Gilbert & Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the most popular
operettas in the history of English theatre. They are probably even more famous
than Victoria and Albert and certainly as English as bacon and eggs or roast
beef and Yorkshire pudding. Indeed, their fame is so great, it rests as
securely on their initials as on their names. To anyone who loves music
theatre, 'G & S' means melody, irreverence, wit and fun.
The man who brought these opposites together, Richard
D'Oyly Carte, managed - with difficulty - to fire their artistic enthusiasm
while, for the most part, patching up their quarrels. He built London's Savoy
Theatre as the home of a permanent company to perform their comic operas.
Known collectively as 'the Savoy operas', Gilbert and
Sullivan's works instantly captured the imagination of the British
theatre-going public, surpassing even Offenbach in popularity and quickly
becoming classics of family entertainment.
Following Thespis in 1871, the pair wrote Trial By
Jury (1875), The Sorcerer (1877), HMS Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance
(1880), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado
(1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), The Gondoliers
(1889), Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896).
One measure of Gilbert and Sullivan's importance is
that a hundred years on, every night somewhere in the English speaking world,
there is a performance of a G & S opera.
For more than a hundred years, the D'Oyly Carte Opera
Company were the professional custodians of Gilbert and Sullivan until 1982.
The company has recently been reformed in Birmingham, England, with one of its
major successes being The Pirates of Penzance, a co-production with the
Victoria State Opera, directed by Australia's Stuart Maunder.
'A source of innocent merriment', Gilbert and Sullivan
are the light music theatre's purest diamonds - they are forever.
Gilbert(18 November 1836 - 29
May 1911)William Schwenck - a name he
loathed - Gilbert was born to a family of comfortable means in a house a few
hundred yards from the site of the Savoy Theatre which was later to become the
centre of a cult whose merry devotees to this day describe themselves with
pride as Savoyards. Aged two, he was kidnapped in Naples by brigands and
ransomed for twenty-five pounds. This Gilbertian event he was to use years
later in the plots of HMS Pinafore and The Gondoliers. Frustrated and less than
successful as a barrister, Gilbert invented a world of 'Topsyturvydom... where
right is wrong and wrong is right, where white is black and black is white', a
world that first appeared in print as the whimsical and nonsensical poems that
constituted Bab Ballads (1869) and from 1871 onwards as the evergreen Savoy
operas, starting with Thespis and finishing with The Grand Duke in 1896.
An established comic playwright who revelled in
artificial plots and good, clean, Victorian fun, Gilbert was an important
figure in the history of the English stage because he was the first director
('stage manager' in late nineteenth-century parlance) to put his stamp on texts
and productions. He insisted on the importance of rehearsals for the whole
company and supervised in detail every aspect of design, costume, choreography
and lighting. With composer, Arthur Sullivan,
and the brilliant entrepreneur, Richard D'Oyly Carte - the Cameron Macintosh of
his day - Gilbert became part of England's most important operetta triumvirate,
was recognised as being the foremost librettist of his century and is
acknowledged as such by his pupils and successors, Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner
and Stephen Sondheim. WSG was also a quarrelsome and dictatorial tyrant who
never for a moment doubted his own genius and who, as he grew older, took to
suing those who crossed him.He was knighted in
May 1907 and lived in comfortable retirement in his Harrow mansion, Grim's
Dyke. He was drowned in his private lake while
trying to assist a young lady in
difficulty.His commemorative plaque on
London's Embankment carries the aptly epigrammatic epitaph, 'His foe was folly,
and his weapon, wit'.
Sullivan(13 May 1842 - 22
November 1900)Born in Lambeth, the son of
an orchestra musician, Sullivan taught himself piano at five and composed his
first anthem, By the Waters of Babylon, aged eight. At twelve, he published his
first sacred song, O Israel. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and later
in Leipzig where he met Liszt, Schumann and
Greig.The darling of London musical society,
Sullivan was feted by the famous soprano, Jenny Lind, taken to Paris by Charles
Dickens and pressed (in vain) by Lewis Carroll to set Alice In Wonderland to
music. His parlour ballads, sacred songs (Onward Christian Soldiers and The
Lost Chord being his most famous), oratorios and overtures made him a household
name in England and a favourite of Queen Victoria. He was knighted in 1883 at
the age of 41. This newfound honour was not without its problems. The Musical
Review spoke for the world of serious music when it observed that 'something Mr
Arthur Sullivan may have done, Sir Arthur ought not to do'.
Not surprisingly, he increasingly came to regard his
light music collaboration with Gilbert as a frivolous diversion from his more
noble vocation as a serious composer. His one opera, Ivanhoe, though now
forgotten, holds the record for the longest single run (155 performances) of
any opera in England.
Unlike the militarily disciplined Gilbert, Sullivan
was more 'artistic' in temperament, preferring the world of supper parties,
royal shoulder-rubbing and European gallivanting and gambling, not least in
Plagued by ill health, he constantly worked against
the clock to complete songs for rehearsals. Indeed, often as opening night
approached, he was so late - and sick - that he would send only outlines for
overtures, leaving them to be constructed by his musical director, Francois
Cellier. The completed score of The Pirates of Penzance did not appear until
four days before opening night, and when he approached the podium to conduct,
he recorded that he took up the baton 'more dead than alive'.
He is buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral,
London. His plaque in Savoy Gardens, London, bears the inscription suggested by
Gilbert, from The Yeomen of the Guard:
Is life a boon?If
so it must befallThat Death whene'er he
callMust call too soon!
Go To Essgee's
Trilogy of G&S Ô
Go To the Official Gibert & Sullivan Archive Site