Gilbert & Sullivan

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (librettist) and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (composer) collaborated on a series of fourteen light operas over a period of twenty-five years during the late 1800s. Most were wildly popular at the time and continue to be performed and reinterpreted to this day. The Mikado is one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre. Companies from around the world jostle to perform at the annual three week International G & S festival now held at Harrogate, England. The 2015 program lists 44 full-scale performances and an extensive fringe program.

Such is their wit, wisdom and musical fun that pieces from the operettas continue to turn up in the most unlikely places. Examples range from “The Muppet Show” (Tit-Willow), “Animaniacs” (Three Little Maids from School, as well as much of The Pirates of Penzance), “The Simpsons” (selections from The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore) “Rumpole of the Bailey” (The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring) to science fiction such as Angel (Three Little Maids from School), Babylon 5 and Star Trek:Next Generation (I am the very model of a modern Major-General) and Star Trek: Insurrection and Raiders of the Lost Ark (A British Tar).

The former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William Rehnquist added gold stripes to his judicial robes after seeing them used by the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe.

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, was a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, and found inspiration for his famous Foundation Trilogy while reading Iolanthe. Asimov was fascinated by some of the paradoxes that occur in their works and mysteries surrounding their manuscripts. He wrote several stories exploring these, including one about a time-traveller who goes back in time to save the score to Thespis and incorporated many references to the operettas in his books.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s deft integration of words and music, stage direction and production set new standards for the time and literally revolutionised musical theatre. Later great musical theatre writers like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Weber acknowledge their debt to them. Stephen Sondheim has also acknowledged their influence.

Noël Coward wrote: “I was born into a generation that still took light music seriously. The lyrics and melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan were hummed and strummed into my consciousness at an early age. My father sang them, my mother played them, my nurse, Emma, breathed them through her teeth…. My aunts and uncles… sang them singly and in unison at the slightest provocation….”[1]

The son of a military bandmaster, Sullivan composed his first anthem at age eight. In all he composed 23 operas, 13 major orchestral works, eight choral works and oratorios, two ballets, incidental music to several plays, numerous hymns and other church pieces, songs, piano and chamber pieces. The best known of his hymns is probably Onward Christian Soldiers.

Gilbert’s father was briefly a naval surgeon, later a writer. Gilbert took up writing at an early age and illustrated some of his father’s works. A frustrated civil servant and an unsuccessful lawyer he took to writing theatre reviews, poems, stories and articles which were published in the popular magazines of the day and later gained great respect as a playwright and dramatist. A recent biography lists eighty-one published works. Gilbert’s words are part of our language. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has him down for 135 entries.

Together with their business partner, Sir Richard D’Oyly Carte, the pair had a major influence on the development of British theatre. Gilbert is credited for introducing the modern form of direction to the stage and the Savoy Theatre and Hotel in the Strand, London were built to stage their works.

Pieces written outside their collaboration have fared much less successfully and are largely forgotten. They frequently disagreed with each other but their enduring success relied upon their partnership.

Sullivan frequently wrote his sunny music under the cloud of chronic illness and died of kidney failure aged 58. Gilbert died in 1911 aged 74 from a heart attack attempting to rescue a guest who experienced difficulties swimming in the lake on his property, Grimm’s Dyke.

There is also an Adelaide connection to the pair. D’Oyly Carte’s long suffering secretary and later his wife, Helen Lenoir (Black), had relatives who emigrated to Adelaide. The Black family were sent many old costumes from G&S productions of the D’Oyly Carte Company, which have subsequently donated to the Society. And members of the Black family have performed with the Society, most notably international opera soprano, Ghillian Sullivan.

[1] Introduction to The Noel Coward Song Book, (London: Methuen, 1953), p. 9