National Geographic : 1949 Apr
Sir William Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) ENGLAND has produced no immortal grand opera, no world-renowned sym phonies, no considerable number of unforget table folk songs; yet it has given to musical literature in the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan an enduring contribution as pecu liarly and distinctively British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or tea and tiffin. Exemplifying the true Englishman's ability to laugh at himself, the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas lampoon without malice the foibles and frailties of the British and for that matter of all mankind. Their hilarity is so infectious and has such wide human appeal that, like Tennyson's brook, they go on forever. Throughout the British Empire, the United States-in fact, wherever English is spoken, music and dramatic clubs, colleges and high schools keep the memory of Gilbert and Sullivan forever green by putting on periodic performances of The Mikado, H.M.S. Pina fore, Pirates of Penzance, Trial by Jury, The Gondoliers, The Sorcerer, and lolanthe. Prob ably thousands of readers of this MAGAZINE have personal recollections of taking part in some production of Gilbert and Sullivan. No more oddly assorted pair ever collabo rated for the theater than the librettist Wil liam Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sulli van. Because of a caustic and often devas tating wit, Gilbert got on rather badly with many people. He was a hard worker, crotch ety and exacting, inclined to shun social affairs. On the other hand, Sullivan, easy-going and amiable, was popular in society. Despite their differences of opinion, how ever, 13 of the 14 operettas they did together were successful. Sullivan gave Gilbert full credit for making the chorus for the first time in theatrical history an integral part of the opera, and Gilbert praised Sullivan as the only composer who could bring out with his music the real lilt and rhythm of English song lyrics. When either worked with another col laborator, the results were never up to the standards set by their joint efforts. Sullivan was a wonderful melodist and he would have gained a measure of lasting fame even if he had never composed an operetta. His glorious tune Onward, Christian Soldiers, written when he was editor of the Church of England Hymnal, will be sung as long as churches stand. While sitting by the death bed of his brother Frederic, he composed the music of the exquisite song The Lost Chord, perennial favorite of soloists. In 1875 Richard D'Oyly Carte, then acting manager of the Royalty Theater, asked Gil- bert to write him a libretto to be set to music by Sullivan, and Gilbert promptly responded. According to Sullivan's account, "The words and music were written, and the rehearsals completed, within the space of three weeks." The operetta Trial by Jury had its premiere on March 25, 1875. An immediate success, it ran for the rest of the year. The famous partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte was under way, and the phrase "Gilbert and Sullivan" became a trade-mark. H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor, "An Entirely Original Nautical Comic Opera in Two Acts" by Gilbert and Sullivan, opened in 1878. Pinafore had an initial run of some 675 nights, and it has been running off and on somewhere ever since. The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty, opened on December 31, 1879, in New York. When the Pirateshad run about a year. it was succeeded by Patience; or Bunthorne's Bride. Carte, now prosperous, built the Savoy Theater especially for the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and moved Patience there in the midst of its run of 408 nights. This theater was the first in London to be lighted with electricity, and Carte had to advertise that it was equipped also with gas for use in case the electric lights failed. It seated only 1,300; yet it proved a veritable gold mine. Sullivan suffered for most of his life with a kidney ailment which put him to bed periodically with excruciating pain. His be loved mother died in May, 1882, when Sulli van was composing one of his gayest scores, Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri. More over, as he went into the pit to lead the orchestra on the opening night of Iolanthe, he received word that his brokers had gone bankrupt and he was penniless. He conducted the performance as if nothing had happened. Before Iolanthe had completed its 14 months run, Sullivan was knighted in May, 1883. Gilbert was passed over; he did not receive the honor until 1907. Undoubtedly the knighting of Sullivan was the beginning of the rift between the collaborators. The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu, opened at the Savoy on March 14, 1885, and ran for 672 nights. Since then it has been almost constantly on some stage somewhere. In December, 1889, was presented Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers; or, The King of Barataria. About this time there was a quarrel over a new carpet which Carte had ordered for the Savoy. Sullivan sided with Carte. The librettist and the composer were hardly on speaking terms thereafter.