The English composer Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) collaborated with the librettist Sir William Gilbert to produce operettas that are the finest examples of light, satirical comedy in the English musical theater.
Arthur Sullivan had a thorough schooling in music, beginning early with instruction from his father, who was then bandmaster at the Royal Military College in London. His studies continued at the Chapel Royal, where he was enrolled as a chorister at the age of 12, then at the Royal Academy of Music, and at the Leipzig Conservatory (1858-1861). It was a musical education in the conservative German mode of the time, which was as strongly entrenched in England as in Germany itself.
Sullivan then entered on a career marked by versatility and enormous popular success. At first he earned his way as an organist. Later he turned to conducting and held a variety of posts, notably as conductor of the Philharmonic Society of London (1885-1887) and of the Leeds Festival (1880-1899). He also taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music and was the first director of the Royal College of Music.
All the while Sullivan kept at his primary vocation of composing. His first published piece was an anthem written when he was 13. Thereafter he composed a quantity of church music, including such old-time favorite hymns as "Lead, Kindly Light, " "Rock of Ages, " and "Onward, Christian Soldiers, " many songs, incidental music to plays, a few tidbits for piano, a violoncello concerto (1886), an Irish Symphony (1866), six overtures, two ballets, several large choral works commissioned for festival performance, and one grand opera, Ivanhoe (1891).
What keeps Sullivan's name alive are his operettas. The list begins with Cox and Box (1867) and ends with The Rose of Persia (1899). In between are 19 others, 14 with texts by Sir William Gilbert, of which the most successful are Trial by Jury (1875), H. M. S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885), The Yeoman of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889). Similar to the French opéra comique and the German Singspiel in their mixture of song and spoken dialogue, these works offer a brisk, light-handed satire on social customs of the time. Musically, they are memorable not only for earcatching tunes but for the clever variations on poetic meters that Sullivan brought to his settings of the verses. No composer since Henry Purcell had treated the English language so skillfully. Sullivan's orchestrations, too, are models of their kind, disposing a small pit orchestra to support the singers firmly yet lightly and with many subtle touches of instrumental color.
Further Reading on Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan
A detailed analysis of Sullivan's musical style is in Gervase Hughes, The Music of Arthur Sullivan (1960). Sullivan's place in the history of the operetta is defined in Gervase Hughes, Composers of Operetta (1962). Frank Howes, The English Musical Renaissance (1966), shows Sullivan as one of the targets for the 20th-century reaction against Victorian music.
Additional Biography Sources
Baily, Leslie, Gilbert and Sullivan, their lives and times, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York: Penguin Books, 1979, 1973.
Findon, Benjamin William, Sir Arthur Sullivan, his life and music, New York: AMS Press, 1976.
Jacobs, Arthur, Arthur Sullivan: a Victorian musician, Aldershot, England: Scolar Press; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate Pub. Co., 1992.
James, Alan, Gilbert & Sullivan, London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1989.
Lawrence, Arthur, Sir Arthur Sullivan: life story, letters, and reminiscences, New York: Da Capo Press, 1980.
Wolfson, John, Sullivan and the Scott Russells: a Victorian love affair told through the letters of Rachel and Louise Scott Russell to Arthur Sullivan, 1864-1870, Chichester: Packard, 1984.