Sullivan Without Gilbert
December 23, 2013 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
One of my favorite musical pieces of all time is Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. It was the very first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta I ever heard, and I thought it was one of the funniest, most clever theatrical works ever put on stage. At the time I first heard the piece, it never occurred to me that Arthur Sullivan was anything more than William Schwenck Gilbert’s partner, but it turns out he had an entire career outside of their collaboration. Of course we remember Arthur Sullivan best for the comic operas he wrote with Gilbert, and these operettas—as they are sometimes called—form the composer’s most historically significant output. But Sir Arthur Sullivan composed in a variety of genres including solo songs, part-songs, piano music, anthems, services, and hymns. Sullivan was also a successful conductor and wrote a number of oratorios for soloists and choir with orchestral accompaniment.
Arthur Sullivan was born in Lambeth in London in May of 1842. His parents encouraged young Arthur’s musical gifts. His father, a military bandleader and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, arranged for his son to attend the Chapel Royal as a chorister. As the first recipient of the Mendelssohn scholarship at the Royal Academy in 1856, Arthur began composing music. His first notable piece was incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s Tempest (1861).
Arthur Sullivan spent the next few years as a teacher and church musician. He continued setting both secular and sacred texts, writing instrumental music, and composing more music for the stage. He wrote his first oratorio, The Prodigal Son in 1869 and the cantata On Shore and Sea in 1871. The first Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, Thespis, dates from 1871 as well. An impresario named John Hollingshead thought the two men would work well together and commissioned a Christmas piece from them for his Gaiety Theater. A few years later, Gilbert and Sullivan worked on a second collaboration at the behest of Richard d’Oyly Carte. Trial by Jury was a great success. Gilbert and Sullivan produced more than a dozen works including Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and H.M.S. Pinafore.
Arthur Sullivan’s early work had shown such promise that it was assumed by many that he would be England’s next great composer, following in the footsteps of Henry Purcell. Sullivan’s involvement with operettas and his collaboration with W.S. Gilbert angered many who felt that Sullivan was squandering his talents in this medium. A “great” composer, I imagine they reasoned, would write weighty and serious pieces like grand opera or symphonies. To spend time—and make money—on such a light, popular entertainment must have seemed like a serious painter working at an advertising agency. In fact, some went so far as to say call Sullivan’s collaboration with Gilbert and his involvement with comic opera as “Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Crime.”
At the beginning of 1883, Sullivan signed a five-year agreement with Gilbert and Richard d’Oyly Carte. The contract would provide him with some much needed financial security, and it seemed that things were going well, but matters got a bit complicated in May of 1883, when Sullivan was knighted. The knighthood was in recognition of his work in “serious” music, and it seemed to imply that he should now focus on grand opera or large scale choral works and leave comic opera behind. That was not an option for both legal and financial reasons, and in 1885, Gilbert and Sullivan produced their most successful collaboration, The Mikado. A year later, he achieved success with a “serious” work, a cantata composed for the Leeds Festival, The Golden Legend.
Sullivan had been made director of the Leeds Festival in 1880. For his first year in the position, he was asked to compose a new sacred choral work. His subject was Saint Margaret the Virgin, the libretto was adapted from Henry Hart Milman’s 1822 poem on the subject. Who did the adaptation? Well, none other than W.S. Gilbert it turns out. The work was well received and Sullivan was grateful to his friend for the help. When he composed The Golden Legend six years later, Sullivan worked with Joseph Bennett on the adaptation of H.W. Longfellow’s eponymous poem.
His musical style—to suit the topic—was fairly conservative. It tells the story of Prince Henry of Hoheneck, dying in his castle on the Rhine. Only one thing can cure him: the blood of a young woman who chooses to sacrifice herself for him. The doctor (the devil in disguise) offers him an elixir of alcohol as a cure. He drinks and leaves the castle in a wild state. One of Henry’s subjects, Elsie, offers her blood to cure him. The devil again dons a disguise to keep Henry from getting his cure, but is unsuccessful. The Prince is somehow cured through a miracle, and he and Elsie are married.
The piece premiered on October 16, 1886, and it enjoyed immediate critical and popular success. Among the positive comments were ones from W.S. Gilbert and Queen Victoria. The Queen had listened to a command performance in 1888 at the Royal Albert Hall, and afterwards encouraged Sullivan to try his hand at grand opera. “You would do it so well,” she said. Despite their sometimes contentious partnership, Gilbert congratulated Sullivan on The Golden Legend a few days after the premiere, “I congratulate you heartily on the success of the Cantata which appears from all accounts to be the biggest thing you’ve done.”
In time, Gilbert and Sullivan’s partnership began to crumble due in no short measure to Sullivan’s growing discontent with “light” opera and his desire to compose a successful grand opera. Perhaps he too began to feel that his promise as a ”serious” composer was, in fact, being wasted. One of Arthur Sullivan’s letters written in 1890, addressed to librettist, Dion Boucicault, describes his musical goals as quite incompatible with those of Gilbert:
“I think the whole tendency of stage music now is to get rid of as much as possible of songs, duets, and other set pieces and to be become as dramatic as possible. In all the series with Gilbert, I found a dainty, pretty song was generally a drag and stopped the interest of the public in the action of the piece. It is on these lines that I am doing a serious opera now.”
They continued collaborating until 1896. It is with Gilbert that Sullivan achieved his greatest and most lasting success. After Sullivan’s death in 1900, performances of The Golden Legend faded, and many of his other “serious” works were not published in the twentieth century. New English composers, specifically Edward Elgar, captured the attention of the British public.
Despite his importance and popularity in his time, Sullivan could not seem to shake the reputation that he hadn’t been serious enough to be great. A few things seemed to turn the tide in the composer’s favor: the 1960 publication of a book by Gervase Hughes about the music of Arthur Sullivan, the formation of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society in 1977, and the recording of some of his major non-Gilbert works. On the hundredth anniversary of Sullivan’s death in 2000, it seemed that the musical world was finally ready to look past the prejudice surrounding Arthur Sullivan and make a fair assessment of his music and career. In the Musical Times in the winter of 2000, Nigel Burton called him England’s “greatest Victorian composer.” Although I suppose that kind of praise is better late than never, Sullivan was for me one of the “greats” thirty seconds into the overture of Pirates of Penzance. It’s good to know that—leaving aside his work with W.S. Gilbert—there’s plenty more greatness to be had.