Life and career
Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London, the younger of the two children, both boys, of Thomas Sullivan (1805–1866) and his wife, Mary Clementina née Coghlan (1811–1882). His father was a military bandmaster, clarinettist and music teacher, born in Ireland and raised in Chelsea, London; his mother was English born, of Irish and Italian descent. Thomas Sullivan was based from 1845 to 1857 at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, where he was the bandmaster and taught music privately to supplement his income. Young Arthur became proficient with many of the instruments in the band and composed an anthem, "By the Waters of Babylon", when he was eight. He later recalled:
I was intensely interested in all that the band did, and learned to play every wind instrument, with which I formed not merely a passing acquaintance, but a real, life-long, intimate friendship. I gradually learned the peculiarities of each ... what it could do and what it was unable to do. I learned in the best possible way how to write for an orchestra.
While recognising the boy's obvious talent, his father knew the insecurity of a musical career and discouraged him from pursuing it. Sullivan studied at a private school in Bayswater. In 1854 he persuaded his parents and the headmaster to allow him to apply for membership in the choir of the Chapel Royal. Despite concerns that, at nearly 12 years of age, Sullivan was too old to give much service as a treble before his voice broke, he was accepted and soon became a soloist. By 1856, he was promoted to "first boy". Even at this age, his health was delicate, and he was easily fatigued.
Sullivan flourished under the training of the Reverend Thomas Helmore, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and began to write anthems and songs. Helmore encouraged his compositional talent and arranged for one of his pieces, "O Israel", to be published in 1855, his first published work. Helmore enlisted Sullivan's assistance in creating harmonisations for a volume of The Hymnal Noted and arranged for the boy's compositions to be performed; one anthem was performed at the Chapel Royal in St James's Palace under the direction of Sir George Smart.
Sullivan aged 16, in his Royal Academy of Music uniform
In 1856 the Royal Academy of Music awarded the first Mendelssohn Scholarship to the 14-year-old Sullivan, granting him a year's training at the academy.[n 1] His principal teacher there was John Goss, whose own teacher, Thomas Attwood, had been a pupil of Mozart. He studied piano with William Sterndale Bennett (the future head of the academy) and Arthur O'Leary. During this first year at the academy Sullivan continued to sing solos with the Chapel Royal, which provided a small amount of spending money.
Sullivan's scholarship was extended to a second year, and in 1858, in what his biographer Arthur Jacobs calls an "extraordinary gesture of confidence", the scholarship committee extended his grant for a third year so that he could study in Germany, at the Leipzig Conservatoire. There, Sullivan studied composition with Julius Rietz and Carl Reinecke, counterpoint with Moritz Hauptmann and Ernst Richter, and the piano with Louis Plaidy and Ignaz Moscheles. He was trained in Mendelssohn's ideas and techniques but was also exposed to a variety of styles, including those of Schubert, Verdi, Bach and Wagner. Visiting a synagogue, he was so struck by some of the cadences and progressions of the music that thirty years later he could recall them for use in his grand opera, Ivanhoe. He became friendly with the future impresario Carl Rosa and the violinist Joseph Joachim, among others.
The academy renewed Sullivan's scholarship to allow him a second year of study at Leipzig. For his third and last year there, his father scraped together the money for living expenses, and the conservatoire assisted by waiving its fees. Sullivan's graduation piece, completed in 1861, was a suite of incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Revised and expanded, it was performed at the Crystal Palace in 1862, a year after his return to London; The Musical Times described it as a sensation. He began building a reputation as England's most promising young composer.
Sullivan embarked on his composing career with a series of ambitious works, interspersed with hymns, parlour songs and other light pieces in a more commercial vein. His compositions were not enough to support him financially, and from 1861 to 1872 he worked as a church organist, which he enjoyed, and as a music teacher, which he hated and gave up as soon as he could.[n 2] He took an early opportunity to compose several pieces for royalty in connection with the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1863.
