Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (May 13, 1842 – November 22, 1900) was an English composer best known for his operatic collaborations with librettist W. S. Gilbert. His artistic output included 23 operas, 13 orchestral works, 8 choral or oratorio works, 2 ballets, incidental music to several plays, and numerous hymns and other church pieces, songs, parlour ballads, part songs, carols, and piano and chamber pieces.
Life and Career
Sullivan was born in Lambeth, now part of London. His father was a military bandmaster, and by the time Arthur had reached the age of 8, he was proficient with all the instruments in the band. Following a stay at private school in Bayswater, he was admitted to the choir of the Chapel Royal, attending its school in Cheyne Walk. While there, he began to compose anthems and songs. In 1856, he received the first Mendelssohn prize and became a student at the Royal Academy of Music until 1858. He then continued his studies at Leipzig, where he also took up conducting.
Sullivan credited his Leipzig period with tremendous musical growth. His graduation piece, completed in 1861, was a set 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, and was an immediate sensation. He began building a reputation as England's most promising young composer.
Sullivan's early major works were those typically expected of a serious composer. In 1866, he wrote the Symphony in E (Irish) and the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, his only works in each genre. In the same year, his Overture "In Memoriam", written in grief shortly after the death of his father, was a commission from the Norwich Festival, and during his lifetime it was one of his most successful works for orchestra. His single most successful work for orchestra, the Overture "Di Ballo", satisfied a commission from the Birmingham Festival in 1870.
His long association with works for the voice began early. Significant commissions for chorus and orchestra included The Masque at Kenilworth (Birmingham Festival, 1864); an oratorio, The Prodigal Son (Three Choirs Festival, 1869); a dramatic cantata, On Shore and Sea (Opening of the London International Exhibition, 1871); the Festival Te Deum (Crystal Palace, 1872); and another oratorio, The Light of the World (Birmingham Festival, 1873). His only song cycle came during this period: The Window; or, The Song of the Wrens (1871), to a text of eleven poems by Tennyson.
Sullivan's affinity for theatrical works also began early. During a stint as organist at Covent Garden, he composed his first ballet, L'Île Enchantée. In the nineteenth century, straight plays were often accompanied by live incidental music, and Sullivan composed play scores on numerous occasions. Early examples included The Merchant of Venice (Prince's Theatre, Manchester, 1871), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Gaiety Theatre, London, 1874), and Henry VIII (Theatre Royal, Manchester, 1877). (His Tempest incidental music, although adaptable for this purpose, was originally composed for the concert hall.)
These commissions were not sufficient to keep Sullivan afloat. He worked as a church organist and composed some 72 hymns, most of them in the period 1861–1875. The most famous of these are "Onward, Christian Soldiers" (1872, lyrics by Sabine Baring-Gould) and "Nearer, my God, to Thee" (the "Propior Deo" version). He also turned out over 80 popular songs and parlor ballads – again, most of them written before the late 1870s. The best known of these is "The Lost Chord" (1877, lyrics by Adelaide Anne Procter), written in sorrow at the death of his brother Fred, who had premiered the role of The Learned Judge in Trial by Jury.
In the autumn of 1867, he travelled with Sir George Grove to Vienna, returning with a treasure-trove of rescued Schubert scores.
Sullivan's first attempt at opera, The Sapphire Necklace (1863–4, libretto by Henry F. Chorley) was not produced, and is now lost, although the overture and two songs from the work were separately published.
His first surviving opera, Cox and Box (1866), was originally written for a private performance. It then received charity performances in both London and Manchester, and it was later produced at the Gallery of Illustration, where it ran for 264 performances. A freelance journalist named W. S. Gilbert, writing on behalf of a humour magazine called Fun, pronounced the score superior to F. C. Burnand's libretto. The first Sullivan-Burnand collaboration was sufficiently successful to spawn a two-act opera, The Contrabandista (1867; revised and expanded as The Chieftain in 1894), which did not achieve great popularity.
The collaboration with Gilbert
In 1871, John Hollingshead commissioned Sullivan to work with W. S. Gilbert to create the burlesque Thespis for the Gaiety Theatre. Conceived specifically as a Christmas entertainment, it ran through to Easter 1872. The work was produced rather quickly, after which Gilbert and Sullivan went their separate ways.
