Article abstract: In his collaborations with Sullivan, Gilbert forged a truly British character for light opera, in the process establishing operetta as a major dramatic subgenre and extending its boundaries to include melodrama, satire, and serious drama. While Sullivan, one of the foremost British composers of the nineteenth century, displayed an amazing range, from overtures and oratorios to operettas and hymns; he is primarily remembered for his collaborations with W. S. Gilbert.
Born to William Gilbert, a sometime naval surgeon who became a prolific if not a talented novelist and playwright, and Anne Morris Gilbert, a doctor’s daughter who is remarkable only for the apparent lack of effect she had on her son’s life, William Schwenck Gilbert was the eldest of five children, and the only male child. When a toddler, he was kidnapped at Naples and held for ransom. His abductors demanded and received the princely sum of twenty-five pounds for their trouble, and it is possible that this experience provided part of the impetus behind the plot of The Pirates of Penzance: Or, The Slave of Duty (1879), in which a dim-witted nurse mistakes pirate for pilot, thus beginning the complications that dog young Frederick’s life.
More important than the kidnapping, though, was the influence the elder William Gilbert exerted over his son. The two were entirely alike in temperament: combative, active, confident to a fault. The father instilled in the son an almost unhealthy need to win and an overweening sense of his own worth. This arrogance was Gilbert’s early undoing, for at the Western Grammar School and later at Ealing he was a lazy student, until he realized, with a shock, that he was falling behind other boys whose intellectual capabilities he scorned. He began to apply himself, and at sixteen he became head boy at Ealing, going on to enter King’s College, London, in 1853, and taking his degree in 1857.
The next period in Gilbert’s life looms large in its impact on his career as a dramatist. In 1855, he entered the Inner Temple to study law, and in 1857, the year he took his degree, he joined the militia, beginning twenty years of service there. Both his experiences at the bar and his military service provided grist for Gilbert’s satirical mill, not only in his operettas, but in The Bab Ballads (1869) as well. At any rate, his desire for military service in the Crimea was thwarted when that war inconveniently ended, and his service at the bar, beginning in 1863, was only slightly more successful; he earned only seventy-five pounds in two years.
In the meantime, Gilbert passed the long quiet time in his law office by becoming involved in literary affairs. His first lyric, a translation of the laughing song from Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s Manon Lescaut, debuted in 1858, and in 1861 Gilbert began contributing to a new satiric magazine, Fun, which would become the principal rival of Punch, to which Gilbert also contributed in 1865. More important, he began his stage-writing career with Dulcamara: Or, The Little Duck and the Great Quack (1866), an operatic burlesque, the first of five that he would produce during the 1860’s. That year also saw the publication of “The Yarn of the Nancy Bell” and in 1867 The Bab Ballads began to appear in Fun.
In August of 1867, Gilbert married Lucy Blois Turner, a military officer’s daughter. A tall man with a military bearing, Gilbert cut a handsome figure. His short brown hair swept back from his broad forehead and, together with his long muttonchop sideburns, framed a narrow face. A square chin combined with these other attributes to give him a stolid, formidable appearance which seemed to heighten his personal characteristics of stubbornness and feistiness. These characteristics served him well in his literary life, for he was so confident of his talent that he often went over editors’ heads and persuaded the owners of journals to publish his material. For this reason, and because he displayed a genuine talent for satire and parody, his literary career began to flourish, and by 1869, when he first met Arthur Sullivan, he had already achieved considerable success.
Six years’ Gilbert’s junior, Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born May 13, 1842, the second child of Thomas and Mary Coghlan Sullivan. Thomas Sullivan was a poor military musician and band director who provided his sons with a very early introduction to music, to which Arthur immediately took. Before he was twelve, young Arthur had mastered practically every instrument in the band. Singing and composing were Arthur’s fortes, and they gained for him entry to the Chapel Royal, even though, at twelve, he was three years beyond the maximum age for admission. There he won, at age fourteen, the first Mendelssohn scholarship, an award that allowed him, two years later, to pursue his studies in Leipzig, at the conservatorium founded there by Felix Mendelssohn himself.
Thus began almost three years of incredible success for such a young musician. If Sullivan had been a prodigy before, he was now a marvel whose compositions gained public performance along with those of far more renowned artists. Indeed, his String Quartet in D Minor was played twice in rapid succession, a rare honor at that time, and both times the piece was received well. In addition, he was accorded the privilege of conducting the orchestra in its performance of his overture to a poem by Thomas Moore, an unheard-of honor for a mere student. The one-year scholarship had been extended for a second year, and at the end of that time, Sullivan was invited to stay on for further study, tuition-free. His masters were reluctant to see him go. Finally he was forced by financial exigency to return to London, where he faced his future with some trepidation. After the triumph in Leipzig, Sullivan feared that the know-it-all London critics would be waiting to ambush him.
His worries were needless. His return to London in the spring of 1861 passed largely unnoticed. Like any young artist, he settled in for a period of struggle that, for him, would not last long. This short, olive-skinned, dark-eyed and curly-haired youth with an open and appealing manner was too talented to go unnoticed for long. An engaging young man, Sullivan soon attracted influential acquaintances, and by 1862 his The Tempest music debuted with the Crystal Palace orchestra, and public and critical acclaim followed. From that time Sullivan’s reputation grew, and by 1866, his anno mirabilis, it soared. He was appointed professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Later that year, his In Memoriam, a musical response to the death of his father, firmly established him as the great hope of English music. He was twenty-four years old.
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