With The Masque at Kenilworth (Birmingham Festival, 1864), Sullivan began his association with works for voice and orchestra. While an organist at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, he composed his first ballet, L'Île Enchantée (1864). His Irish Symphony and Cello Concerto (both 1866) were his only works in their respective genres. In the same year, his Overture in C (In Memoriam), commemorating the recent death of his father, was a commission from the Norwich Festival. It achieved considerable popularity. In June 1867 the Philharmonic Society gave the first performance of his overture Marmion. The reviewer for The Times called it "another step in advance on the part of the only composer of any remarkable promise that just at present we can boast." In October, Sullivan travelled with George Grove to Vienna in search of neglected scores by Schubert. They unearthed manuscript copies of symphonies and vocal music, and were particularly elated by their final discovery, the incidental music to Rosamunde.[n 3]
Sullivan's first attempt at opera, The Sapphire Necklace (1863–64) to a libretto by Henry F. Chorley, was not produced and is now lost, except for the overture and two songs that were separately published. His first surviving opera, Cox and Box (1866), was written for a private performance. It then received charity performances in London and Manchester, and was later produced at the Gallery of Illustration, where it ran for an extraordinary 264 performances. W. S. Gilbert, writing in Fun magazine, pronounced the score superior to F. C. Burnand's libretto. Sullivan and Burnand were soon commissioned by Thomas German Reed for a two-act opera, The Contrabandista (1867; revised and expanded as The Chieftain in 1894), but it did not do as well. Among Sullivan's early part songs is "The Long Day Closes" (1868). Sullivan's last major work of the 1860s was a short oratorio, The Prodigal Son, first given in Worcester Cathedral as part of the 1869 Three Choirs Festival to much praise.
1870s: first collaborations with Gilbert
Sullivan's most enduring orchestral work, the Overture di Ballo, was composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1870.[n 4] The same year, Sullivan first met the poet and dramatist W. S. Gilbert.[n 5] In 1871 Sullivan published his only song cycle, The Window, to words by Tennyson, and he wrote the first of a series of incidental music scores for productions of Shakespeare plays.[n 6] He also composed a dramatic cantata, On Shore and Sea, for the opening of the London International Exhibition, and the hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers", with words by Sabine Baring-Gould. The Salvation Army adopted the latter as its favoured processional, and it became Sullivan's best-known hymn.
At the end of 1871 John Hollingshead, proprietor of London's Gaiety Theatre, commissioned Sullivan to work with Gilbert to create the burlesque-style comic opera Thespis.[n 7] Played as a Christmas entertainment, it ran through to Easter 1872, a good run for such a piece.[n 8] Gilbert and Sullivan then went their separate ways until they collaborated on three parlour ballads in late 1874 and early 1875.
Sullivan's large-scale works of the early 1870s were the Festival Te Deum (Crystal Palace, 1872) and the oratorio The Light of the World (Birmingham Festival, 1873). He provided incidental music for productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Gaiety in 1874 and Henry VIII at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, in 1877. He continued to compose hymns throughout the decade.[n 9] In 1873 Sullivan contributed songs to Burnand's Christmas "drawing room extravaganza", The Miller and His Man.
In 1875 the manager of the Royalty Theatre, Richard D'Oyly Carte, needed a short piece to fill out a bill with Offenbach's La Périchole. Carte had conducted Sullivan's Cox and Box.[n 10] Remembering that Gilbert had suggested a libretto to him, Carte engaged Sullivan to set it, and the result was the one-act comic opera Trial by Jury.[n 11] Trial, starring Sullivan's brother Fred as the Learned Judge, became a surprise hit, earning glowing praise from the critics and playing for 300 performances over its first few seasons. The Daily Telegraph commented that the piece illustrated the composer's "great capacity for dramatic writing of the lighter class", and other reviews emphasised the felicitous combination of Gilbert's words and Sullivan's music. One wrote, "it seems, as in the great Wagnerian operas, as though poem and music had proceeded simultaneously from one and the same brain." A few months later, another Sullivan one-act comic opera opened: The Zoo, with a libretto by B. C. Stephenson. It was less successful than Trial, and for the next 15 years Sullivan's sole operatic collaborator was Gilbert; the partners created a further twelve operas together.
