Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) was the successor to Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) as the most important composer of the Victorian era. Beyond the operas for which he became world-famous, he also wrote orchestral and choral music, hymns, parlor ballads and incidental music for plays. He was also an important conductor and musical authority, and served as a mentor to such subsequent musicians as C.V. Stanford and Edward Elgar.
Born in London to an Irish father and a mother of Irish and Italian descent, Sullivan and his younger brother, Frederic, grew up in a musical home. Their father was a military bandmaster and also a private music teacher, and the first music that Sullivan heard was band music. (He would grow up into a master of brass and woodwinds, with some arguing that he was less comfortable composing for strings.)
At an early age, Sullivan showed himself to be a gifted musician, familiarizing himself with all the instruments in his father’s band and demonstrating that he could transcribe band music accurately after hearing it only once or twice. He was 8 when he wrote his first composition, an anthem called “By the Waters of Babylon” (1850).
In 1854 his musicianship and his clear treble voice earned him admission to the prestigious choir of the Chapel Royal, and in 1856 he became “first boy” of the choir. That same year he was awarded the first annual Mendelssohn Scholarship by the Royal Academy of Music, underwriting a year of study for the 14-year-old; the scholarship was renewed in 1857 and again in 1858—but this time it financed a year of study at the Leipzig Conservatory, a German music school considered by some to be the finest in Europe. The scholarship would be renewed for a second year in Leipzig, with a third year financed by Sullivan’s father (the conservatory having agreed to waive its fees for so promising a student).
In Leipzig the young man came into his own. He mingled with the finest young musicians in Europe, and was exposed to a wider range of influences than he had found in London. Sullivan had arrived as a piano student, but his interest in conducting and composing grew steadily. His graduation piece was his first work of theatrical music: Incidental Music to The Tempest (1861). Sullivan conducted it with the conservatory orchestra, where it won enthusiastic acclaim.
That acclaim was only a prelude to that which greeted the Tempest music in 1862 when, in revised and extended form, it was performed at the Crystal Palace in London. The young man was heralded as England’s most promising young composer—and as a possible successor to Handel and Mendelsson as iconic British composers … but, this time, English-born. It was the beginning of a burden that Sullivan would shoulder for the rest of his life as the individual embodiment of English music and of England’s aspirations in the musical realm.
After returning from Leipzig in 1861, Sullivan embarked on what would eventually be a 15-year period of scrambling to keep afloat financially. The success of the Tempest music had won him a name, but not an income; it has also won him the friendship of the Duke of Edinburgh, younger son of Queen Victoria, and entrée into a world of affluent friends which required a level of outlay which Sullivan was hard-pressed to meet. In addition to the fine clothes, elegant rooms, sumptuous entertaining and lavish gifts that were expected in his new circle, he also developed a love of gambling that would tax his finances for the rest of his life.
As a result, Sullivan did almost anything a musician could do to make money: He taught, both for private students and at the Royal Academy; he worked as a church choirmaster and organist; he provided piano accompaniment in theaters. Most of all, though, he wrote music: Hymns and parlor ballads flowed from his pen, along with the ballet L’Ile Enchantée (1964) and such choral works as The Masque at Kenilsworth (1864), The Prodigal Son (1869) and On Shore and Sea (1871). He also wrote numerous orchestral works, including “The Princess of Wales’s March” (1863), a symphony (1866), a cello concerto (1866), the overture “In Memoriam” (1866), the overture “Marmion” (1867) and “Overtura di Ballo” (1870). He wrote a song cycle, The Window: or, The Songs of the Wren (1871) with Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Most significantly, however, he teamed with the Punch writer F.C. Burnand to write Cox and Box (1866), a brief one-act operetta (based on John Maddison Morton’s farce Box and Cox (1847), from which most of the dialogue was lifted). Originally written as entertainment for a house party, it went over so well that it soon received a professional production. That too was a hit, and Burnand and Sullivan reteamed for the longer, more elaborate opera The Contrabandista (1867). This was less successful, so it was several years before Sullivan returned to writing for the stage.
When he did, it was with a libretto by one of London’s hottest young playwrights, W.S. Gilbert. Thespis (1871) was a success, but Sullivan wasn’t happy with it, because the play had been produced at the Gaiety Theatre and he and Gilbert had been forced to accept the Gaiety’s usual stars, notably J.L. Toole as Thespis and Nelle Farren as Mercury. Sullivan had been able to wangle a job for his brother, Fred, as Apollo, but in his judgment Fred was the only decent singer in the cast.
Perhaps that’s why it was another four years before he returned to opera, reuniting with Gilbert for the sparkling one-act Trial by Jury (1875). Introduced at the Royalty Theatre as a curtain-raiser for Offenbach’s La Perichole, it proved more popular than the main attraction, becoming the talk of London and outlasting a couple of other headline offerings at the Royalty. Fred Sullivan scored a hit as the remarkably candid Judge, and was hailed as a star in the making (he had trained as an architect, and once quipped, “I’m an actor now, but I’m still drawing big houses”).
When Richard D’Oyly Carte founded a company dedicated to the fostering of English comic opera, Sullivan didn’t hesitate to sign on. Trial by Jury had been a welcome source of income to him, and Gilbert easily the best of the three librettists (Burnand, Gilbert and B.C. Stevenson, with whom Sullivan had written The Zoo (1875), another one-act, immediately after Trial by Jury) with whom the composer had worked to date.
Most significantly, Carte’s Comic Opera Company would offer Gilbert & Sullivan the chance to select their own singers, letting Sullivan not only have a level of singers he hadn’t previously had, but also write for specific singers whom he knew and liked. He suffered a crushing blow when Fred Sullivan, slated to star in The Sorcerer as John Wellington Wells, died suddenly. However, The Sorcerer was the strongest libretto Sullivan had ever worked with, as well as the first one on which he had been able to consult in its creation; and the new company of singers—not only future stars such as Rutland Barrington, George Grossmith and Richard Temple, but also the chorus, which would play an ever-greater part in Sullivan’s music—was much to his liking.
