Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (May 13, 1842 –November 22,1900) was an English composer who is best known for his series of fourteen operatta collaborations with the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, including such enduring works as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London. His parents were Thomas Sullivan (1805–1866), a military bandmaster, clarinettist and music teacher born in Ireland and raised in Chelsea, London, and Mary Clementina (née Coghlan, 1811–1882), English born, of Irish and Italian descent. Thomas Sullivan was based from 1845 to 1857 at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where he was the bandmaster and taught music privately to supplement his income. Young Sullivan became proficient with many of the instruments in the band and had composed an anthem, “By the waters of Babylon”, by the age of eight.
Despite the boy’s obvious musical talent, Thomas Sullivan knew the disappointments and insecurity of a musical career, and discouraged him from pursuing it. While studying at a private school in Bayswater, Sullivan, then aged eleven, persuaded his parents and the headmaster, William Gordon Plees, to allow him to apply for membership in the choir of the Chapel Royal. He was accepted and soon became a soloist and, by 1856, was promoted to “first boy”. Sullivan flourished under the training of Thomas Helmore, master of the choristers, and began to compose anthems and songs. Helmore encouraged the young Sullivan’s composing talent and arranged for one of his pieces, “O Israel”, to be published in 1855, Sullivan’s first published work.
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. His principal teacher there was John Goss. He studied piano with the head of the academy, William Sterndale Bennett. Sullivan’s scholarship was extended to a second year, and in 1858 the scholarship committee extended his grant for a third year so that he could study in Germany, at the Leipzig Conservatoire. While 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. Originally intended to spend a year in Leipzig, Sullivan stayed there for three years. During his years in Germany, Sullivan became friendly with the impresario Carl Rosa and the violinist Joseph Joachim. His graduation piece, completed in 1861, was a set of incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Sullivan embarked on his composing career with a series of ambitious works, interspersed with hymns, parlor 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 supplemented his income by working as an organist, which he enjoyed, and as a music teacher, sometimes at the Crystal Palace School. He had an early chance to compose several pieces for royalty, in connection with the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1863. Sullivan’s long association with works for the voice began with The Masque at Kenilworth (Birmingham Festival, 1864). During a spell as organist at Covent Garden, he composed his first ballet, L’Île Enchantée (1864). In 1866, he premiered his Irish Symphony and Cello Concerto, his only works in each such genre. In the same year, his Overture in C (In Memoriam), commemorating the recent death of his father, was a commission from the Norwich Festival. In 1867, his overture Marmion was premiered by the Philharmonic Society.
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 from the work, which were separately published. His first surviving opera, Cox and Box (1866), was originally written for a private performance. This first Sullivan-Burnand collaboration led to a commission by Thomas German Reed for a two-act opera, The Contrabandista (1867; revised and expanded as The Chieftain in 1894. Sullivan wrote a group of seven part songs in 1868, the best-known of which is “The Long Day Closes”. His last major work of the 1860s was a short oratorio, The Prodigal Son, premiered in Worcester Cathedral as part of the 1869 Three Choirs Festival.
Sullivan’s most successful orchestral work, the Overture di Ballo, was composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1870. 1871 was a busy year for Sullivan. He published his only song cycle, The Window; or, The Songs of the Wrens (1871), to words by Tennyson. In the same year, he wrote the first of a series of suites of incidental music for West End productions of Shakespeare plays. Still in 1871, Sullivan composed a dramatic cantata, On Shore and Sea, for the opening of the London International Exhibition and the hymn tune for “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” with words by Sabine Baring-Gould. At the end of 1871, the impresario John Hollingshead commissioned Sullivan to work with W. S. Gilbert to create the burlesque-style comic opera Thespis for the Gaiety Theatre. After Thespis, Gilbert and Sullivan 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 suites of incidental music for a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Gaiety in 1874 and Henry VIII at the Theatre Royal, Manchester in 1877. 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. Remembering Thespis, Carte reunited Gilbert and Sullivan, and the result was the one-act comic opera Trial by Jury. Soon after its opening, Sullivan wrote The Zoo, another one-act comic opera, with a libretto by B. C. Stephenson. But for the next fifteen years, Sullivan’s sole operatic collaborator was Gilbert; the two created an additional twelve operas together.
