The most successful composer of the English opéra-bouffe and -comique stage: Arthur Sullivan

Kurt Gänzl
The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001

Arthur Seymour Sullivan (b London, 13 May 1842; d London, 22 November 1900). Educated at the Chapel Royal, the Royal Academy of Music and Leipzig Conservatory, Arthur Sullivan was intended for a serious musical career. Indeed, he was regarded, after his earliest orchestral, choral and instrumental compositions — including a first theatrical venture with incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest — as one of the white hopes of the British musical establishment. However, even early on he had expressed a liking for lighter forms of music, and had also looked towards the musical stage, making an attempt at an unstaged piece — probably a light opera — called The Sapphire Necklace when in his earliest twenties.

Composer Arthur Sullivan.

Composer Arthur Sullivan.

It was Sullivan’s friendships in musical and theatrical London that ultimately led him to take his first steps in the world of the musical theatre. An acquaintance with draper and amateur actor/singer Arthur Lewis, the leading light in a group called `The Moray Minstrels’ which had recently performed Moinaux and Offenbach’s Les Deux Aveugles, resulted in Sullivan being asked if he would compose another, similar piece for the group’s members to play. F C Burnand, another acquaintance, was seconded for the text and, to his adaptation of Maddison Morton’s favourite farce Box and Cox, Sullivan wrote his first musical comedy score. At first played privately, then at a memorial benefit, Cox and Box was taken up by Thomas German Reed two years later and given a long run at his Gallery of Illustration.
By this time, however, Sullivan had stepped fully into his new career. He and Burnand went on to compose a full-length comic opera for the enterprising Reed, whose entertainments had been successful enough that he was preparing to launch himself onto more substantial things. He took the St George’s Hall for a season, hired a full orchestra and chorus and, amongst his Offenbach and Auber productions, he produced The Contrabandista, or The Law of the Ladrones. The Contrabandista was an interesting piece: a full scale comic opera with more than a touch of the new French `bouffe’ flavour which the experienced Burnand, an inveterate and vastly successful burlesque writer since his earliest days in the theatre, had encountered as recently as the previous year in adapting Meilhac and Halévy’s text to Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène for the British stage. Sullivan, who might have been expected to compose in the style of those English classics The Bohemian Girl, Maritana and The Lily of Killarney, instead turned out a matching score which had a decided quantity of the bubble of the French musical theatre amongst its English strains. The buffo song `From Rock to Rock’ gave the composer his first show-song success as it headed for parlour pianos on the one hand, and was also `borrowed’ by the makers of overseas pasticcio entertainments on the other.
The Contrabandista was played 72 times, a very fine record for a contemporary comic opera, and it went on to be played in America, pilfered — textually and even musically — in both America and Australia and, many years later, actually revised and revived in London. It was not, as has been so many times written, a failure. It was removed to allow the other part of Reed’s advertised season to be played, and only dropped from his repertoire when he found the finances of a full-scale company beyond his means and returned to the piano/harmonium and one-act operetta formula and to his old base at the Gallery of Illustration. There Reed took up Cox and Box, played on a double-bill with a piece composed by Reed himself and entitled No Cards. The author of No Cards was barrister and burlesque-writer W S Gilbert.
Actively advertised by Messrs English and Blackmore, agents, Cox and Box went the rounds while Sullivan returned to his more serious work. A couple of months after the closure of Cox and Box at the Gallery, the Philharmonia was performing his In Memoriam and The Prodigal Son. It was not too long, however, before Sullivan ventured back into the musical theatre. This time — after a parlour operetta and an English comic opera — he ventured with the score for a Christmas extravaganza for the Gaiety Theatre. Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old was the work of Gilbert, who had supplied the opening-night burlesque for the Gaiety’s manager, Hollingshead, and although it was only part of the Gaiety programme it was indeed a full-length work. The first performance ran over three hours. The score that Sullivan (`our most distinguished English composer’) provided included some fine comical pieces, and also a ballad, `Little Maid of Arcadee’, which found some popularity as a single. Thespis was played 64 times before the Gaiety moved on to its next change of programme.
More than three further years passed, however, before the collaboration between Sullivan and Gilbert was repeated. Richard D’Oyly Carte, searching for a filler piece to go with Selina Dolaro’s production of La Périchole, got the pair to get up a `dramatic cantata’ which Gilbert had prematurely intended as a vehicle for the late Mme Parepa Rosa. As Trial By Jury the little piece, with its witty words and laughing score, proved a sensation. A second little piece (`after the pattern of the agreeable entertainments given by Mrs German Reed…’), The Zoo, written to a text by B C Stephenson, followed (`recollections of Mozart, Auber and Donizetti, blended with Mr Sullivan’s own ideas’), but, although it was reported in June 1876 that Sullivan and Gilbert `have been engaged in arranging as a comic opera The Wedding March of LaTour Tomline’ (ie Gilbert’s version of Le Chapeau de paille d’Italie) and then that Arthur’s brother, Fred Sullivan was taking the Globe Theatre to produce a new work by the pair, the nearest the musician got to another stage work was the interpolation of his song `Once Again’ into J A Cave’s Christmas production, Lord Bateman, at the Alhambra for contralto Adelaide Newton. It was left to Carte, launching himself as a producer after a number of years managing for others, to bring Sullivan and Gilbert firmly together on their first full-length comic opera.
