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Pirates, Sorcerers, and Gondoliers: the Life of Sir Arthur Sullivan

British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan was born on this day in 1842 in Lambeth, London. He was the son of teacher, clarinetist, and bandmaster Thomas Sullivan, and his wife Mary Clementina Sullivan. As his father worked as a bandmaster at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, young Arthur grew up around music and military band instruments, and became proficient in music at a young age.

Sir Arthur Sullivan, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left. Photographic print published in 1953, of a photograph taken before 1900.

Sir Arthur Sullivan, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left. Photographic print published in 1953, of a photograph taken before 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c29159

At age 12, he already knew he wanted to make music his profession. In 1854, Sullivan joined the choir of the Chapel Royal (despite his father’s protestations that music did not provide security—some things never change), and eventually he became a soloist for the choir. While in the choir, Sullivan began to write anthems and songs, and had his first piece published in 1855 at the age of 13 (“O Israel”).

In 1856, the Royal Academy of Music awarded him the very first Mendelssohn Scholarship, allowing him to study for one year at the Academy. While there, the 14-year-old studied composition with John Goss and piano with William Sterndale Bennett and Arthur O’Leary, while continuing to sing with the Chapel Royal. The Academy extended his scholarship, and this allowed him to take advantage of two years of study at the Leipzig Conservatoire. Sullivan completed his graduation piece, incidental music to The Tempest, in 1861 when he was only 19 years old.

After graduating, Sullivan began his compositional career in full, supplementing it with teaching and playing organ. Throughout his twenties, he composed many large works, hymns, and popular pieces. During this time, he wrote perhaps his most well-known hymn, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” which is widely used by the Salvation Army. In this period, he also composed his most well-known instrumental work Overture di Ballo, which was premiered at the Birmingham Triennial Festival in August 1870.

In 1871 Sullivan met poet, dramatist, and future long-time collaborator W.S. (William Schwenck) Gilbert. The proprietor of the Gaiety Theater in London, John Hollingshead, commissioned the duo to write a light-hearted operetta for entertainment over the 1871-72 Christmas holidays. This collaboration produced Thespis, which unfortunately only has a few surviving fragments of the score. Three years later, the duo reunited for another operetta Trial by Jury.

H.M.S. Pinafore a new and original, nautical opera. Print, 1879.

H.M.S. Pinafore a new and original, nautical opera. Print, 1879. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/var.1760

Between 1877 and 1879, the duo produced three more operettas—two of which catapulted them into international fame: The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Pirates of Penzance. Pinafore and Penzance went on to become huge hits in America; the former being produced hundreds of times in the States even though there was no authorization or copyright license to do so. [You can read more about American musician and composer George Tracy, who worked with Gilbert and Sullivan, in a blog from the Library of Congress Music Division here]. Pirates of Penzance actually premiered in New York rather than London on New Year’s Eve in 1879. Its London premiere was three months later in early April. Both of these operettas poke fun at Victorian culture and society, and the norms of grand opera. By using stock characters, and utilizing comic patter-singing characters (exemplified by the famous song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance), Gilbert and Sullivan created unique, comic, and entertaining operettas for the English-speaking public.

After the successes of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan went on to collaborate on 9 more operettas, mostly at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End, including The Mikado, Iolanthe, and The Gondoliers. These operettas are widely known as the “Savoy operas,” which is sometimes used as a catchall term for operettas modeled after those of Gilbert and Sullivan.

While the successes of his operettas had made him into a world-renowned figure, Arthur Sullivan continued to compose popular songs and ballads, along with larger compositions, such as oratorios, during his collaboration with Gilbert. These include “The Lost Chord” (1879), The Light of the World oratorio (1873), and the hymn “Who is Like unto Thee?” (1883), plus many, many more. In 1883, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria.

Having suffered from frail health throughout his life, Sullivan died of heart failure in November 1900 at the age of 58. His musical reputation had undergone many vicissitudes since his auspicious beginnings at age 19. Many critics bristled at the idea of someone with such talent “wasting” it on comic operetta. His reputation suffered even more following his death. However, by the mid-20th century, conductors and composers began to revive Sullivan’s work (both the operettas and his “serious” compositions), and many of these works are performed regularly today.

D'Oyly Carte's Opera Co. in Utopia, limited Gilbert & Sullivan's new opera. Print, 1894.

D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Co. in Utopia, limited Gilbert & Sullivan’s new opera. Print, 1894. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/var.2114

Interested in learning more about Arthur Sullivan or his music? Here are some selections from the NLS Music and general collection you may be interested in checking out. Download them from BARD or ask for hard copy scores and audio-cartridges from the NLS Music Section. Contact us to find out about more music materials you may like to borrow by calling 800-424-8567, extension 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]

Braille
Gilbert, W.S. The Savoy Operas: Being the Complete Text of Gilbert and Sullivan Operas Originally Produced in the Years 1875-1896 (BRM30392)

Jefferson, Alan. The Complete Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Guide, 7 volumes (BR 06217)
The history, synopses, and complete libretti of fourteen Victorian operas. Includes a general introduction, costume descriptions, and a discography.

Sullivan, Arthur. Gilbert and Sullivan Choruses (BRM35931)
28 choruses from operas by Arthur Sullivan, with words by W.S. Gilbert, and one part song, “The long day closes” with words by Henry F. Chorley. SATB parts in line by line format.

“God Shall Wipe Away All Tears,” Air from the Oratorio The Light of the World. For voice and piano in bar by bar format (BRM01648)

“The Lost Chord” for high voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats (BRM34862)

Pirates of Penzance. Solo vocal and chorus parts (BRM04982)

Ruddigore. Solo vocal and chorus parts (BRM04847)

Trial by Jury. Solo vocal and chorus parts (BRM05225)

“Who is Like Unto Thee?” Choral SATB and treble solo in section by section format (BRM13552)

Audio
Jefferson, Alan. The Complete Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Guide (DB 22878)
The history, synopses, and complete libretti of fourteen Victorian operas. Includes a general introduction, costume descriptions, and a discography.

Smillie, Thomson. Opera Explained: Gilbert and Sullivan (DBM03617)

Thompson, Ann. The Mikado (DBM01405)

Large Print
Jefferson, Alan. The Complete Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Guide (LPM00513)
The history, synopses, and complete libretti of fourteen Victorian operas. Includes a general introduction, costume descriptions, and a discography.

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