Program Notes

Gilbert and Sullivan

Gilbert and Sullivan notes

William S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan: Of their partnership is often said that the important part was neither Gilbert nor Sullivan but the ampersand. They first collaborated on a small opera entitledThespis or The Gods Grown Old, which opened in 1871. The opera was not a notable success and the score was later lost. However, a producer Richard Doyle McCarthy (D’Oyle Carte) saw the potential of the pair and three years later got them together to write a supplemental piece for the production of Offenbach’s La Perich√≥le. The piece, Trial by Jury, was so successful that it far overshadowed the play that it had been meant to supplement.

The two collaborated to create many successful operas. Gilbert would create the plots, write the text and Sullivan would write the music (often very late). If Sullivan was not comfortable with the text and humor, it would be rewritten. Certain of Gilbert’s pet plots were never orchestrated. Neither member of the partnership was totally comfortable with the other, but, primarily because of the skill of D’Oyle Carte, they stayed together for 25 years. After Sullivan’s death, Gilbert called him “the perfect collaborator – I (Gilbert) never had to explain a joke”.

Sir Arthur Sullivan: (1842-1900) was born into a very poor but musical family.(His mother had to put him out for care while she worked as a nurse.) On scholarship he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Leipzig Conservatoire. After returning to England, he became one of the most famous musicians of the period. He was known for songs (The Lost Chord) for hymns (Onward Christian Soldiers) and incidental music. He also wrote ballets and operas (Ivanhoe). Because he enjoyed mixing with the high society, entertaining and gambling at Monte Carlo (where some biographers say there is little mention of his leaving the table winning), the money he made in his partnership with Gilbert was necessary to keep up his lifestyle. This led to internal conflict; music critics felt his gifts were being wasted and Sullivan often felt that he wrote at the beck of Gilbert. He was in ill health much of his life – suffering from long periods of pain, presumably from kidney stones.

William S. Gilbert: (1836-1911) came from a more prosperous family. He worked as an assistant clerk in the Education Department of Privy Council for four unhappy years until he came into an inheritance. He used the inheritance to become a lawyer. He was not very successful as a lawyer, but, unlike the judge in Trial by Jury, he did not marry a rich ugly daughter. Instead he made enough money writing to leave the profession. While he always felt his “straight” plays were his best, he worked very hard at obtaining the most from the G&S operas. He acted as director and controlled all steps of the cast, positioning, voice inflexion, motion, etc. He was very protective of his young female cast members and defended them from improper advances (However he was not above enjoying their company.). He was not known for his love of music, having stated “I know two pieces of music – one is God Save the Queen and the other isn’t”. Consistent with this lack of musical appreciation is his reported dislike of tenors.

The libretto for Trial by Jury: was recycled from a piece that Gilbert published in the weekly newspaper Fun. It was the only one of their works to include no dialogue. In this piece, we see touches of later operas – the taking of an illogical suggestion to its logical conclusion. The puns, which were prevalent in the theatre then, were present (“trial-la-law”) but do not dominate the humor. Sullivan’s brother Frederick played the Judge and is credited with contributing to the success of the production.

The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty: was the only one of their operas to be premiered outside England. Their previous opera, H. M. S. Pinafore had been heavily pirated in the United States. With the production of Pirates in New York, it was hoped that they could obtain a valid copyright in the United States. The U. S. Copyright did not decrease the U. S. piracy and so the experiment was not repeated. Pirates of Penzance was another highly successful opera. Queen Victoria, not known for her sense of humor, did not appreciate the use of her name in the ending. It is reputed that this is the reason that Gilbert’s name was left off the command performance program while the wigmaker’s name was included.

Words – Gilbert loved to use unusual words – here is a smattering of them, from Trial by Jury and from the patter song I am the model of a Modern Major General

  • a l√†Watteau, Watteau a French painter specializing in simple realism – nature- dancing maidens, .i.e. life as it never really existed
  • animalculous, having to do with microscopic organisms
  • anon, soon
  • Banc, a bench where judges sit – in this context a higher court
  • emeutes, mutiny, uprising or rebellion
  • emollient, producing softness or smoothness
  • incubus, an evil spirit descending on a sleeping person – probably in this context, succubus would be more correct
  • Mamelon, a small hump, in this context a fortified mound
  • otto, a fragrant oil – an extract of rose pedals
  • ravelin, a fortification element
  • roundelay, a poem, particularly with a recurring theme
  • satagee, sat a Gee, sat upon a horse(Gee)
  • Sir Caradoc, Celtic name for British(Welsh) Chieftain who led the fight against the Romans
  • row, to think or suppose