Sullivan also turned out more than 80 popular songs and parlour ballads, most of them written before the end of the 1870s. His first popular song was "Orpheus with his Lute" (1866), and a well-received part song was "Oh! Hush thee, my Babie" (1867). The best known of his songs is "The Lost Chord" (1877, lyrics by Adelaide Anne Procter), written at the bedside of his brother during Fred's last illness. The sheet music for his best-received songs sold in large numbers and was an important part of his income.[n 12]
Caricature of Sullivan as a conductor, c. 1879
In this decade, Sullivan's conducting appointments included the Glasgow Choral Union concerts (1875–77) and the Royal Aquarium Theatre, London (1876). In addition to his appointment as Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, of which he was a Fellow, he was appointed as the first Principal of the National Training School for Music in 1876. He accepted the latter post reluctantly, fearing that discharging the duties thoroughly would leave too little time for composing; in this he was correct.[n 13] He was not effective in the post, and resigned in 1881.[n 14]
Sullivan's next collaboration with Gilbert, The Sorcerer (1877), ran for 178 performances, a success by the standards of the day, but H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which followed it, turned Gilbert and Sullivan into an international phenomenon. Sullivan composed the bright and cheerful music of Pinafore while suffering from excruciating pain from a kidney stone. Pinafore ran for 571 performances in London, then the second-longest theatrical run in history, and more than 150 unauthorised productions were quickly mounted in America alone.[n 15] Among other favourable reviews, The Times noted that the opera was an early attempt at the establishment of a "national musical stage" free from risqué French "improprieties" and without the "aid" of Italian and German musical models. The Times and several of the other papers agreed that although the piece was entertaining, Sullivan was capable of higher art, and frivolous light opera would hold him back. This criticism would follow Sullivan throughout his career.
In 1879 Sullivan suggested to a reporter from The New York Times the secret of his success with Gilbert: "His ideas are as suggestive for music as they are quaint and laughable. His numbers ... always give me musical ideas." Pinafore was followed by The Pirates of Penzance in 1879, which opened in New York and then ran in London for 363 performances.
In 1880 Sullivan was appointed director of the triennial Leeds Music Festival. He had earlier been commissioned to write a sacred choral work for the festival and chose, as its subject, Henry Hart Milman's 1822 dramatic poem based on the life and death of St. Margaret of Antioch. The Martyr of Antioch was first performed at the Leeds Festival in October 1880. Gilbert adapted the libretto for Sullivan, who, in gratitude, presented his collaborator with an engraved silver cup inscribed "W.S. Gilbert from his friend Arthur Sullivan."[n 16] Sullivan was not a showy conductor, and some thought him dull and old-fashioned on the podium,[n 17] but Martyr had an enthusiastic reception and was frequently revived. Other critics and performers had favorable reactions to Sullivan's conducting, and he had a busy conducting career in parallel with his composing career, including seven Leeds Festivals among many other appointments. Sullivan invariably conducted the opening nights of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
Carte opened the next Gilbert and Sullivan piece, Patience, in April 1881 at London's Opera Comique, where their past three operas had played. In October, Patience transferred to the new, larger, state-of-the-art Savoy Theatre, built with the profits of the previous Gilbert and Sullivan works. The rest of the partnership's collaborations were produced at the Savoy, and are widely known as the "Savoy operas".[n 18] Iolanthe (1882), the first new opera to open at the Savoy, was Gilbert and Sullivan's fourth hit in a row. Sullivan, despite the financial security of writing for the Savoy, increasingly viewed the composition of comic operas as unimportant, beneath his skills, and also repetitious. After Iolanthe, Sullivan had not intended to write a new work with Gilbert, but he suffered a serious financial loss when his broker went bankrupt in November 1882. Therefore, he concluded that his financial needs obliged him to continue writing Savoy operas. In February 1883, he and Gilbert signed a five-year agreement with Carte, requiring them to produce a new comic opera on six months' notice.
On 22 May 1883 Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria for his "services ... rendered to the promotion of the art of music" in Britain. The musical establishment, and many critics, believed that this should end his career as a composer of comic opera – that a musical knight should not stoop below oratorio or grand opera. Having just signed the five-year agreement, Sullivan suddenly felt trapped. The next opera, Princess Ida (1884, the duo's only three-act, blank verse work), had a shorter run than its four predecessors; Sullivan's score was praised. With box office receipts lagging in March 1884, Carte gave the six months' notice, under the partnership contract, requiring a new opera. Sullivan's close friend, the composer Frederic Clay, had recently suffered a career-ending stroke at the age of 45. Sullivan, reflecting on this, on his own long-standing kidney problems, and on his desire to devote himself to more serious music, replied to Carte, "[I]t is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself."