In 1875, Richard D'Oyly Carte needed a short piece to fill out the bill with Offenbach's La Périchole. Remembering Thespis, Carte reunited Gilbert and Sullivan, and the result was the one-act comic opera Trial by Jury. The success of this piece launched Gilbert and Sullivan on their famous partnership, which produced an additional twelve comic operas. However, Sullivan was not yet exclusively hitched to Gilbert. Soon after the successful opening of Trial, Sullivan wrote The Zoo, another one-act comic opera, with a libretto by B. C. Stephenson. But the new work was not a big hit, and Sullivan collaborated on operas only with Gilbert for the next 15 years.
Sullivan's next opera with Gilbert, The Sorcerer (1877), was only a modest success, but it was followed by H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which turned Gilbert and Sullivan into an international phenomenon. This was followed by another hit, The Pirates of Penzance in (1879), and then Patience (1881). Later in 1881, Patience transferred to the new Savoy Theatre, where the remaining Gilbert and Sullivan joint works were produced, and as a result they are sometimes known as the "Savoy Operas." Iolanthe (1882) was the first of their works to premiere at the new theatre.
In 1883, during the run of Iolanthe, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria. Although it was the operas with Gilbert that had earned him the broadest fame, the honour was conferred for his services to serious music. The musical establishment, and many critics, believed that this should put an end to his career as a composer of comic opera — that a musical knight should not stoop below oratorio or grand opera.
Sullivan too, despite the financial security of writing for the Savoy, increasingly viewed his work with Gilbert as unimportant, beneath his skills, and also repetitious. Furthermore, he was unhappy that he had to simplify his music to ensure that Gilbert's words could be heard. But paradoxically, just before the production of Iolanthe, Sullivan signed a five-year agreement with Gilbert and Carte, compelling him to produce a new comic opera on six months' notice. Having agreed to this, Sullivan suddenly felt trapped.
Princess Ida (1884) was noticeably less successful than its predecessors. With box office receipts lagging, Carte gave the contractual six months' notice for a new opera. Gilbert proposed a libretto in which the plot depended on the agency of a magic lozenge. Sullivan pronounced it overly mechanical and too similar to their earlier work and asked out of the partnership. The impasse was finally resolved 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).
Ruddygore (1887, renamed Ruddigore) followed. It had a respectable nine-month run, but by Gilbert and Sullivan's standards, it was not a great success. When Gilbert again proposed a version of the "lozenge" plot for their next opera, Sullivan reiterated his desire to leave the partnership. Finally, Gilbert proposed a comparatively serious opera, which Sullivan immediately accepted. Although not a grand opera, The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) provided Sullivan with the opportunity to write his most ambitious score to date. After Yeomen and another brief impasse over the choice of a subject, Gilbert offered a scenario set in Venice, The Gondoliers (1889). This was their last great success together.
The partnership suffered a serious breach during the run of The Gondoliers, when Gilbert questioned Carte over the cost of new carpeting for the Savoy lobby. Sullivan, who was already planning a grand opera, Ivanhoe, under Carte's management at another theatre, considered the dispute petty and sided with Carte. The resulting quarrel took several years to work out. Sullivan would collaborate with Gilbert twice more, on Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896), but they were unable to recreate the success of their earlier collaborations.
Serious music from 1875 to 1890
During the years of Sullivan's most successful work with Gilbert, his career as a conductor and educator continued in parallel. Between 1875 and 1890, however, Sullivan wrote only two substantial compositions that were not comic opera, and both were oratorios for the triennial Leeds Festival, for which Sullivan was appointed conductor starting in 1880. For the 1880 Leeds Festival, Sullivan was commissioned to write a sacred choral work. For a source text, Sullivan settled on Henry Hart Milman's dramatic poem The Martyr of Antioch (1822), based on the life of Saint Margaret the Virgin. Sullivan found the poem unwieldy for his purposes. His operatic collaborator, W. S. Gilbert, adapted the text, altering Millman's metrical scheme in three of the work's sixteen numbers, and advising on selected abridgements in many of the others.
Described as "A Sacred Musical Drama," The Martyr of Antioch had a successful premiere on the morning of October 15, 1880. As thanks for Gilbert's help, Sullivan presented his collaborator with an engraved silver cup. Gilbert replied, "Pray believe that of the many substantial advantages that have resulted to me from our association, this last is, and always will be, the most highly prized." Sullivan dedicated the work to the Princess of Wales.
