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Classical Composers A-Z: Arthur Seymor Sullivan

Peter Wintersgill presents a summary of the life of Arthur Seymor Sullivan, who wrote an anthem when he was eight years old.

13th May, 1842, in Kennington.

Thomas, bandmaster at Royal Military College.

Maria, of Italian descent, musical family.

Irish soldier, had guarded Napoleon on St. Helena.

Older brother, Fred, also musical.

Wrote an anthem, By the Waters of Babylon, aged eight. Became chorister of Chapel Royal aged 12 in 1854, where his anthem Sing unto the Lord was sung the next year.

Became the first holder of the Mendelssohn scholarship, aged 14, in 1856, which enabled him to study at Royal Academy of Music and at Leipzig, where he went in 1858.

He wanted to become a pianist at first, but became a conductor instead and gradually a full-time composer. His teachers at R.A.M. included Goss and Sterndale Bennet, the latter having known Mendelssohn and Schumann, and Moschelles at Leipzig, who had known Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

He returned to England in 1861 and became organist at St. Michael's Chester Square. The next year he wrote his Incidental Music to the Tempest, which he dedicated to Sir George Smart, an eminent church musician.

The same year his brother Fred got married. He was a great family man, who had several children, whom he loved very much, as opposed to Arthur, who never married.

Early Adult Life
In 1864, aged 22, he wrote the cantata Kenilworth, for the Birmingham Festival, and the Irish Symphony, his only one.

In 1866 his father died, an event which hit both him and his brother very hard. Straight away he wrote one of his few orchestral pieces, In Memoriam, for the Norwich festival. The same year he was made Professor of Composition at the R. A.M.

The next year he went to Germany with Sir George Grove, author of the famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and together they discovered the manuscript of Schubert's Overture Rosamunde, and studied the manuscript of his Great C major Symphony. While there he met Clara Schumann.

Later in the year he wrote his first operetta Cox and Box, to a libretto by E C Burnand. In 1868 he wrote the song The Long Day Closes.

In 1871 he was introduced to W S Gilbert, a successful writer of comic verse, e.g. the Bab Ballads, by Richard D'Oyly Carte, a theatrical producer; this was a momentous meeting indeed.

They first collaborated in Thespis the same year, but this was stillborn. It was an odd partnership, but in the end a successful one. Gilbert was a married man who liked his creature comforts, and was rather set in his ways. He had no serious interests other than his writing.

Sullivan, on the other hand, was a man of many interests. He often felt more like composing an anthem or an oratorio than another comic opera. He also liked plenty of social life, especially in places like Paris and Monte Carlo.

He wrote about 50 hymn tunes, including arrangements of tunes by other composers, the best known probably being St. Gertrude, often used for "Onward Christian Soldiers", written in 1871.

His oratorios included The Light of the World for the Birmingham Festival of 1873, after which came his second collaboration with Gilbert, Trial by Jury in 1875, in which his brother Fred played the Judge, and which was produced by D'Oyly Carte.

Thus started the most famous partnership in light opera, Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte, which was to last for over twenty years. They became known as the Savoy Operas, and the cast as the Savoyards, as the majority of them were produced at the Savoy Theatre. They were transferred there from the Opera Comique, during the run of Patience.

The Sorcerer came next in 1877 and ran for 175 nights. It was followed in 1878 by H.M.S. Pinafore, which ran for 700 nights. During the runs of these popular works, Sullivan was founding the R C M., of which he became the first Director. He was made Hon Mus Doc at Cambridge in 1876.

When his brother Fred died in 1877, aged about 49, Arthur was stricken with grief; he sat up all night and wrote The Lost Chord. This was sung all over the country by Mrs Ronalds, a wealthy society lady with a rich soprano voice; she became a close friend of his, still more so after his mother died in 1882. She recorded The Lost Chord on a phonograph.

A great artist, George Grosmith, was found to play the leading parts, starting with John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer, and later in many other parts.

Sullivan had a holiday in Paris and returned to start on Pinafore, the First Lord being played by George Grosmith, the character being commonly thought to be based on W H Smith, the current First Lord. He turned down Lewis Carroll's request to set "Alice" to music.