Gilbert had already started work on a new opera in which the characters fell in love against their wills after taking a magic lozenge. Sullivan wrote on 1 April 1884 that he had "come to the end of my tether" with the operas: "I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one [syllable] should be lost. ... I should like to set a story of human interest & probability where the humorous words would come in a humorous (not serious) situation, & where, if the situation were a tender or dramatic one the words would be of similar character." In a lengthy exchange of correspondence, Sullivan pronounced Gilbert's plot sketch (particularly the "lozenge" element) unacceptably mechanical, and too similar in both its grotesque "elements of topsyturveydom" and in actual plot to their earlier work, especially The Sorcerer.[n 19] He repeatedly requested that Gilbert find a new subject. The impasse was finally resolved on 8 May when Gilbert proposed a plot that did not depend on any supernatural device. The result was Gilbert and Sullivan's most successful work, The Mikado (1885). The piece ran for 672 performances, which was the second-longest run for any work of musical theatre, and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece, up to that time.[n 20]
In 1886 Sullivan composed his second and last large-scale choral work of the decade. It was a cantata for the Leeds Festival, The Golden Legend, based on Longfellow's poem of the same name. Apart from the comic operas, this proved to be Sullivan's best received full-length work. It was given hundreds of performances during his lifetime, and at one point he declared a moratorium on its presentation, fearing that it would become over-exposed. Only Handel's Messiah was performed more often in Britain in the 1880s and 1890s. It remained in the repertory until about the 1920s, but since then it has seldom been performed; it received its first professional recording in 2001. The musical scholar and conductor David Russell Hulme writes that the work influenced Elgar and Walton.[n 21]
Ruddigore followed The Mikado at the Savoy in 1887. It was profitable, but its nine-month run was disappointing compared with most of the earlier Savoy operas. For their next piece, Gilbert submitted another version of the magic lozenge plot, which Sullivan again rejected. Gilbert finally proposed a comparatively serious opera, to which Sullivan agreed. Although it was not a grand opera, The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) provided him with the opportunity to compose his most ambitious stage work to date. As early as 1883 Sullivan had been under pressure from the musical establishment to write a grand opera. In 1885 he told an interviewer, "The opera of the future is a compromise [among the French, German and Italian schools] – a sort of eclectic school, a selection of the merits of each one. I myself will make an attempt to produce a grand opera of this new school. ... Yes, it will be an historical work, and it is the dream of my life." After The Yeomen of the Guard opened, Sullivan turned again to Shakespeare, composing incidental music for Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre production of Macbeth (1888).
Sullivan wished to produce further serious works with Gilbert. He had collaborated with no other librettist since 1875. But Gilbert felt that the reaction to The Yeomen of the Guard had "not been so convincing as to warrant us in assuming that the public want something more earnest still". He proposed instead that Sullivan should go ahead with his plan to write a grand opera, but should continue also to compose comic works for the Savoy.[n 22] Sullivan was not immediately persuaded. He replied, "I have lost the liking for writing comic opera, and entertain very grave doubts as to my power of doing it."[n 23] Nevertheless, Sullivan soon commissioned a grand opera libretto from Julian Sturgis (who was recommended by Gilbert), and suggested to Gilbert that he revive an old idea for an opera set in colourful Venice. The comic opera was completed first: The Gondoliers (1889) was a piece described by Gervase Hughes as a pinnacle of Sullivan's achievement. It was the last great Gilbert and Sullivan success.
The relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan suffered its most serious breach in April 1890, during the run of The Gondoliers, when Gilbert objected to Carte's financial accounts for the production, including a charge to the partnership for the cost of new carpeting for the Savoy Theatre lobby. Gilbert believed that this was a maintenance expense that should be charged to Carte alone. Carte was building a new theatre to present Sullivan's forthcoming grand opera, and Sullivan sided with Carte, going so far as to sign an affidavit that contained erroneous information about old debts of the partnership. Gilbert took legal action against Carte and Sullivan, vowing to write no more for the Savoy, and so the partnership came to an acrimonious end. Sullivan wrote to Gilbert in September 1890 that he was "physically and mentally ill over this wretched business. I have not yet got over the shock of seeing our names coupled ... in hostile antagonism over a few miserable pounds".
Sullivan's only grand opera, Ivanhoe, based on Walter Scott's novel, opened at Carte's new Royal English Opera House on 31 January 1891. Sullivan completed the score too late to meet Carte's planned production date, and costs mounted; Sullivan was required to pay Carte a contractual penalty of £3,000 (equivalent to £340,000 in 2019) for his delay. The production lasted for 155 consecutive performances, an unprecedented run for a grand opera, and earned good notices for its music. Afterwards, Carte was unable to fill the new opera house with other opera productions and sold the theatre. Despite the initial success of Ivanhoe, some writers blamed it for the failure of the opera house, and it soon passed into obscurity. Herman Klein called the episode "the strangest comingling of success and failure ever chronicled in the history of British lyric enterprise!" Later in 1891 Sullivan composed music for Tennyson's The Foresters, which ran well at Daly's Theatre in New York in 1892, but failed in London the following year.[n 24]
Sullivan returned to comic opera, but because of the fracture with Gilbert, he and Carte sought other collaborators. Sullivan's next piece was Haddon Hall (1892), with a libretto by Sydney Grundy based loosely on the legend of the elopement of Dorothy Vernon with John Manners. Although still comic, the tone and style of the work was considerably more serious and romantic than most of the operas with Gilbert. It ran for 204 performances, and was praised by critics. In 1895 Sullivan once more provided incidental music for the Lyceum, this time for J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur.
