Gilbert & Sullivan

If you need to know who Gilbert and Sullivan were or what they did then have a read through this section.

The Bluffers Guide

Gilbert and Sullivan? Errr... Who?

The simplest way to describe these two is as the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice of the late 1800s. They wrote a series of Comic Operas which were satirical parodies of life in those days. Most of these works were extremely popular with both their audiences and the theatre critics of the day. Around this time London had hundreds of theatres, who all had people writing for them. Only a tiny fraction of this work has survived, and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are part of this fraction.

Who was this Gilbert bloke?

William Schwenck Gilbert was born in London in 1836. He lead an eventful early life, being kidnapped and held for ransom at the age of two, contracting typhoid in his teens and working as a barrister and a civil servant before turning to writing. He started writing short pieces of poerty and prose for publication in magazines such as 'Fun'. (It was an early rival to 'Punch') He illustrated his work with cartoons, and the colums were so popular that anthologies of his work were published. He wrote under the pen name of 'Bab' and his works became known as 'The Bab Ballads'. He also wrote a number of plays and the libretti for some operas before his partnership with Sullivan began.

And Sullivan?

Arthur Sullivan was born into a musical family in 1842. He showed great musical tallents from a very young age, and he could play a number of instruments by the time he was eight. He spent time singing in the choir of the Chapel Royal, at St James' Palace, before at the age of 15 he won the prestigeous Mendelssohn scholarship. This enabled him to attend the Royal Academy of Music. His talents were so great that he was to win a further three years of the scholarship, two of which were spent studying at the conservatoir which Mendelssohn himself had founded in Leipzig. This training at some of the finest musical establishments in the world made him an extremely well qualified composer. He published music in numerous styles, writing for opera, choirs and orchestras and was also worked as a choir master.

How did they come to work together?

In 1871 a theatre owner called John Hollingshead approached Gilbert to write a show for his Christmas season, and he asked Sullivan to write the music for the piece. The opera, called 'Thespis' was the first piece that the two worked on together, though the had met previously. Despite praise from the critics the piece had a number of problems, mainly due to the cast being poor singers. It ran for 64 performances, before closing, and Gilbert and Sullivan went their seperate ways. They were brought together again in 1875 by Richard D'Oyly Carte. He was a theatrical agent, who also had considerable musical talent. He had seen a performance of Thespis during its original run, and he had realised that the work was the hearald of a great future for the pair. He engaged them to write a piece for a show he was producing. He was able to get them to work together again because he was friendly with both Gilbert and Sullivan. The work, entitled "Trial by Jury" was first performed in 1875, and it ran for 300 performances in total, and was an unequivical success.

What is Opera anyway?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes opera as "a dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers (usually in costume) and instrumentalists" Classical opera is usually sung in foreign languages, such as Italian, and is mostly based on serious stories of Gods or Love. The works of the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan are performed in English, and are often refered to as "Operetta", since they are a lighter form of entertainment, containing humour and spoken dialog between the songs. Because of it's Italian roots, the plot and words for an opera are known as the Libretto.

What did they write?

The complete list of ther joint works is as follows: Thespis, Trial by Jury, The Sorceror, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke. Plot summaries, musical extracts and other information about these shows are available from The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive website. More general information and links can be found at the Yahoo GandS page. During their working relationship both men continued to work on other projects, and their complete lists of works are quite substantial.

Why did they stop writing?

By the time that they were writing 'The Grand Duke' Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte were ill. Gilbert had become weary of writing the plots for the shows, and musical tastes were changing. The critics were not pleased with the show, criticising its libretto and it's run did not last long. Sullivan died near the end of 1900, and D'Oyly Carte followed him the year after. Gilbert survived until 1911.

Our growing list of G&S quotes from shows is available.

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