Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan
Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan MVO (13 May 1842 – 22 November 1900) was an English composer, of Irish and Italian descent, best known for his operatic collaborations with librettist W. S. Gilbert, including such continually popular works as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Sullivan's artistic output included 23 operas, 13 major orchestral works, eight choral works and oratorios, two ballets, incidental music to several plays, and numerous hymns and other church pieces, songs, parlour ballads, part songs, carols, and piano and chamber pieces.
Apart from his comic operas with Gilbert, Sullivan is best known for some of his hymns and parlour songs, including "Onward Christian Soldiers", "The Absent-Minded Beggar", and "The Lost Chord". His most critically praised pieces include his Irish Symphony, his Overture di Ballo, The Martyr of Antioch, The Golden Legend, and, of the Savoy Operas, The Yeomen of the Guard. Sullivan's only grand opera, Ivanhoe, was initially highly successful, but it has been little heard since his death.
Life and career
Sullivan at age 18, studying at Leipzig
Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London. His father, Thomas Sullivan (1805–1866), was a military bandmaster and music teacher born in Ireland, who was educated in Chelsea, London and was based for some years at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Here Arthur became proficient with all the instruments in the band by the age of eight. His mother Mary Clementina (née Coghlan, 1811–1882) was English, of Irish and Italian descent. While studying at a private school in Bayswater, Sullivan, then aged 12, convinced his parents and the headmaster, William Gordon Plees, to allow him to try out for the choir of the Chapel Royal. Despite concerns about Sullivan's age, which would limit how long he could serve before his voice began to change, he was accepted and soon became a soloist. Sullivan flourished under the training of Reverend Thomas Helmore, the master of the choristers, and began to compose anthems and songs. Helmore arranged for one of these, "O Israel", to be published by Novello in 1855, Sullivan's first published work. Helmore also enlisted Sullivan's assistance in creating harmonisations for a volume of The Hymnal Noted.
In 1856, the Royal Academy of Music awarded the first Mendelssohn Scholarship to the fourteen-year-old Sullivan, granting him a year's training at the academy. This was extended to a second year at the academy, where he later had lessons with William Sterndale Bennett, and in 1858 the scholarship committee, in an "extraordinary gesture of confidence", extended it for a third year so that he could study in Leipzig, Germany, at the Leipzig Conservatoire. While there, Sullivan studied composition with Julius Rietz, counterpoint with Moritz Hauptmann and Ernst Richter and the piano with Louis Plaidy and Ignaz Moscheles. He was trained in Mendelssohn's ideas and techniques but was also exposed to a variety of new musical styles, including Schubert, Verdi, Bach, and Wagner. Visiting a Jewish synagogue, he was so struck by some of the cadences and progressions of the music that thirty years later he would still remember it vividly enough to use them in his grand opera, Ivanhoe. He also developed various acquaintances and friendships at Leipzig, such as Carl Rosa, who was later to create the Carl Rosa Opera Company, violinist Joseph Joachim, and composer Franz Liszt. For his last year at the Conservatoire, money was scraped together by his father, and the Conservatoire assisted by waiving its fees.
Sullivan credited his Leipzig period with tremendous musical growth. His graduation piece, completed in 1861, was a set of incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Revised and expanded, it was performed at the Crystal Palace in 1862, a year after his return to London, and was an immediate sensation. He began building a reputation as England's most promising young composer.
Sullivan's early major works were those typically expected of a serious composer. In 1866, he premiered the Irish Symphony (though he may have completed it by 1863) and the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, his only works in each genre. In the same year, his Overture in C (In Memoriam), written in grief shortly after the death of his father, was a commission from the Norwich Festival, and during his lifetime it was one of his most successful works for orchestra. His single most successful orchestral work, the Overture di Ballo, satisfied a commission from the Birmingham Festival in 1870.
His long association with works for the voice began early. Significant commissions for chorus and orchestra included The Masque at Kenilworth (Birmingham Festival, 1864); an oratorio, The Prodigal Son (Three Choirs Festival, 1869); a dramatic cantata, On Shore and Sea (Opening of the London International Exhibition, 1871); the Festival Te Deum (Crystal Palace, 1872); and another oratorio, The Light of the World (Birmingham Festival, 1873). His only song cycle was also written in this period: The Window; or, The Songs of the Wrens (1871), in collaboration with Tennyson.