With the aid of an intermediary, Sullivan's music publisher Tom Chappell, the three partners were reunited in 1892. Their next opera, Utopia, Limited (1893), ran for 245 performances, barely covering the expenses of the lavish production, although it was the longest run at the Savoy in the 1890s. Sullivan came to disapprove of the leading lady, Nancy McIntosh, and refused to write another piece featuring her; Gilbert insisted that she must appear in his next opera. Instead, Sullivan teamed up again with his old partner, F. C. Burnand. The Chieftain (1894), a heavily revised version of their earlier two-act opera, The Contrabandista, flopped. Gilbert and Sullivan reunited one more time, after McIntosh announced her retirement from the stage, for The Grand Duke (1896). It failed, and Sullivan never worked with Gilbert again, although their operas continued to be revived with success at the Savoy.
In May 1897 Sullivan's full-length ballet, Victoria and Merrie England, opened at the Alhambra Theatre to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The work celebrates English history and culture, with the Victorian period as the grand finale. Its six-month run was considered a great achievement. The Beauty Stone (1898), with a libretto by Arthur Wing Pinero and J. Comyns Carr, was based on mediaeval morality plays. The collaboration did not go well: Sullivan wrote that Pinero and Comyns Carr were "gifted and brilliant men, with no experience in writing for music", and, when he asked for alterations to improve the structure, they refused. The opera, moreover, was too serious for the Savoy audiences' tastes. It was a critical failure and ran for only seven weeks.
In 1899, to benefit "the wives and children of soldiers and sailors" on active service in the Boer War, Sullivan composed the music of a song, "The Absent-Minded Beggar", to a text by Rudyard Kipling, which became an instant sensation and raised an unprecedented £300,000 (equivalent to £34,000,000 in 2019) for the fund from performances and the sale of sheet music and related merchandise. In The Rose of Persia (1899), Sullivan returned to his comic roots, writing to a libretto by Basil Hood that combined an exotic Arabian Nights setting with plot elements of The Mikado. Sullivan's tuneful score was well received, and the opera proved to be his most successful full-length collaboration apart from those with Gilbert. Another opera with Hood, The Emerald Isle, quickly went into preparation, but Sullivan died before it was completed. The score was finished by Edward German, and produced in 1901.
Death, honours and legacy
Sullivan's health was never robust – from his thirties his kidney disease often obliged him to conduct sitting down. He died of heart failure, following an attack of bronchitis, at his flat in London on 22 November 1900. His Te Deum Laudamus, written in expectation of victory in the Boer War, was performed posthumously.
A monument in the composer's memory featuring a weeping Muse was erected in the Victoria Embankment Gardens in London and is inscribed with Gilbert's words from The Yeomen of the Guard: "Is life a boon? If so, it must befall that Death, whene'er he call, must call too soon". Sullivan wished to be buried in Brompton Cemetery with his parents and brother, but by order of the Queen he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. In addition to his knighthood, honours awarded to Sullivan in his lifetime included Doctor in Music, honoris causa, by the Universities of Cambridge (1876) and Oxford (1879); Chevalier, Légion d'honneur, France (1878); The Order of the Medjidieh conferred by the Sultan of Turkey (1888); and appointment as a Member of the Fourth Class of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) in 1897.
Sullivan's operas have often been adapted, first in the 19th century as dance pieces and in foreign adaptations of the operas themselves. Since then, his music has been made into ballets (Pineapple Poll (1951) and Pirates of Penzance – The Ballet! (1991)) and musicals (The Swing Mikado (1938), The Hot Mikado (1939) and Hot Mikado (1986), Hollywood Pinafore and Memphis Bound (both 1945), The Black Mikado (1975), etc.). His operas are frequently performed, and also parodied, pastiched, quoted and imitated in comedy routines, advertising, law, film, television, and other popular media. He has been portrayed on screen in The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953) and Topsy-Turvy (2000). He is celebrated not only for writing the Savoy operas and his other works, but also for his influence on the development of modern American and British musical theatre.