Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Successful songwriting teams working in English, marrying music and words to make seamless masterpieces, are a relatively recent phenomenon: in the 20th century Rodgers and Hart were perhaps the greatest; The Beggar's Opera was unique in the 18th century (music arr. by J. C. Pepusch, libretto by John Gay; ballad opera first prod. 1728; shares the same plot as Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill's 20th-century Dreigroschenoper, or 'Three- Penny Opera'); in the 19th Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (b 13 May 1842; d 22 Nov. 1900) and Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (b 18 Nov. 1836; d 29 March '11) were likewise unique. Sullivan was a composer, Gilbert a successful humorist and playwright; their comic operettas full of good tunes and patter routines are still popular today.

Sullivan was fast becoming the best-known British composer of his day when he discovered a talent for comic opera with Cox And Box (lyrics by W. F. Burnand based on a play about two shift-workers alternately using the same bed). They also wrote The Contrabandista (less successful); meanwhile Sullivan met Gilbert and they collaborated on a Christmas show, Thespis, subsequently lost. Impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte brought them together again for Trial By Jury in 1875: Gilbert read his script to Sullivan, increasingly dissatisfied with it, and closed the book violently, but 'he had achieved his object -- I was screaming with laughter the whole time', wrote Sullivan. Yet Sullivan soon felt he had prostituted his talent: his songs often have an effortless grace, no one setting English lyrics better than he did, but Queen Victoria told him he was wasting his time. He quarrelled constantly with Gilbert. The Sorcerer 1877 was followed by H.M.S. Pinafore '78, which established them as a team after selections were performed at the Proms, and which was so widely pirated in America that they took the original production there and also premiŠred The Pirates Of Penzance there '79. Further shows were Patience '81, Iolanthe '82, Princess Ida '84, The Mikado '85; Ruddigore '87 was controversial, with a supernatural aspect: characters stepping down from ancestral portraits; they weren't allowed to call it 'Ruddy Gore', 'ruddy' being a euphemism for the sacrilegious oath 'bloody'. It was followed by The Yeomen Of The Guard '88 and The Gondoliers '89. There was a particularly violent quarrel over the costs of Gondoliers, the last of the so-called Savoy operas; Utopia Limited '93 and The Grand Duke '96 were less successful.

Both became very rich. They poked fun at conventions, sending up Parliament and the legal system; Pinafore scored off the Admiralty and was a direct hit on cheap romantic novels, where high-class young ladies can fall in love with sailors; Poo-Bah in The Mikado bore a closer resemblance to a British bureaucrat than a Japanese one, and the portrait still rang true 100 years later. The shows were wildly successful all over the English-speaking world; in the USA musical shows had been pastiches, but Gilbert and Sullivan showed what could be done on the English-speaking stage, and inspired those who went on to invent the Broadway musical. All the shows have been recorded several times; films of Mikado '39 and '65 (both with John Reed, the later with soprano Valerie Masterson) were delightful and a new production '86 was a hit in London, set in '20s England instead of Japan; Linda Ronstadt was a hit as Mabel in Pirates '80; Annie Ross and Maureen McGovern are among those who've played in G&S. The D'Oyly Carte opera company went broke '82 but was back home in its Sadler's Wells theatre early '87 with a new Ruddigore, faithful to all the tradition.