Sullivan's affinity for theatrical works also began early. During a stint as organist at Covent Garden, he composed his first ballet, L'Île Enchantée (1864), and had his first experience of opera, which was directed there by Sir Michael Costa. In the nineteenth century, plays were often accompanied by live incidental music, and Sullivan composed music for more than half a dozen productions. Early examples included The Merchant of Venice (Prince's Theatre, Manchester, 1871);The Merry Wives of Windsor (Gaiety Theatre, London, 1874); and Henry VIII (Theatre Royal, Manchester, 1877). His earlier Tempest incidental music, although composed with the theatre in mind, was originally prepared for the concert hall. He would continue in this genre throughout his life, with incidental music to Macbeth (1888) at the Lyceum Theatre; to Alfred Tennyson's The Foresters (1892) Daly's Theatre in New York; and to J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur (1895), again at the Lyceum.
These commissions were not sufficient to keep Sullivan afloat. He worked as a church organist from 1861 to 1872, gave singing and piano lessons, and composed some 72 hymns, most of them in the period 1861–75. The most famous of these are "Onward, Christian Soldiers" (1872, words by Sabine Baring-Gould) and "Nearer, my God, to Thee" (the "Propior Deo" version). He also turned out over 80 popular songs and parlour ballads, again, most of them written before the late 1870s. His first popular song was "Orpheus with his Lute", and a popular part song was "Oh! hush thee, my babie." The best known of his songs is "The Lost Chord" (1877, lyrics by Adelaide Anne Procter), written in sorrow at the death of his brother Fred, who had created the roles of Apollo in Thespis and The Learned Judge in Trial by Jury.
In the autumn of 1867, he travelled with George Grove to Vienna, returning with a treasure-trove of rescued Schubert scores, including the music to Rosamunde.
Sullivan's first attempt at opera, The Sapphire Necklace (1863–64, libretto by Henry F. Chorley), was not produced and is now lost, although the overture and two songs from the work were separately published.
His first surviving opera, Cox and Box (1866), was originally written for a private performance. It then received charity performances in both London and Manchester, and it was later produced at the Gallery of Illustration, where it ran for an extremely successful 264 performances. A freelance journalist named W. S. Gilbert, writing on behalf of a humour magazine called Fun, pronounced the score superior to F. C. Burnand's libretto. The first Sullivan-Burnand collaboration was sufficiently successful to spawn a two-act opera, The Contrabandista (1867; revised and expanded as The Chieftain in 1894), which did not achieve great popularity. In 1873, Sullivan contributed two songs to Burnand's Christmas "drawing room extravaganza", The Miller and His Man.
The Gilbert and Sullivan years
Thespis to The Mikado
In 1871, John Hollingshead commissioned Sullivan to work with W. S. Gilbert to create the burlesque Thespis for the Gaiety Theatre. Conceived specifically as a Christmas entertainment, it ran through to Easter 1872. The work was produced rather quickly, after which Gilbert and Sullivan went their separate ways, with the exception of two parlour ballads in late 1874 and early 1875.
In 1875, theatre manager Richard D'Oyly Carte needed a short piece to fill out a bill with Offenbach's La Périchole for the Royalty Theatre. Remembering Thespis, Carte reunited Gilbert and Sullivan, and the result was the one-act comic opera Trial by Jury. The success of this piece launched Gilbert and Sullivan on their famous partnership, which produced an additional twelve comic operas. However, Sullivan was not yet exclusively hitched to Gilbert. Soon after the successful opening of Trial, Sullivan wrote The Zoo, another one-act comic opera, with a libretto by B. C. Stephenson. But the new work had only a few short runs, and Sullivan collaborated on operas only with Gilbert for the next 15 years. During Sullivan's comic opera career, from 1875 to 1901, many of his most popular songs were adapted as dance pieces.
Sullivan's next opera with Gilbert, The Sorcerer (1877), was a success by the standards of the day, but H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which followed it, turned Gilbert and Sullivan into an international phenomenon. Indeed, Pinafore was so successful that over a hundred unauthorised productions sprang up in America alone. Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte tried for many years to control the American performance copyrights over their operas, without success.Pinafore was followed by another hit, The Pirates of Penzance in (1879), and then Patience (1881). Later in 1881, Patience transferred to the new Savoy Theatre, where the remaining Gilbert and Sullivan joint works were produced, as a result of which they are commonly known as the "Savoy Operas".Iolanthe (1882) was the first of their works to premiere at the new theatre.