In 1886, Sullivan once again supplied a large-scale choral work for the Leeds Festival, this time selecting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Golden Legend to set as an oratorio of the same title. Outside of the comic operas with Gilbert, this oratorio was Sullivan's most successful large-scale work. It was performed hundreds of times in Sullivan's lifetime, and at one point the composer even declared a moratorium, fearing that the work would become over-exposed. It remained in the repertory until about the 1920s, but since then it has been seldom performed. Recent Sullivan scholarship and the first professional recording in 2001 have revived interest in the work.
In the late 1880s, Sullivan resumed composing incidental music to plays, producing Macbeth (1888) for the Lyceum Theatre, with Henry Irving in the title role; Tennyson's The Foresters (1892) for Daly's Theatre in New York; and J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur (1895), again at the Lyceum.
As early as 1883, Sullivan was under pressure from the musical establishment to write a grand opera, but he did not finally get around to it until 1891. The composer asked Gilbert to supply the libretto, but the latter declined, saying that in grand opera the librettist's role is subordinate to that of the composer. Sullivan turned, instead, to Julian Sturgis. Ivanhoe, based on Sir Walter Scott's novel, opened at the new Royal English Opera House on 31 January 1891. Although the opera itself was a success, it passed into virtual obscurity after the opera house failed. Sullivan did not seriously consider writing grand opera again.
Apart from Ivanhoe, Sullivan collaborated with no other librettists besides Gilbert after 1875, until after his partnership with Gilbert had collapsed following The Gondoliers. Richard D'Oyly Carte still had a theatre to run, and he turned to other librettists to provide material for Sullivan, filling in with Gilbert & Sullivan revivals and works by other composers when no Sullivan work was available.
Sullivan's first comic opera after the breakup with Gilbert, Haddon Hall (1892, libretto by Sydney Grundy), enjoyed a modest success. Although still comic, the tone and style of the work was considerably more serious than most of the operas with Gilbert. After another Gilbert opera (Utopia Limited, 1893), 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. After The Grand Duke (1896) also failed, Sullivan was finished with Gilbert for good.
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's seven scenes portrayed events from English history. Its six-month run was considered a great success.
The Beauty Stone (1898, libretto by Arthur Wing Pinero and J. Comyns Carr) was another opera more serious than Sullivan or the Savoy were accustomed to, and it failed miserably. Finally, in The Rose of Persia (1899, libretto by Basil Hood), Sullivan returned to his comic roots, producing his most successful full-length opera apart from Gilbert. Another opera with Hood quickly went into preparation.
Sullivan, who had suffered from ill health throughout his life, succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 58 at his house in London on November 22, 1900. He left his last opera, The Emerald Isle, to be completed by Edward German. His Te Deum for the end of the Boer War was performed posthumously.
A monument in his memory was erected in the Victoria Embankment Gardens (London) and is inscribed with W. S. 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". He 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.
Although Sullivan never married, he had many love affairs. His first serious affair was with Rachel Scott Russell (1845–1882). Precisely when it began is uncertain, but Sullivan and his friend, Fred Clay, were frequent visitors at the Scott Russell home beginning in 1864, and by 1866 the affair was in full bloom. Rachel's parents did not approve of a young composer with uncertain financial prospects. After Rachel's mother discovered the relationship in 1867, the two continued to see each other covertly. At some point in 1868, Sullivan started a simultaneous affair with Rachel's sister Louise (1841–1878). He eventually cooled on both girls, and the affairs were over by 1870. Some two hundred love letters from the two girls have survived. They are excerpted in detail in Wolfson (1984).
Sullivan's longest love affair was with an American, Mary Frances ("Fanny") Ronalds née Carter, born August 23, 1839, making her three years Sullivan's senior. He met her in Paris around 1867, and the affair began in earnest at some point not long after she moved to London permanently around 1870–1. A contemporary account described Fanny Ronalds this way:
In Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sir George Grove, who was an old friend of Sullivan's, recognised the artistry in the Savoy Operas while urging the composer to bigger and better things: "Surely the time has come when so able and experienced a master of voice, orchestra, and stage effect—master, too, of so much genuine sentiment—may apply his gifts to a serious opera on some subject of abiding human or natural interest" (quoted in Baily, p. 250).
The premiere of The Golden Legend at the Leeds Festival in 1886 finally brought Sullivan the acclaim for a serious work that he had previously lacked. For instance, the critic of the Daily Telegraph wrote that "a greater, more legitimate and more undoubted triumph than that of the new cantata has not been achieved within my experience" (quoted in Jacobs, p. 247). Similarly, Louis Engel in The World wrote that it was:
Incidental Music to Plays
Choral Works with Orchestra