As to his new partner, Sullivan appreciated Gilbert’s lyrical creativity and his deft rhythmic sense, as well as his unwillingness to compromise. Having spent 10 years in and around the theater, the composer had seen many promising works sabotaged by poor casting, budgetary constraints and lack of quality control, so Gilbert’s insistence on doing everything possible to make the new opera a success resonated with him.
As personalities, however, the two men were quite different. Gilbert, a tall, volatile man with a ramrod-stiff military bearing, piercing eyes and an abrupt, even dismissive manner, was respected by everyone, feared by most and liked by few; Sullivan, in contrast, was a portly, cheerful soul with a twinkle in his eye and a smile for everyone he met. As respected in his field as Gilbert was in his, the composer was feared by no one, liked by many and loved by more than a few—especially among the ladies, for whose charms he always had ample appreciation.
If Sullivan was surprised to find himself a composer of opera—his stream of songs, hymns, choral works and instrumental pieces slowed to a trickle after the phenomenal success of H.M.S. Pinafore (1878)—he soon adapted himself to the idea. In the 12 years (1877-1889) that the collaboration was an ongoing process, Sullivan’s music grew bolder, more romantic and more ambitious, as he and Gilbert shaped a company—and an audience—for an art form that they had made their own. The Sullivan who composed The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) and The Gondoliers (1889) was an entirely different artist from the Sullivan who had scored The Sorcerer and H.M.S. Pinafore. Those scores had essentially been collections of songs—linked by musical ideas, often, but basically separate units—whereas the two latter works were operas, cohesive works in which the individual songs were brilliant in their own right, but primarily components in a greater whole. In 1877 Sullivan had been a student of opera; by 1889 he was a master of the field.
The success of the Gilbert & Sullivan team gave Sullivan the wealth he had long desired, but it was not as rewarding in terms of prestige. The public loved the Savoy operas, but the musical cognoscenti and the critical press were less enthusiastic. They still saw Sullivan as the grand hope of English music, and were dismayed that the English Brahms had turned out to be the English Offenbach.
Sullivan tried to appease them, and tried hard, but his efforts were met with disappointment. His last oratorio, The Golden Legend (1886), which the composer thought his greatest work to date, got less attention than The Mikado (1885), still playing to packed houses at the Savoy. When Sullivan finally wrote the grand opera that his critics had been demanding for a decade, Ivanhoe (1891) failed to match the acclaim of The Gondoliers. In retrospect it is clear that Sullivan’s gift was for musical theater, and that he made the most of that gift; at the time, though, he himself was more than half-convinced that he was squandering his real gift.
Ivanhoe came out during the rift between Gilbert and Sullivan known as the “carpet quarrel.” This was essentially a dispute between Gilbert and Carte over allocation of expenses at the Savoy, which Carte owned but leased to the production partnership of which he, Gilbert and Sullivan were principals. Sullivan did everything he could to avoid inflaming the situation by siding with either disputant. When push came to shove, though, he sided with Carte, not because he was personally closer to the producer (Sullivan was the best man at Carte’s wedding in 1888), but because he hated the fact that a quarrel over a relatively small amount of money had dragged the three partners into court and into the newspapers. Whether or not Gilbert was right on the facts (the court found that he was), Sullivan blamed him for the whole affair.
Ivanhoe was a modest success, but not enough to lead to further grand operas. Haddon Hall (1992), which Sullivan wrote with librettist Sydney Grundy, was more of the same. By then Sullivan and Gilbert—and even Gilbert and Carte—were back on speaking terms, and it was obviously in everyone’s best interest for the partnership to be renewed.
It was, but Utopia, Ltd. (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896) were thinner than their predecessors, with the reunited partners more interested in getting along than in pushing each other to greatness. Each was greeted with acclaim, but neither scored the kind of hit the team had enjoyed with H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance (1880), The Mikado and The Gondoliers. Gilbert & Sullivan continued to be seen at the Savoy, but it was in revivals of those earlier triumphs, not in new works.
His health fading, Sullivan continued to plug along at the Savoy, producing The Beauty Stone (1898) with Arthur Pinero and J. Comyns Carr, and The Rose of Persia (1899) and The Emerald Isle (1901) with Basil Hood. The Rose of Persia was the only real hit among them, but it was no Mikado.
The Emerald Isle was unfinished at Sullivan’s death, and would be completed by composer Edward German. Sullivan had been plagued for most of his adult life with kidney problems, and by 1900 it was clear that he didn’t have long to live. He died on Nov. 22, his beloved nephew Herbert—Fred’s son, and a surrogate son to the childless Sullivan—at his side.
As early as 1885, The Musical Standard had predicted that Sullivan was doomed to obscurity. “We must confess we think it a pity that a composer of such conspicuous talents should waste his present energies in writing music which is forgotten almost as soon as its immediate purpose is served,” wrote London’s musical newspaper of record. “Pinafore is now almost forgotten; Patience and The Pirates of Penzance are rapidly fading from the public mind; The Mikado will soon follow them into oblivion. Sir Arthur Sullivan has made a name, and a banker’s balance; but his comic operas will probably die before their composer.”
It was mistaken. All those operas still flourish, more than a century after their composer’s death, and even Utopia, Ltd. and The Grand Duke are still performed multiple times each year. With all due respect to Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, Noel Coward, Edward Elgar, Ivor Novello, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis, Andrew Lloyd Webber et al., Arthur Sullivan remains England’s most famous, most popular and best-loved composer, and likely always will.