An early poster showing scenes from The Sorcerer
, and Trial by Jury
On 22 May 1883, during the run of Iolanthe, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. The announcement of this impending honour was made just before Sullivan's 40th birthday at the opening of the Royal College of Music. Although it was the operas with Gilbert that had earned him the broadest fame, the honour was conferred for his services to serious music. The musical establishment, and many critics, believed that this should put an end to his career as a composer of comic opera—that a musical knight should not stoop below oratorio or grand opera. Sullivan too, despite the financial security of writing for the Savoy, increasingly viewed his work with Gilbert as unimportant, beneath his skills, and also repetitious. Furthermore, he was unhappy that he had to simplify his music to ensure that Gilbert's words could be heard. After Iolanthe, even before receiving news of the knighthood, Sullivan had not intended immediately to write a new work with Gilbert, but he suffered a serious financial loss when his broker went bankrupt in November 1882. Ironically, therefore, only two months before receiving news of the honour, Sullivan had signed a five-year agreement with Gilbert and Carte, compelling him to produce a new comic opera on six months' notice. Having agreed to this, Sullivan suddenly felt trapped.
Princess Ida (1884, the duo's only three-act, blank verse work) was noticeably less successful than its predecessors, although Sullivan's score was praised. With box office receipts lagging, Carte gave the contractual six months' notice for a new opera. Sullivan's close friend, conductor Frederic Clay, had suffered a serious stroke in early December 1883 that effectively ended his career. Sullivan, reflecting on this, on his own precarious health, and on his desire to devote himself to more serious music, replied that "it is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself." Gilbert had already started work on a new opera involving a plot in which people fell in love against their wills after taking a magic lozenge. Sullivan pronounced it overly mechanical and too similar to their earlier work, and he asked to leave the partnership. Gilbert wrote to Sullivan asking him to reconsider, but the composer replied on 2 April that he had "come to the end of my tether" with the operas: "I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one [syllable] should be lost.... I should like to set a story of human interest & probability where the humorous words would come in a humorous (not serious) situation, & where, if the situation were a tender or dramatic one the words would be of similar character." The impasse was finally resolved when Gilbert proposed a plot that did not depend on any supernatural device. The result was Gilbert and Sullivan's most successful work, The Mikado (1885). The piece ran for 672 performances, which was the second longest run for any work of musical theatre and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece up to that time.
During these years, three of Sullivan's cousins, the daughters of his uncle John Thomas Sullivan, performed with D'Oyly Carte: Rose, Jane, and Kate Sullivan, the first two of whom used the stage surname Hervey. Kate Sullivan was a chorister who defected to the Comedy Opera Company's rival production of Pinafore where she had the opportunity to play Josephine in 1879. Jennie Hervey was a D'Oyly Carte chorister for fourteen years. Rose Hervey took principal roles in many of the companion pieces that played with the Savoy operas..
Ruddigore, Yeomen and Gondoliers
Ruddygore, renamed Ruddigore after a few performances, followed in 1887. It ran profitably for nine months, but was not considered a success, compared with most of the other Savoy operas. For their next opera, Gilbert proposed another version of the lozenge plot, but Sullivan rejected it. Gilbert finally proposed a comparatively serious opera, which Sullivan immediately accepted. Although it was not a grand opera, The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) provided Sullivan with the opportunity to write his most ambitious and innovative score to date.
Lithograph from the Mikado
As early as 1883, Sullivan had been under pressure from the musical establishment to write a grand opera. In 1885, Sullivan told an interviewer, ""The opera of the future is a compromise [among the French, German and Italian schools] – a sort of eclectic school, a selection of the merits of each one. I myself will make an attempt to produce a grand opera of this new school. ... Yes, it will be an historical work, and it is the dream of my life.” After Yeomen in 1888, Sullivan wished to produce further serious works with Gilbert. He collaborated with no other librettists besides Gilbert since 1876. But Gilbert felt that the success of Yeomen had "not been so convincing as to warrant us in assuming that the public want something more earnest still." He proposed instead that:
We have a name, jointly, for humorous work, tempered with occasional glimpses of earnest drama. I think we should do unwisely if we left, altogether, the path which we have trodden together so long and so successfully. I can quite understand your desire to write a big work, well, why not write one? But why abandon the Savoy business? Cannot the two things be done concurrently? If you can write an oratorio like The Martyr of Antioch while you are occupied by pieces like Patience and Iolanthe, can't you write a grand opera without giving up pieces like The Yeomen of the Guard?