Much of the music of Pinafore, and indeed of many of the Savoy operas, was written in the small hours of the morning, while Sullivan was suffering the agonies of renal colic; the worse the pain, the gayer the tunes he wrote. He eventually had an operation for this complaint, but without
lasting benefit.

The Pirates of Penzance followed next, in 1879, with its chorus of policemen. Gilbert told Sullivan he was making a lot of this tarantara business. This was the phrase the policemen used to keep their spirits up.

There was no copyright law in the USA, and many companies there were performing Pinafore in all sorts of different versions. Gilbert and Sullivan had had enough of this and took the whole company to New York to put on the original version, followed by The Pirates in December 1879, followed by an English premiere in Paignton within 24 hours (for copyright purposes). They had to keep all the parts in manuscript, and lock them in a safe each night, to prevent them being stolen.

After five months in the USA and short visits to Niagara Falls and Ottawa, he returned to London for the opening of The Pirates at the Opera Comique in April 1880. Next year he wrote his oratorio The Martyr of Antioch to a libretto by Gilbert, based on a text by the Dean of St. Paul's. Gilbert was more proud of this than any other collaboration with Sullivan. He then started work on Patience. He changed his original idea of poking fun at the clergy to a satirical work on the Aesthetic Movement led by Oscar Wilde.

Sullivan meanwhile was enjoying himself in Nice. He returned ere long to start on the music, which he finished in time for the premiere at the Opera Comique on 23rd April, 1881. For the first time the new "electric light" was used. It was later transferred to the new Savoy Theatre. Patience was a great success, both musically and financially, it ran for 408 nights.

After a while he was off again, this time to Russia. He went to St. Petersburg with the Duke of Edinburgh and met the Czar. He later moved on to Cairo and heard some Arab music, which impressed him very much, so much so that he stayed there for three months.

On his arrival back, he moved to Queen's Mansions in Victoria Street, his final home. His mother became ill soon after this and died. Poor Arthur was shattered. She had been his mainstay for so long and now she was gone, and his music was no consolation.

Later Adult Life
He soon started on Gilbert's next script, Iolanthe, a fantastic piece about peers and fairies, though Patience was still going strong. In view of their previous experience in the USA, they locked up the scores every night, but even so some of the details leaked out.

It was therefore called Periola, which the cast had to sing until the final rehearsal, when they had to substitute Iolanthe. Some of the cast got a bit worried about this, but Sullivan reassured them by saying, "Sing what ever you like, nobody will know the difference."

The premiere at the Savoy was on 25th November, 1882. Sullivan was knighted in 1883, that year they started preparing Princess Ida, which had its premiere on January 5th, 1884. Sullivan was more dead than alive from further kidney pains and lack of sleep, but managed to conduct somehow and collapsed at the end of the performance.

Attendances tailed off after three months, when Sullivan announced to Carte that he had finished with comic opera. There were many meetings and much correspondence, but Gilbert and Sullivan seemed at loggerheads. Gilbert kept proposing a ‘magic lozenge’ plot, which Sullivan would not agree to.

One day a Japanese sword fell off Gilbert's wall onto the floor, which started off his thoughts on another track. The idea eventually developed into The Mikado, which Sullivan received joyfully and set in record time. The premiere was on 14th March, 1885, at the Savoy. It ran for 600 nights, the longest run of them all.

Soon after this Sullivan went to the USA and crossed to Los Angeles, where he saw Fred's family and took them all out on a tour. On returning three months later he found The Mikado still going strong.

Gilbert sent him the libretto of Ruddigore but there was no need for it yet. Sullivan therefore started on a new oratorio The Golden Legend, based on Longfellow, for the Leeds Festival, where it was given on October 16th, 1886. While rehearsals went on, Dvorak was preparing his Ludmila. After this Sullivan prepared Ruddigore which went on at the Savoy on 2nd January, 1887, and ran for 288 nights, longer than Princess Ida.

Sullivan set off again for Monte Carlo and on to Naples, where he had several days of kidney pain. He then returned to Paris and on to Berlin, where he gave the Golden Legend before the Emperor on his 90th birthday.

He then returned to London where he wrote an Ode for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, then conducted the Golden Legend in Norwich. Gilbert sent him the libretto of the Tower of London, which later became the Yeoman of the Guard, the nearest any Savoy opera got to grand opera. Both Gilbert and Sullivan were pleased with it.