The Sorcerer put the first significant seal on the British comic opera tradition which had been developing in the decade since The Contrabandista, and his score to the show placed Sullivan swiftly alongside and even ahead of his friends Cellier and Clay who had been leading the field in the production of local musical plays up to this time. But it was left to the writers’ second work together for Carte to confirm worldwide what The Sorcerer had shown only to those able to believe their ears. HMS Pinafore was the international musical hit of its era in the English-speaking theatre, and the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership was launched.
Eight further Sullivan and Gilbert comic operas followed HMS Pinafore on to the stage in the next decade or so, and almost all were major international successes, establishing the partnership as the English-speaking world’s most important and popular writers of musical theatre. However, ceaselessly chivvied by a section of the press, who had never forgiven Sullivan for becoming merely the country’s most popular writer of light theatre music, the composer still hankered after writing an opera. Carte, too, was not indifferent to the plan, and between them they nurtured an Ivanhoe into production at Carte’s newly built Royal English Opera House. Though Ivanhoe was no disgrace, it was no Iolanthe either. It failed, the Opera House failed, and Carte and Sullivan ended up back at the Savoy. But they ended up back there without Gilbert. Whether because of the fact that the other two had been off playing operas without him, or whether because of some other reason, a breach had grown between the author and his producer and composer. Gilbert departed the Savoy, and Carte, after filling in with some non-Sullivan works, instead teamed the composer with the author of one of these, the respected playwright Sydney Grundy. Their Haddon Hall reeked more of old English not-very-comic opera than the joyous burlesques which Sullivan had composed with Gilbert, but it had a fair run in town and country.
The breach between author and composer was mended, and Gilbert and Sullivan came back together for two more comic operas. Utopia (Limited) and, especially, The Grand Duke were not up to their earlier works and, after the last-named, the collaboration lapsed once again. Gilbert moved away, Sullivan stayed with Carte. An attempt to pair the composer with Pinero and J Comyns Carr on The Beauty Stone, a curious medievally fantasy with undertones of Ivanhoe to it, which was all too painfully an effort not to compete with or copy the style of the Gilbert comic operas, was a failure. Although the Victorian age was coming to an end, there was still a place in the English theatre for Victorian comic opera and Sullivan was still as well- if not better-equipped than anyone else to provide it. The answer was, however, not a medieval romantic opera.
The answer turned out to be a librettist from the lowly world of musical comedy. Apparently there was at one time question of Sullivan writing a work with `Owen Hall’, the most successful author of contemporary musical libretti from A Gaiety Girl to The Geisha and A Greek Slave, but temporarily displaced at Daly’s Theatre by Edwardes’s need to humour a powerful journalist by using his text for what became San Toy. A Daly’s Theatre musical by Arthur Sullivan and Owen Hall? It would have been a curious combination, worth hearing, the only problem being that the pair — both super-extravagant gambling men — might have spent their time playing cards rather than writing. As it turned out, Sullivan got the second most successful musical-comedy librettist of the time, the author of Gentleman Joe and Dandy Dan, the Lifeguardsman, Basil Hood. Hood provided his composer with the best libretto he had seen in years: a spendidly crafted version of the Arabian Nights Abu Hasan tale, written in a witty comic-opera style which differed from Gilbert’s only in eschewing that ultimate air of cockeyed burlesque. Sullivan rose to the script with a score in the same style, and The Rose of Persia was a splendid success, scoring a fine run of 213 performances in a London where comic opera had definitely given over its place as a favourite entertainment to the products of the Gaiety and Daly’s Theatres and their ilk.
Sullivan and Hood began work on a second piece together, an Irish musical comic opera called The Emerald Isle. It was clever, it was fun, it was tuneful — not quite as attractive as its predecessor, perhaps — but it was also unfinished. Sullivan died in November 1900 with The Emerald Isle still in the writing, and it was completed by Edward German for its production and a thoroughly respectable run at the Savoy Theatre.
During his life as Britain’s most popular composer of comic opera, Sullivan did not wholly neglect the areas of more serious music in which it had been originally thought that he would make his career. Although the flow of individual songs, hymn tunes and orchestral and instrumental works which he had composed in the 1860s and 1870s largely dried up once he became devoted to the theatre, he composed two important choral works (The Golden Legend, The Martyr of Antioch), the latter of which was later reworked as a staged opera (ad T H Friend, Theatre Royal, Edinburgh 25 February 1898), several sets of incidental stage music (Macbeth, King Arthur, The Foresters) and a ballet for the Alhambra Theatre (Victoria and Merrie England), as well as continuing a celebrity conducting career.
Sullivan’s music for the Victorian British theatre struck precisely the right note for its time and place. It was a little less extravagant than that of the overly French Offenbach, just as Gilbert’s text held back from the extreme burlesque of a Hervé, but it mixed grace, melody and sufficient, but never low or vulgar, humour in almost the same measure as the author did with his texts. Sullivan’s comic-opera scores were not only good music and attractive music, they were nice. They could be played and sung in any decent household, and they have been now for well over a century whilst almost every other bit of British writing of the period has slipped away into oblivion or rarity. And their composer stands up today in his home country as the only representative of the Victorian musical theatre, and in popular terms — give or take a music-hall song or two — of Victorian music to have stood the test of time with an almost undiminished appeal.