I have lost the liking for writing comic opera, and entertain very grave doubts as to my power of doing it.... I have lost the necessary nerve for it, and it is not too much to say that it is distasteful to me. The types used over and over again (unavoidable in such a company as ours), the Grossmith part, the middle-aged woman with fading charms, cannot again be clothed in music by me. Nor can I again write to any wildly improbable plot in which there is not some human interest....
You say that in serious opera, you must more or less sacrifice yourself. I say that this is just what I have been doing in all our joint pieces, and, what is more, must continue to do in comic opera to make it successful. Business and syllabic setting assume an importance which, however much they fetter me, cannot be overlooked. I am bound, in the interests of the piece, to give way. Hence the reason of my wishing to do a work where the music is to be the first consideration – where words are to suggest music, not govern it, and where music will intensify and emphasize the emotional effects of the words.
Nevertheless, a compromise was reached: Sullivan commissioned a grand opera libretto from Julian Sturgis (who was recommended by Gilbert), while suggesting to Gilbert that he revive an old idea for an opera set in sunny Venice. The comic opera was completed first: The Gondoliers (1889) was a piece emphasising Sullivan's talents, and the last great Gilbert and Sullivan success.
Serious music from 1875 to 1890
During the years of his most successful work with Gilbert, Sullivan continued his careers in conducting and musical education. Conducting appointments included the Glasgow Choral Union concerts, 1875–77; the Royal Aquarium, London, 1876; the triennial Leeds Music Festivals; and the Philharmonic Society, 1885–87. In addition to his appointment as Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, of which he was a Fellow, he was appointed as the first Principal of the National Training School for Music, 1876–81. Sullivan composed only four major serious works during this period: Incidental music for productions of Shakespeare's Henry VIII (1877) and Macbeth (1888), and two compositions for the Leeds Festival, of which he was appointed music director in 1880.
For the 1880 Leeds Festival, Sullivan was commissioned to write a sacred choral work. He chose Henry Hart Milman's 1822 dramatic poem based on the life and death of Saint Margaret the Virgin for its basis. W. S. Gilbert adapted the libretto for Sullivan, abridging it, rearranging sections, reassigning lines, and making a few additions of his own.The Martyr of Antioch premièred on the morning of 15 October 1880 and proved successful, being frequently revived. As thanks for Gilbert's help, Sullivan presented his collaborator with an engraved silver cup. Gilbert replied, "...it most certainly never occurred to me to look for any other reward than the honour of being associated, however remotely and unworthily, in a success which, I suppose, will endure until music itself shall die. Pray believe that of the many substantial advantages that have resulted to me from our association, this last is, and always will be, the most highly prized."
In 1886, Sullivan once again supplied a large-scale choral work for the Leeds Festival, this time selecting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Golden Legend" as the basis for his cantata of the same name. Outside of the comic operas with Gilbert (and perhaps Cox and Box), this proved to be Sullivan's most successful major work. It was performed hundreds of times in Sullivan's lifetime, and at one point the composer even declared a moratorium on its performance, fearing that the work would become over-exposed. It remained in the repertory until about the 1920s, but since then it has been seldom performed, although it received its first professional recording in 2001.
The Carpet Quarrel and later operas
The relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan suffered its most serious breach in April 1890, during the run of The Gondoliers, when Gilbert objected to the accounts of the production, including a charge by Carte to the partnership for the cost of new carpeting for the Savoy Theatre lobby. Gilbert believed that this was a maintenance expense that should be charged to Carte alone. As scholar Andrew Crowther has explained: "Sullivan considered the dispute unimportant and sided with Carte, who was building a theatre to produce his forthcoming grand opera. Gilbert sued his partners, and the quarrel led to the separation of Gilbert and Sullivan."