Carte kept the theatre going with revivals after Ruddigore finished in October 1887. He gave the Golden Legend for the Queen at R A H, who told him, "You should write a grand opera, Sir Arthur, you would do it so well."

He had trouble getting the rhythm for "I have a song to sing, Oh", but eventually got it from Gilbert, who got it from a yachting song; told him he should do this more often. Premiere of Yeoman was on 3rd October, 1888.

He wrote the Incidental Music for Henry Irvine's Macbeth.

After all this Sullivan went to the Continent again, Monte Carlo and Venice, where he got the atmosphere for The Gondoliers, which Gilbert had sent him. The premiere was on December 7th, 1889, and it ran for 554 nights.

Sullivan went off again to Monte Carlo and Brussels, and found on his return there was a quarrel between Gilbert and Carte about a carpet that was too expensive and wasn't their responsibility anyway. It went on for six months but was eventually settled amicably.

Poor old Sullivan, so sensitive and so moody, kept brooding about all the hurtful letters that had passed to and fro.

He now took the Queen at her word and got busy with Ivanhoe, his first and only grand opera, the libretto being taken from Sir Walter Scott. It was slow work; his concentration span was short. It took him eight months to finish. The premiere was on 31st January, 1891. It ran for 160 nights.

After this there was a full reconciliation between Gilbert and Sullivan, and between them and Carte.

He then started work on Hadden Hall, a light opera written by Sidney Grundy. He took the score on holiday with him to Monte Carlo, where he had further attacks of colic, partially controlled by morphia. For a time he was very ill, both he and his friends thought he was dying. He returned to London in April and the premiere was on 24th September, 1892. It seemed at first to be a success, but didn't last long.

He got the libretto of Utopia Ltd. from Gilbert at the end of 1892. He went off to Monte Carlo, where Gilbert joined him and talked about the new plot. Sullivan was unable to set the finale to Act II, so he wrote the music first (for the first and only time) and Gilbert wrote the words after. They had a public rehearsal, then the premiere on October 7th, 1893, and it ran for 245 nights.

The final Savoy Opera, The Grand Duke, was written in three months. They had a public dress rehearsal, then the premiere on 7th March, 1896. It only ran for 123 nights. The partnership was over; Sullivan was 54 and he had had enough.

His interest was now centred on racing and the horses he owned. He joined the royal party in Switzerland, which included Princess May of Teck, and stayed with the Empress Frederick, an English widow.

Back in London he wrote a tune (Bishopgarth) for a hymn by Bishop How for the Diamond Jubilee in 1897. He was off again shortly to attend the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. He heard Coleridge Taylor's Hiawatha in 1888 and praised it highly. He also wrote a ballet Victoria and Merrie England.

The partnership might have finished, but Sullivan certainly wasn't. He wrote an opera The Beauty Stone to a libretto by Comyns Carr and Arthur Pinero and found it very difficult. It had its premiere in May 1898. The same year he conducted the Leeds Festival for the last time.

Meanwhile Carte was putting on revivals at the Savoy, The Gondoliers, The Sorcerer and others. He set a song of Kipling's The Absent Minded Beggar in 1899, which was a great success, also the comic opera The Rose of Persia to libretto by Basil Hood.

He still suffered considerable pain at intervals, and as he got older he got weaker and had less stamina. He wrote a Te Deum as a thanksgiving for victory in the Boer War in 1900, but it was not performed till 1902. He started the opera The Emerald Isle, to a libretto by Basil Hood, but died before he finished it; it was finished by Edward German and produced at the Savoy in April 1901.

Several friends died within a few moths, The Duke of Saxe-Courg, the Lord Chief Justice (Lord Russell) and Sir George Grove, all old friends, which he found very depressing. He seemed to lose all desire to compose, suffered from frequent kidney pains and depression.

The last entry in his diary on October 15th reads, "I am sorry to leave such a lovely day." He died on October 15th, 1900, aged 58 at his home in Victoria Street in the arms of his nephew Herbert.

He was buried at St. Paul's to the sound of the Savoy Chorus, who sang "Brother, thou art gone before us".

On his bust, erected in 1905 in Savoy Gardens, was engraved at Gilbert's suggestion these words from The Yeoman,

"Is life a boon?
If so it must befall
That Death, whene'er he call,
Must call too soon!"


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