writing various pieces for light entertainment magazines. The magazine Fun, a competitor of Punch, was a typical recipient of his writing. Then in 1863 Gilbert had a play staged for the first time, called Uncle Baby which ran for a few weeks. This was the background of two of Britain's most famous late nineteenth century operatic collaborators. There was nothing much to suggest a popular revolution, but in many ways that is what the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were to become.


While Gilbert was writing his magazine pieces and working on early comic plays, Arthur Sullivan was trying to make a living as a composer. As the product of a classical training of the highest standard it was assumed he would produce classical works. Initially this is what Sullivan tried to write. 1862 to 1868 saw nine pieces for solo piano, a symphony, and a cello concerto. Even at this early stage Sullivan was being criticised for being too tuneful and popular. Henry C. Lunn, editor of the Musical Times said that the slow movement of Sullivan's symphony was suited to "all who love mere tune" (quoted in Arthur Sullivan, A Victorian Musician by Arthur Jacobs P 49). What the editor of the Musical Times did not admit was the uncomfortable fact that it was almost impossible for a composer to make a living writing orchestral music in Britain. The market simply wasn't there. This was a time when music was opening up as a popular art form. Ballads were selling well, usually as songs taken from opera and sold separately. And the kind of opera these songs were taken from was a popular art form. While grand opera was struggling in London, popular light opera was very successful. Offenbach's Orpheus In The Underworld, first staged at Her Majesty's Theatre on Boxing Day 1865, was a massive hit. It was in fact an opera by Offenbach, Les Duex Aveugles performed by an amateur group in Kensington, which inspired Sullivan to write his first light opera. Cox and Box was his first effort, written with Punch contributor F.C. Burnand, to provide an accompaniment to the Kensington group's performance of Les Duex Aveugles. Impressed with this effort, the German Reed family, who produced popular theatre shows in London, commissioned Sullivan to write show music for them. This resulted in The Contrabandista, which was not a success. Neither was an attempted collaboration with the poet Tennyson. German Reed management tried to arrange a Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, but it was actually theatre producer Richard D'Oyly Carte who finally arranged for the two to work together on a piece for his management company. In this way Gilbert and Sullivan came to produce their first show, called Thespis, staged at the Gaiety Theatre on 26th December 1871.


Poster showing scenes from The Sorcerer, Trial by Jury and HMS Pinafore. This image is copyright free

As popular musical entertainment, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan couldn't help but be a bit subversive. They were after all part of a general social trend undermining the power of the old establishment in favour of a much wider popular democracy. But of course there could be no direct challenge. That simply wasn't acceptable. Apart from anything else it would not have made good entertainment, which aims to make people feel happy and secure as much as anything else. Gilbert and Sullivan found themselves naturally having to walk a tight rope. John Hollingwood, a risque theatre impresario who liked presenting girls in tights and short skirts, said that Gilbert and Sullivan was "burlesque in long clothes" (quoted Arthur Jacobs P73). And this describes the balance between naughty and nice that Gilbert and Sullivan achieved. Finding their feet through two early pieces, Thespis, and then Trial by Jury in 1875, their next two shows, The Sorcerer (1877) and HMS Pinafore (1878) were landmarks, and really established the Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D'Oyly Carte team. And it is in HMS Pinafore that we see the balance between popular and proper that was to become a hallmark of Gilbert and Sullivan. Certainly the properness was marked. Gilbert declared that he and Sullivan decided from the outset that: "our dialogue should be void of offence" and "no lady of the company should be required to wear a dress that she could not wear with absolute propriety at a private fancy dress ball" (quoted Arthur Jacobs P71). But then in a jokey way which seems to head off any serious criticism, the British establishment was mercilessly mocked. This is clearly seen in a song from HMS Pinafore called When I was a Lad, in which an admiral describes how he worked his way up from the lowest ranks to his position of power - " I thought so little that they rewarded me, by making me the ruler of the queen's navee". This whole song is rather ambivalent. It does not make fun of someone who has obtained his command through accident of birth. This is a man who started out polishing door handles, who worked his way up the ranks. But he was only able to do this because he posed no threat to his superiors, did not think for himself and did not cause any trouble. British society seemed to be becoming more meritocratic; door handle polishers appeared to have the chance to become admirals. But the people selected to rise in this way were the ones who in reality posed no real threat to the old status quo. In a time of change the British establishment's way of absorbing and neutralizing change is made very clear.