Sullivan also turned out more than 80 popular songs and parlor ballads, most of them written before the end of the 1870s. His first popular song was “Orpheus with his Lute” (1866). The best known of his songs is “The Lost Chord” (1877, lyrics by Adelaide Anne Procter), written in sorrow at the death of his brother Frederic. In this decade, Sullivan’s conducting appointments included the Glasgow Choral Union concerts, 1875–77 and the Royal Aquarium, 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. 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. This was followed by The Pirates of Penzance in 1879, another international success.
In 1880, Sullivan was appointed director of the triennial Leeds Music Festival. For his first festival he was commissioned to write a sacred choral work. He chose Henry Hart Milman’s 1822 dramatic poem based on the life and death of Saint Margaret the Virgin for its basis. Gilbert adapted the libretto for Sullivan, abridging it, rearranging sections, reassigning lines, and making a few additions of his own. The Martyr of Antioch premiered in October 1880. D’Oyly Carte opened the next Gilbert and Sullivan piece, Patience, in April 1881 at London’s Opera Comique, where their past three operas had played, but in October, it 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, as a result of which they are widely known as the “Savoy Operas”. Iolanthe (1882), Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourth hit in a row, was the first of the operas to premiere at the new theatre.
On May 22, 1883, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria. The next opera, Princess Ida (1884, the duo’s only three-act, blank verse work), had a noticeably shorter run than its four predecessors, although Sullivan’s score was praised. Gilbert had already started work on a new opera. The result was Gilbert and Sullivan’s most successful work, The Mikado (1885). 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. Ruddigore followed The Mikado at the Savoy in 1887. 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. After this, Sullivan turned once again to Shakespeare, composing incidental music for Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth (1888).
Sullivan commissioned a grand opera libretto from Julian Sturgis (who was recommended by Gilbert), while suggesting to Gilbert that he revive an old idea for an opera set in colorful Venice. The comic opera was completed first: The Gondoliers (1889). It was the last great Gilbert and Sullivan success. The relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan suffered its most serious breach in April 1890. Sullivan’s only grand opera, Ivanhoe, based on Walter Scott’s novel, opened at D’Oyly Carte’s new Royal English Opera House on January 31, 1891. Later in 1891, Sullivan composed music for Tennyson’s The Foresters. Sullivan returned to comic opera, but because of the fracture with Gilbert, he and D’Oyly Carte sought other collaborators. Sullivan’s next piece was Haddon Hall (1892), with a libretto by Sydney Grundy. In 1895, Sullivan once more provided incidental music for the Lyceum, this time for J. Comyns Carr’s King Arthur.
The partnership with Gilbert had been so profitable that D’Oyly Carte sought to reunite the author and composer. Their next opera was Utopia Limited (1893). Gilbert and Sullivan reunited one more time for The Grand Duke (1896). 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 Beauty Stone (1898), with a libretto by Arthur Wing Pinero and J. Comyns Carr was based on mediaeval morality plays. 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. In The Rose of Persia (1899), Sullivan returned to his comic roots, writing to a libretto by Basil Hood. Another opera with Hood, The Emerald Isle, quickly went into preparation, but Sullivan died before it could be completed. Having suffered from long-standing recurrent kidney disease that made it necessary, from the 1880s, for him to conduct sitting down, Sullivan died of heart failure, following an attack of bronchitis, at his flat in London on November 22. 1900. The Emerald Isle was completed by Edward German and produced in 1901. Sullivan’s Te Deum Laudamus, written to commemorate the end of the Boer War, was performed posthumously.
Sullivan never married but was devoted to his parents and family, particularly his mother, with whom he corresponded regularly when away from London, until her death in 1882. In all, Sullivan’s artistic output included 23 operas, 13 major orchestral works, eight choral works and oratorios, two ballets, one song cycle, incidental music to several plays, numerous hymns and other church pieces, and a large body of songs, parlor ballads, part songs, carols, and piano and chamber pieces.
My collection includes the following works by Sullivan:
Cox and Box: Overture.
The Gondoliers (1889): Overture and Selections.
The Grand Duke: Overture.
HMS Pinafore (1878): Overture and Highlights.
Iolanthe (1882): Overture.
Macbeth (1888): Overture.
The Mikado (1885): Overture and Selections.
Overture di Ballo (1870).
Patience (1881): Overture.
The Pirates of Penzance (1879): Overture and Highlights.
Princess Ida: Overture.
The Sorcerer: Overture.
The Yeomen of the Guard (1888): Overture and Selections.