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Gilbert & Sullivan
Biography

 

Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert & Sullivan did not originate the evolving art form called "operetta,", but did bring to it a sometimes mellow, sometimes caustic wit. Their fourteen excursions into melodramatic satire continue to enthrall audiences in the 21st century. The operetta dates back to the early 18th century and virtually up to the 1920’s. From John Gay’s "Beggar’s Opera" in the 1720s to Victor Herbert and Sigmond Romberg in the 1920s, the form took various stances, from at first a shortened opera to finally the art form that preceded the Broadway musical. (Broadway’s Jerome Kern was successful in both forms as one withered and the other grew.) In the hands of composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and dramatist/librettist Sir William Gilbert, the London stage erupted periodically for twenty-five years. These two London-born artists, both born into relatively successful families, fashioned pointed humor while each had a separate career in his specific field. Beginning in 1871 with "Thespis," which did not show completely their future talents, the duo next offered the 1875 work, "Trial By Jury," which satirized the English legal system of the time. Then came "The Sorcerer" in 1877, "H.M.S. Pinafore" in 1878, and "The Pirates of Penzance," in 1879. "Patience," "Iolanthe," "Princess Ida," "The Mikado," "Ruddigore," "The Yeoman of the Guard," "The Gondoliers" "Utopia Limited" and "The Gondoliers" were produced between 1881 and 1896. Gilbert, born in 1836, the son of a retired naval surgeon, grew up in a strict family atmosphere. He trained as an artillery officer in hopes of getting into the Crimean War, but the war ended before he graduated. He stayed in the militia, however, for some twenty years. He was also trained as a lawyer but only lasted a few years while increasing his dramatic output, plays mostly keyed to pointedly caustic and sarcastic humor. He began his career by writing humorous verse and criticism of contemporary dramas for the British magazine, Fun. He contributed sketches and cartoons, always signed Bab, and in later years many of those characters became part of Gilbert & Sullivan works. He had great success with his own plays in the late 1860’s and early ‘70s, but in the later ‘70s his own work paled compared to his collaborations with Sulllivan. He would have a play last two-three weeks and then one of the duo’s operettas would last months. Sullivan was not as Victorian strict as Gilbert and lived a quite different life that in later years saw him enjoying the riches he came into via his music, both with Gilbert and in other works. Born in 1842, Sullivan grew up in a musical family. His father was a bandmaster who made sure his son learned most of the instruments in the bands of the time. He learned to write music and by age thirteen had one of his songs published, and at sixteen had written more serious music while a student at the Royal Academy of Music. After graduation, Sullivan’s career as a composer of serious music took off. One of his compositions would turn out to be "Onward Christian Soldiers" and another "The Lost Chord." He eventually held two organist positions in London, conducted at the Leeds Festival and for the Royal Philharmonic of London and became Principal of the National Training School in London from 1876-81. He met Gilbert in 1871 when they were introduced by a mutual friend, and shortly after were asked to write a comic opera for the Gaiety Theatre. "Thespis" gave a hint of future successful collaborations but it was not until 1875 when Richard D’Oyly Carte, the noted impresario who then courted them throughout their career, asked them to do "Trial By Jury." The mania that would follow picked up steam with "Pinafore," which played for two years. The pair came to America in 1879 to introduce "Penzance" and also to work at saving their copyrights. Copyright infringement in the 19th century was in a state of chaos. When they returned to London, Carte opened his new theater, the Savoy, and that became the home base of all Gilbert and Sullivan works. Subsequently, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria - Gilbert receiving his knighthood from Edward VII several years later. They were masters of comic opera together, even though each did other, tangential work outside of the partnership. But they had occasional spats, the most famous being the "carpet war." Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte shared equally theater expenses at the Savoy. After 1889’s "Gondoliers," the brewing dissatisfaction ruptured when Gilbert thought a $500 rug for the theater was excessive. He argued with Carte but Sullivan originally said nothing. Asked his opinion by Gilbert, Sullivan sided with Carte and Gilbert then wrote a letter that began: "The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived." Although his aim was to put an end to their work together, Gilbert did mend his problems with Sullivan in 1893 and their "Utopia Limited" was produced. It was not up to past glories but three years later they worked on their finale, "The Grand Duke." Sullivan's growing health problems were exacerbated by smoking, drinking and an addiction to morphine to cope with his failing health. He died in 1900. Gilbert died in 1911 at age 74, suffering heart failure after he dove into a lake to help a drowning young woman he had been teaching. Gilbert & Sullivan works are still performed in various sites around the world.

 

 

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