1867 Cox and Box, or The Long Lost Brothers (F C Burnand) 1 act Adelphi Theatre 11 May, Gallery of Illustration 29 March 1869

1867 The Contrabandista (Burnand) St George’s Opera House 18 December

1871 Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old (W S Gilbert) Gaiety 26 December

1875 Trial by Jury (Gilbert) 1 act Royalty 25 March

1875 The Zoo (B C Stephenson) 1 act St James’s Theatre 5 June

1877 The Sorcerer (Gilbert) Opera Comique 17 November

1878 HMS Pinafore, or The Lass That Loved a Sailor (Gilbert) Opera Comique 25 May

1880 The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty (Gilbert) Fifth Avenue, New York 31 December

1881 Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride (Gilbert) Opera Comique 23 April

1882 Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 25 November

1884 Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 5 January

1885 The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 14 March

1887 Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 22 January

1888 The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 3 October

1889 The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 7 December

1892 Haddon Hall (Sydney Grundy) Savoy Theatre 24 September

1893 Utopia (Limited), or The Flowers of Progress (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 7 October

1894 The Chieftain revised The Contrabandista Savoy Theatre 12 December

1896 The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel (Gilbert) Savoy Theatre 7 March

1898 The Beauty Stone (Arthur Wing Pinero, J Comyns Carr) Savoy Theatre 28 May

1899 The Rose of Persia, or The Storyteller and the Slave (Basil Hood) Savoy Theatre 29 November

1901 The Emerald Isle, or The Caves of Carric-Cleena (w Edward German/Hood) Savoy Theatre 27 April
Biographies: Jacobs, A: Arthur Sullivan, a Victorian Musician (OUP, Oxford, 1984), Lawrence, A H: Sir Arthur Sullivan (James Bowden, London, 1899), Findon, B W: Sir Arthur Sullivan, His Life and Music (James Nisbet, London, 1904) revised as Sir Arthur Sullivan and His Operas (Sisley’s, London, 1908), Sullivan H and Flower, N: Sir Arthur Sullivan (Cassell, London, 1927), Young, P M: Sir Arthur Sullivan (Dent, London, 1971), Dunhill, T: Sullivan’s Comic Operas (Edward Arnold, London, 1928), Saxe Wyndam, H: Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, London, 1926) etc, etc