Arthur Sullivan

1842 1900

Arthur Sullivan



The composer Sir Arthur Sullivan was an important figure in 20th century British music. Although he wrote a wide array of concert music including several concerti, symphonies and chamber pieces he is most enduringly famous for the comic operas he wrote along with librettist W.S. Gilbert.

Sullivan was raised in Sandhurst, England, to an Italian mother and an Irish father who was the sergeant bandmaster at the Royal Military College. Influenced by his father, he gained familiarity with a wide range of wind instruments, the piano and voice. At the age of eight, he composed his first piece. His promise was recognized by Thomas Helmore, the master of the choristers at Chapel Royal, and it was under his instruction that he received the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which gave him a year of free tuition to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied composition with Sir W. Sterndale Bennett and Sir John Goss.

Following a stint continuing his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory, Sullivan moved back to London to take on the job of church organist at St. Michael’s. It was during this time that he wrote many of the pieces of serious concert music that would start to win him national attention, and would contrast greatly with his later, even more famous work. Some of these works include a ballet entitled L’Île enchantée, the Irish Symphony and a cello concerto. Two of his overtures, Overture in C (In Memoriam), which was written to mourn the death of his father, andOverture di Ballo, became some of the most popular orchestral works of the time in Britain.

In 1875, Gilbert joined with Sullivan to create the one-act comic opera Trial by Jury, commissioned by Richard D’Oyly Carte, manager of the Royalty Theatre.Trial by Jury, a satire on the judicial process, starred Sullivan’s brother Fred in the leading role and was an extraordinary success. In 1877 the team, which now also included Carte, released their first full-length opera The Sorcerer and the following year H.M.S. Pinafore. These proved so successful that the partnership continued for another eight operettas, until Sullivan constant disagreements with Gilbert over his contrived plots and Carte over his business decisions caused them to split. They later made up and reunited for two more operettas with just Sullivan and Gilbert,Utopia Ltd. (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896). Although these later works fell short of the popularity of the early operettas, the witty personalities of Sullivan and Gilbert are still abundantly evident. In particular, Sullivan’s ability to parody styles and composers such asHandel or Verdi fit perfectly with Gilbert’s penetrating comments on society.

Outside of his collaborations with Gilbert, many of Sullivan’s pieces became successful in their own right. His songThe Lost Chord (1877), written on the event of his brother Fred’s death, can still be heard today, as can several of his oratorios, includingThe Prodigal Son (1869) and his hymns, the most famous of which areOnward, Christian Soldiers (1871) and Nearer, my God, to Thee (1872).

Sullivan had long demonstrated an attraction to theatre, and many of his early works were actually live incidental music pieces to be set to existing plays, a common practice at the time. In 1862 his incidental music to Shakespeare’sThe Tempest, written as his graduation piece from Leipzig, was premiered at the Crystal Palace to great acclaim. Although he set music to numerous other plays, Shakespeare was a particularly favourite subject of Sullivan’s, as he also chose to write music forThe Merchant of Venice (1871), Henry VIII (1877) and Macbeth(1888).

Sullivan’s first foray into the world of comic opera came in 1866 with his setting of Sir Francis Cowley Burnand’sCox and Box. The work was a great hit, with a 264-performance run at the Gallery of Illustration, and led to a second collaboration between the two, the operettaContrabandista, not even a year later. In 1871, Sullivan was commissioned by John Hollingshead to write a Christmas operaThespis, alongside librettist W.S. Gilbert. Although the pairing of Sullivan and Gilbert would ultimately end up being the most prolific and enduring in comedic opera, there was no immediate evidence of any exceptional chemistry between the two, and they did not collaborate on any more major works for several years.

Although he became popular through his smaller works, Sullivan’s life’s ambition was to write a Grand Opera. Carte built the English Opera House especially for Sullivan’s first attempt,Ivanhoe, which premiered in 1891 with a libretto by Julian Sturgis. They had the grandiose idea of running the opera ever night for 160 performances, common practice for operettas but never before attempted with a Grand Opera. Meant to show Sullivan’s freedom from the shackles of Gilbert’s libretti,Ivanhoe was instead a dismal failure which ended up nearly bankrupting Carte, forcing him to sell his new theatre, and was received equally poorly when it opened in Berlin.

Despite the unfortunate turn in his fortunes and lessened popularity of his later works, Sullivan remained a national hero in Britain up until and long past his death. He began a successful side career as a conductor, appearing for almost two decades at the Leeds Festivals, even after illness forced him to conduct from a chair. In 1883 he was knighted by Queen Victoria for his services to music, and upon his death he was buried at her order in St. Paul’s Cathedral, with a monument in his honour erected at the Victoria Embankment Gardens.

Header image Courtesy of the BBC Other images courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Victoria and Albert Museum