Meanwhile, the grand opera, Ivanhoe, based on Sir Walter Scott's novel, opened at Carte's new Royal English Opera House on 31 January 1891. Although the opera itself was a success, running for an unprecedented 155 performances, it passed into virtual obscurity after the opera house failed. It was, as critic Herman Klein observed, "the strangest comingling of success and failure ever chronicled in the history of British lyric enterprise!" Sullivan did not seriously consider writing grand opera again. Sullivan returned to comic opera, but, still quarrelling with Gilbert, he sought other collaborators. Haddon Hall (1892), with a libretto by Sydney Grundy), was the first of these. Although based loosely on the historical elopement of Dorothy Vernon with John Manners, Grundy changed the setting from 1563, in the Elizabethan period, to the middle of the English Civil War, allowing for jokes at the expense of the Puritans. Although still comic, the tone and style of the work was considerably more serious and romantic than most of the operas with Gilbert. It enjoyed a modest success and earned critical praise.
The partnership with Gilbert had been so profitable that, after the financial failure of the Royal English Opera House, Carte and his wife sought to reunite the author and composer, eventually succeeding with the help of Tom Chappell, their music publisher. After another Gilbert opera (Utopia Limited, 1893) proved to be only a modest success, Sullivan teamed up again with his old partner, F. C. Burnand. The Chieftain (1894), a heavily revised version of their earlier two-act opera, The Contrabandista, flopped. After The Grand Duke (1896) also failed, Gilbert and Sullivan were finished working together for good.
In May 1897, Sullivan's full-length ballet, Victoria and Merrie England, opened at the Alhambra Theatre to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The work's seven scenes celebrate English history and culture, with the Victorian period as the grand finale. Its six-month run was considered a great success.The Beauty Stone (1898), with a libretto by Arthur Wing Pinero and J. Comyns Carr was based on mediaeval morality plays. The collaboration did not go particularly well: Sullivan wrote that Pinero and Comyns Carr were "gifted and brilliant men, with no experience in writing for music", and, when he asked for alterations to improve the structure, they refused. Sullivan's score, moreover, was too serious for the Savoy audiences' tastes. The opera was both a critical and popular failure, running for a mere seven weeks.
Finally, in The Rose of Persia (1899), Sullivan returned to his comic roots, with a libretto by Basil Hood that combined an exotic Arabian Nights setting with plot elements of The Mikado. Sullivan's tuneful score proved to be his most successful full-length opera apart from his collaborations with Gilbert. Another opera with Hood, The Emerald Isle, quickly went into preparation, but Sullivan died before it could be completed.
Death, honours and legacy
Having suffered from long-standing recurrent kidney disease that made it necessary, from the 1880s, for him to conduct sitting down, Sullivan died of heart failure, following an attack of bronchitis, at his flat in London on 22 November 1900. His last opera, The Emerald Isle, was left unfinished but was completed by Edward German and produced in 1901. His Te Deum, written to commemorate the end of the Boer War, was performed posthumously.
A monument in the composer's memory featuring a weeping Muse was erected in the Victoria Embankment Gardens (London) and is inscribed with W. S. Gilbert's words from The Yeomen of the Guard: "Is life a boon? If so, it must befall that Death, whene'er he call, must call too soon". Sullivan wished to be buried in Brompton Cemetery with his parents and brother, but, by order of the Queen, he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. In addition to his knighthood, honours awarded to Sullivan in his lifetime included Doctor in Music, honoris causa, by the Universities of Cambridge (1876) and Oxford (1879); Chevalier, Légion d'honneur, France (1878); The Order of the Medjidieh, by the Sultan of Turkey (1888); and appointment as a Member of the Fourth Class of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) on 30 June 1897.
In all, Sullivan's artistic output included 23 operas, 13 major orchestral works, eight choral works and oratorios, two ballets, one song cycle, incidental music to several plays, and numerous hymns and other church pieces, songs, parlour ballads, part songs, carols, and piano and chamber pieces. His legacy, aside from writing the Savoy Operas and other works that are still being performed over a hundred and twenty-five years after their creation, is felt perhaps most strongly today through his influence on the American and British musical theatre. The innovations in content and form of the works that he and Gilbert developed directly influenced the development of the modern musical throughout the 20th century. In addition, biographies continue to be written about Sullivan's life and work, and his work is not only frequently performed, but also frequently parodied, pastiched, quoted and imitated in comedy routines, film, television, advertising and other popular media.