After HMS Pinafore came The Pirates of Penzance in 1879, and Patience in 1881. October 1881 was to see Patience transferring to the magnificent new Savoy Theatre in the Strand, built by Carte. As before the collaborators had to walk their tight rope, exploiting the naturally subversive element of their art form while not upsetting anybody too much. Patience was originally to have been about the comic rivalry between two clergymen, until Gilbert got cold feet. Instead he changed the clergymen into two "aesthetic fanatics", based on the kind of charismatic dandy made popular at the time by Oscar Wilde. Two aesthetic gurus are worshipped by a chorus of devoted female followers, and the play became the story of a rivalry between these two cult figures. Any satire of the Church was made under a cover story which seemed to be about something else. Iolanthe came next in November 1882. On 4th December 1882 prime minister William Gladstone went to a performance of Iolanthe at the Savoy and thoroughly enjoyed it. The fact that the play's Lord Chancellor was possibly a satirical representation of Gladstone, with Queen Victoria represented by a hostile Fairy Queen, seemed too well disguised for Gladstone to notice. Then in January 1884 the first phase of Gilbert and Sullivan's partnership came to a rather painful end. Princess Ida was staged at the Savoy, and the stress of getting the opera ready brought about a breakdown in Sullivan's health. Plagued by kidney troubles and exhaustion Sullivan wanted to escape his contract with Carte. He felt that he and Gilbert were beginning to repeat themselves, and refused to write music to the latest Gilbert libretto, which was similar to their early work The Sorcerer. The outcome of this difficult period was The Mikado, one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous and admired works. Once again, this was a piece which expressed its views about England through a disguise, in this case, a Japanese disguise. The Mikado was followed in October 1888 by The Yeoman of the Guard, which Sullivan counted as his favourite stage work. But ironically it was soon after The Yeoman of the Guard opened that Sullivan gave a speech at Birmingham Town Hall in which he seemed to deny all that he had achieved in popular musical theatre. This speech argued for a very conservative view of culture. Sullivan called for educated listeners: "We must be educated to appreciate, and appreciation must come before production. Give us intelligent and educated listeners and we should produce composers and performers of corresponding worth" (speech 8th October 1888, quoted by Arthur Jacobs P 281). Sullivan had been taught in the classical tradition in Europe's finest music schools, and of course education will always tend to teach the taste of the past. To make a living, however, the naturally conservative Sullivan had been forced in many ways to turn his back on his education. This was something he was always uncomfortable with. Sullivan did not seem to like the fact that he was treading the tightrope in a social revolution. He would much rather have been a great master in the old tradition. But what Sullivan didn't want to admit was that the great masters he looked to in his speech had themselves been forced to break with the past. It was seventeenth century musicians who had created the classical music tradition, and they represented a break with a past dominated by Church music. Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Berlioz all wrote for the Church, and they all also contributed to a musical revolution by writing for secular audiences. These composers represented the cross over point as music became an art form in its own right. So Sullivan was wrong to say that people had to be educated into appreciating a certain kind of music. This was only a recipe for keeping music the same. Music was moving on, and even if Sullivan didn't much like it, he and Gilbert were part of that great change.


Savoy Hotel

Continuing in his disillusionment with popularity, Sullivan wanted to follow Yeoman of the Guard with a "grand opera". This led to a major falling out with Gilbert who wanted to keep writing the kind of shows that had brought them so much success. Sullivan was persuaded to write music for The Gondoliers with Gilbert, but increasingly dreams of a grand opera were taking over. This was the time when money from years of success allowed Carte to build the Savoy Hotel, but the great success represented by this famous luxury hotel actually marked the beginning of the end for Gilbert and Sullivan. In April 1890 Gilbert impulsively challenged Carte on the details of his accounting, objecting in particular to the amount of money spent on a foyer carpet at the Savoy Theatre. The row quickly got out of hand and the Gilbert, Sullivan, Carte partnership never really recovered. Sullivan finally managed to write his grand opera, Ivanhoe, which inevitably lost Carte a lot of money. Sullivan was trying to recapture a respectable past which had never really been respectable. Opera had been one of the main forces pulling music away from the Church, and in a sense had always by definition been disreputable. There were two more works which Sullivan wrote with Gilbert, but neither Utopia (Limited) or The Grand Duke could recapture the old magic. Sullivan was by now in declining health, battling kidney problems which had afflicted him for years. He lived for long periods on the continent, losing a great deal of money in his obsession with gambling, and occasionally collaborating with other lyricists on unsuccessful shows. Never having married his last years were rather lonely. Arthur Sullivan died at Queens Mansions in Victoria Street on Thursday 22nd November 1900 aged 58. Memorial plaques to Sullivan stand in St Paul's Cathedral, and in Embankment Gardens between the Savoy Theatre and the Thames. Richard D'Oyly Carte died soon after on 3rd April 1901.


Coleton Fishacre, the D'Oyly Carte holiday home in Devon

In many ways Gilbert, prickly and irritable though he could be, was more at ease than his partner with the sort of success they achieved together. He lived in stylish retirement at a large mansion north of London called Grim's Dyke, now a country hotel. Edward VII conferred a knighthood in 1907. Gilbert died on 19th May 1911, collapsing after going to the assistance of a young woman who had got into difficulties while swimming in his private lake at Grim's Dyke. The D'Oyly Carte production company continued to produce the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan under the directorship of Richard's wife Helen D'Oyly Carte. On her death the business passed to Rupert D'Oyly Carte, Richard's son by his first marriage. The D'Oyly Carte's grand holiday home in Devon at Coleton Fishacre, much used by the family during the 1920s and 1930s, is now owned by the National Trust and serves as a D'Oyly Carte museum. The D'Oyly Carte company continued to put on Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas and managed to survive until 1989, when a strict philosophy of tradition finally brought the business to an end. The fact that Gilbert and Sullivan opera had been revolutionary in its day was lost in a kind of ritualistic adherence to past practice. Dialogue, lyrics, stage directions, and even original dance styles were rigorously preserved, redefining the works, in the words of Arthur Jacobs, "not as topical but classical". In trying to preserve Gilbert and Sullivan's work perhaps D'Oyly Carte denied the most important thing about it, the fact that in its day the shows had not been classics. They had actually represented a cunning revolution against the classics of the past.