Although Sullivan never married, he had many love affairs. His first serious affair was with Rachel Scott Russell (1845–1882). Precisely when it began is uncertain, but Sullivan and his friend, Frederic Clay, were frequent visitors at the Scott Russell home beginning in 1864, and by 1866 the affair was in full bloom. Rachel's parents did not approve of a possible union to a young composer with uncertain financial prospects. After Rachel's mother discovered the relationship in 1867, the two continued to see each other covertly. At some point in 1868, Sullivan started a simultaneous (and secret) affair with Rachel's sister Louise (1841–1878). He eventually cooled on both women, and the affairs were over by 1870. Some two-hundred love letters from the two women have survived; they are excerpted in detail in Wolfson (1984).
Sullivan's longest love affair was with an American, Mary Frances ("Fanny") Ronalds née Carter, (a woman three years Sullivan's senior, who had three children. He met her in Paris around 1867, and the affair began in earnest soon after she moved to London permanently around 1870–71. A contemporary account described Fanny Ronalds this way: "Her face was perfectly divine in its loveliness, her features small and exquisitely regular. Her hair was a dark shade of brown – châtain foncé [deep chestnut] – and very abundant... a lovely woman, with the most generous smile one could possibly imagine, and the most beautiful teeth." Sullivan called her "the best amateur singer in London". She often performed Sullivan's songs at her famous Sunday soirees. She became particularly associated with "The Lost Chord", singing it both in private and in public, often with Sullivan accompanying her. When Sullivan died, he left her the autograph manuscript of that song, along with other bequests.
Fanny was separated from her husband, but she was never divorced. Social conventions of the time compelled Sullivan and Fanny to keep their relationship private. In his diaries, he would refer to her as "Mrs. Ronalds" when he saw her in a public setting, but "L. W." (for "Little Woman") or "D. H." (possibly "Dear Heart") when they were alone together, often with a number in parentheses indicating the number of sexual acts completed. It is thought that Ronalds was pregnant on at least two occasions, and she apparently procured an abortion in 1882 and again in 1884. The 1999 biographical film Topsy-Turvy depicts Sullivan and Fanny discussing an abortion at around the time of the production of The Mikado.
Sullivan had a roving eye, and the diary records the occasional quarrel when his other liaisons were discovered, but he always returned to Fanny. She was a constant companion (and was well known for performing some of Sullivan's songs) up to the time of Sullivan's death, but around 1889 or 1890, the sexual relationship seems to have ended. He started to refer to her in the diary as "Auntie", and the tick marks indicating sexual activity were no longer there, although similar notation continued to be used for his relationships with other women who have not been identified, and who were always referred to by their initials. In 1896, Sullivan proposed marriage to the 20-year-old Violet Beddington, but she refused him.
Some books and websites claim or speculate that Sullivan was homosexual or bisexual. Brahms says that Sullivan had a relationship with the Duke of Edinburgh. It is undisputed that Sullivan and the Duke (who was married) were friends, but the only evidence cited for a sexual relationship is unspecified "Victorian cartoonists." The Gay Book of Days (Carol Publishing Corporation, 1985) and The Alyson Almanac (Alyson Publications, 1990) both list Sullivan as a gay composer, again not stating the source.
Leisure and family life
Sullivan loved to spend time in France (both in Paris and the south of France), where his well-connected friends included the princess Marie-Amélie of Orleans and Claude Debussy. In 1865 he was initiated as a Freemason of the aristocratic Studholme Lodge № 1451, where he met and dined with its numerous well-connected members. He was the Grand Organist of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1887 during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.
Sullivan was devoted to his parents, particularly his mother, with whom he corresponded regularly when away from London, until her death in 1882. Henry Lytton wrote, "I believe there was never a more affectionate tie than that which existed between [Sullivan] and his mother, a very witty old lady, and one who took an exceptional pride in her son's accomplishments. Sullivan was also very fond of his brother Fred, whose acting career he assisted whenever possible, and of Fred's children. When Fred died at the age of 39, he left his pregnant wife, Charlotte, with seven children under the age of 14. After Fred's death, Arthur visited the family often and became guardian to all of the children. In 1883, Charlotte and six of her children emigrated to Los Angeles, California, in the U.S., leaving the oldest boy, Herbert "Bertie" Sullivan, in Arthur Sullivan's sole care. Despite Arthur's reservations about the move to Los Angeles, he paid for the trip and continued to give very substantial financial support to the family. Only a year after moving to Los Angeles, in January 1885, Charlotte died, leaving the six children to be raised mostly by her brother and the older girls, with the financial support of Arthur Sullivan.
From June through August 1885, after completing his work on The Mikado, Sullivan travelled to America to visit the family in Los Angeles and to take them on a sightseeing trip of the American West, including Yosemite Valley. Sullivan continued, throughout the rest of his life, and in his will, to take good care of Fred's children, continuing to correspond with them and to be concerned with their education, marriages and financial affairs. Bertie stayed with his uncle Arthur for the rest of Arthur's life.
Method and text setting
Sullivan composed without the use of the keyboard. "I don't use the piano in composition – that would limit me terribly", he told interviewer Arthur Lawrence. Sullivan explained that his process of composition was not to wait for inspiration like "a miner seated at the top of a shaft", waiting for "the coal to come bubbling up to the surface.... He has to dig for it.... The first thing I have to decide upon is the rhythm, and I decide on that before I come to the question of melody. The notes must come afterwards.... I mark out the metre in dots and dashes, and not until I have quite settled on the rhythm do I proceed to actual notation."
Sullivan's text setting, unlike that of his 19th century English predecessors or his European contemporaries was "vastly more sensitive.... Sullivan's operatic style attempts to create for itself a uniquely English text-music synthesis", and, in addition, by adopting a conservative musical style, he was able to achieve "the clarity to match Gilbert's finely honed wit with musical wit of his own."
In composing the Savoy operas, Sullivan wrote the vocal lines of the musical numbers first, and these were given to the actors. He, or an assistant, improvised a piano accompaniment at the early rehearsals, supplying the orchestrations later, after he had seen what Gilbert's stage business would be. He left the overtures for last and often delegated their composition to his assistants based on his outlines and often incorporating his suggestions or corrections. Those Sullivan wrote himself include Thespis,Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, The Grand Duke and probably Utopia Limited. Most of the overtures are structured as a potpourri of tunes from the operas in three sections: fast, slow and fast. However, those for Iolanthe, and Yeomen are written in sonata form. The overtures from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas remain popular, and there are many recordings of them. Sullivan invariably conducted the operas on their opening nights.
In 1957, a review in The Times gave this rationale for "the continued vitality of the Savoy operas":
"[T]hey were never really contemporary in their idiom.... Gilbert and Sullivan's [world was] an artificial world, with a neatly controlled and shapely precision.... For this, each partner has his share of credit. The neat articulation of incredibilities in Gilbert's plots is perfectly matched by his language.... [Of] equal importance... Gilbert's lyrics almost invariably take on extra point and sparkle when set to Sullivan's music.... Sullivan's tunes, in these operas, also exist in a make-believe world of their own.... [He is] a delicate wit, whose airs have a precision, a neatness, a grace, and a flowing melody".
Melody and rhythm
As Sullivan told Lawrence, his melodies sprung from rhythm, although some of his themes may have been prompted by his chosen instrumentation or his harmonic techniques.
In the comic operas, where many numbers were in verse-plus-refrain form, Sullivan frequently was required to produce two climaxes in the melodic line. Hughes instances ‘If you go in’ (Iolanthe) as a good example. Hughes goes so far as to say that though most of the tunes in the Savoy operas are good ones, Sullivan rarely reached the same class of excellence elsewhere when he had no librettist to feed his imagination. Even so, on those occasions when Gilbert wrote in unvaried metre, Sullivan often followed suit and produced phrases of simple repetition, such as ‘Love is a plaintive song’ (Patience) and ‘A man who would woo a fair maid’ (Yeomen).
Sullivan's deliberate echoes of other composers are covered below under 'Musical Quotations', but other echoes may not have been conscious: Hughes cites the concluding bars of ‘Tell a tale of cock and bull’ from Yeomen as an example of Handel's influence, and another critic found a theme in the slow movement of the Irish symphony ‘an outrageous crib’ from Schubert's Unfinished. Sullivan's tunes, at least in the comic operas, appeal to the professional as much as to the layman. Sullivan's continental contemporaries such as Debussy, Leoncavallo and Saint-Saëns held the Savoy operas in high regard. 'When Sullivan wrote what we call 'a good tune' it was nearly always 'good music' as well. Outside the ranks of the giants there are few other composers of whom the same could be said.'
Harmony and counterpoint
Sullivan was trained in the classical style, and contemporary music did not greatly attract him. Harmonically his early works used the conventional formulae of Auber, Donizetti, Balfe and Schubert. Later he drew on Gounod and Bizet. Mendelssohn's influence, conspicuous in early works, appears intermittently in later ones. As a contemporary writer observed, Sullivan draws on these various influences while remaining recognisably himself.
In general, Sullivan preferred to write in major keys. In the Savoy operas there are only eleven substantial numbers wholly in a minor key, and even in his serious works the major prevails. Examples of Sullivan's rare excursions into minor keys include the long E minor melody in the first movement of the Irish Symphony, ‘Go away, madam’ in the Act I finale of Iolanthe (echoing Verdi and even Beethoven) and the funeral march in the Act I finale of The Yeomen of the Guard.
Both Hughes and Grove's Dictionary comment adversely on Sullivan's over-use of tonic pedals, usually in the bass, which Hughes attributes to ‘lack of enterprise or even downright laziness’. Another Sullivan trademark criticised by Hughes is the excessive use of the chord of the augmented fourth at moments of pathos. In his serious works, Sullivan attempted to avoid harmonic devices associated with the Savoy operas, with the result, according to Hughes, that The Golden Legend is a ‘hotch-potch of harmonic styles’. Harmonic contrast in Sullivan's Savoy works is enhanced by his characteristically resourceful modulation between keys, as in ‘Expressive glances’ (Princess Ida) where he smoothly negotiates E major, C sharp minor and C major, or ‘Then one of us will be a queen’ (The Gondoliers) where he writes in F major, D flat major and D minor.
In the field of harmony Sullivan remained to the end an eclectic. ‘He had easily recognisable habits but his style never achieved individuality’.
Despite his thorough academic contrapuntal training in London and Leipzig, as well as his experience as a church organist, Sullivan rarely composed fugues. Hughes cites the examples from the Epilogue to The Golden Legend and Victoria and Merrie England. In the Savoy operas, fugal style is reserved for making fun of legal solemnity in Trial by Jury and Iolanthe. Less formal counterpoint is employed in numbers such as ‘Brightly Dawns our Wedding Day’ (The Mikado) and ‘When the Buds are Blossoming’ (Ruddigore).
Sullivan's best known contrapuntal device, which, if he did not invent it, certainly became his trademark, was ‘the simultaneous presentation of two or more distinct melodies previously heard independently’. Sometimes the melodies were for solo voices, as in ‘Once more the face I loved so well’ (The Zoo), and ‘I am so proud’ (The Mikado), which combines three melodic lines; other examples are in choruses, where typically a graceful tune for the ladies is combined with a robust one for the men. Examples include 'When the Foeman bares his steel' (Pirates), ‘Gaily tripping’ (Pinafore), ‘In a doleful train’ (Patience), ‘Welcome, gentry’ (Ruddigore), and ‘Night has spread her pall once more’ (The Yeomen of the Guard). At other times, notably in ‘How beautifully blue the sky’ (Pirates), one theme is given to the chorus and the other to solo voices.
Gervase Hughes concludes his chapter on Sullivan's orchestration: ‘in this vitally important sector of the composer's art he deserves to rank as a master.’ Sullivan was a competent player of at least four orchestral instruments (flute, clarinet, trumpet and trombone) and a technically highly skilled orchestrator. Though sometimes inclined to indulge in grandiosity when writing for a full symphony orchestra, he was adept in using smaller forces to the maximum effect. Orchestral players generally like playing Sullivan's music: ‘Sullivan never asked his players to do what was either uncongenial or impracticable.’
Sullivan's orchestra for the Savoy Operas was typical of any other pit orchestra of his era: 2 flutes (+ piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, and strings. According to Geoffrey Toye, the number of players in the Savoy orchestra was originally 31. Sullivan had argued hard for an increase in the pit orchestra's size, and starting with Yeomen the operas all included the usual complement plus second bassoon and bass trombone. Sullivan generally orchestrated each score at almost the last moment, noting that the orchestration for an opera had to wait until he saw the staging, so that he could judge how heavily or lightly to orchestrate each part of the music. For his large-scale orchestral pieces, Sullivan added a second oboe part, sometimes double bassoon and bass clarinet, more horns, trumpets, tuba, and sometimes an organ and/or a harp. Many of these pieces used very large orchestras.