Arthur Sullivan

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1750-1900; Writers and critics

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan
Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan ( May 13, 1842 – November 22, 1900) was an English composer best known for his operatic collaborations with librettist W. S. Gilbert. His artistic output included 23 operas, 13 orchestral works, 8 choral or oratorio works, 2 ballets, incidental music to several plays, and numerous hymns and other church pieces, songs, parlour ballads, part songs, carols, and piano and chamber pieces.

Life and career


Memorial To Sir Arthur Sullivan Victoria Embankment Gardens London
Memorial To Sir Arthur Sullivan Victoria Embankment Gardens London

Sullivan was born in Lambeth, now part of London. His father was a military bandmaster, and Arthur was proficient with all the instruments in the band by age eight. Following a stay at private school in Bayswater, he was admitted to the choir of the Chapel Royal, attending its school in Cheyne Walk. While there, he began to compose anthems and songs. In 1856, he received the first Mendelssohn prize and went to study at the Royal Academy of Music until 1858. He then continued his studies at Leipzig, Germany, at the Felix Mendelssohn College of Music and Theatre where he also took up conducting. There, he was influenced by Felix Mendelssohn's musical style.

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 work for orchestra, 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 came during this period: The Window; or, The Song of the Wrens (1871), to a text of eleven poems by 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. In the nineteenth century, straight plays were often accompanied by live incidental music, and Sullivan composed play scores on numerous occasions. 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 adaptable for this purpose, was originally composed for the concert hall.)

These commissions were not sufficient to keep Sullivan afloat. He worked as a church organist and composed some 72 hymns, most of them in the period 1861–75. The most famous of these are " Onward, Christian Soldiers" ( 1872, lyrics 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. The best known of these is " The Lost Chord" ( 1877, lyrics by Adelaide Anne Procter), written in sorrow at the death of his brother Fred, who had premiered the roles of The Learned Judge in Trial by Jury and Apollo in Thespis.

In the autumn of 1867, he travelled with Sir George Grove to Vienna, returning with a treasure-trove of rescued Schubert scores, including the music to Rosamunde.

First operas

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.

The collaboration with Gilbert

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 was not a big hit, and Sullivan collaborated on operas only with Gilbert for the next 15 years.

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 succeessful that over a hundred unauthorised productions sprang up in America alone. Gilbert, Sullian 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 sometimes known as the " Savoy Operas." Iolanthe (1882) was the first of their works to premiere at the new theatre.

In 1883, during the run of Iolanthe, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria. 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. But paradoxically, just before the production of Iolanthe, 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. Gilbert proposed a libretto in which the plot depended on the agency of a magic lozenge. Sullivan pronounced it overly mechanical and too similar to their earlier work and asked out of the partnership. 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).

Ruddygore (1887, renamed Ruddigore) followed. It had a respectable nine-month run, but by Gilbert and Sullivan's standards, it was not a great success. When Gilbert again proposed a version of the "lozenge" plot for their next opera, Sullivan reiterated his desire to leave the partnership. Finally, Gilbert proposed a comparatively serious opera, which Sullivan immediately accepted. Although not a grand opera, The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) provided Sullivan with the opportunity to write his most ambitious score to date. After Yeomen and another brief impasse over the choice of a subject, Gilbert offered a scenario set in Venice, The Gondoliers (1889). This was their last great success together.

The partnership suffered a serious breach during the run of The Gondoliers, when Gilbert questioned Carte over the cost of new carpeting for the Savoy lobby. Sullivan, who was already planning a grand opera, Ivanhoe, under Carte's management at another theatre, considered the dispute petty and sided with Carte. The resulting quarrel took several years to work out. Sullivan would collaborate with Gilbert twice more, on Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896), but they were unable to recreate the success of their earlier collaborations.

Serious music from 1875 to 1890

During the years of Sullivan's most successful work with Gilbert, his career as a conductor and educator continued in parallel. Between 1875 and 1890, however, Sullivan wrote only two substantial compositions that were not comic opera, and both were oratorios for the triennial Leeds Festival, for which Sullivan was appointed conductor starting in 1880. For the 1880 Leeds Festival, Sullivan was commissioned to write a sacred choral work. For a source text, Sullivan settled on Henry Hart Milman's 1822 dramatic poem based on the life of Saint Margaret the Virgin. Sullivan found the poem unwieldy for his purposes. His operatic collaborator, W. S. Gilbert, adapted the text, altering Milman's metrical scheme in three of the work's sixteen numbers, and advising on selected abridgements in many of the others.

Described as "A Sacred Musical Drama," The Martyr of Antioch had a successful premiere on the morning of October 15, 1880. As thanks for Gilbert's help, Sullivan presented his collaborator with an engraved silver cup. Gilbert replied, "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." Sullivan dedicated the work to the Princess of Wales.

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 to set as an oratorio of the same title. Outside of the comic operas with Gilbert, this oratorio was Sullivan's most successful large-scale 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. Recent Sullivan scholarship and the first professional recording in 2001 have revived interest in the work.

Later works

In the late 1880s, Sullivan resumed composing incidental music to plays, producing Macbeth (1888) for the Lyceum Theatre, with Henry Irving in the title role; Tennyson's The Foresters (1892) for Daly's Theatre in New York; and J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur (1895), again at the Lyceum.

As early as 1883, Sullivan was under pressure from the musical establishment to write a grand opera, but he did not finally get around to it until 1891. The composer asked Gilbert to supply the libretto, but the latter declined, saying that in grand opera the librettist's role is subordinate to that of the composer. Sullivan turned, instead, to Julian Sturgis, who was recommended by Gilbert. 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, it passed into virtual obscurity after the opera house failed. Sullivan did not seriously consider writing grand opera again.

Apart from Ivanhoe, Sullivan collaborated with no other librettists besides Gilbert from 1875 until their partnership collapsed following The Gondoliers. Richard D'Oyly Carte still had the Savoy Theatre to run, and he turned to other librettists to provide material for new comic operas by Sullivan, while scheduling Gilbert & Sullivan revivals and works by other composers when no Sullivan work was available.

Sullivan's first comic opera after the breakup with Gilbert, Haddon Hall (1892, libretto by Sydney Grundy), enjoyed a modest success. Although still comic, the tone and style of the work was considerably more serious and romantic than most of the operas with Gilbert. After another Gilbert opera (Utopia Limited, 1893), 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 portrayed events from English history. Its six-month run was considered a great success.

The Beauty Stone (1898, libretto by Arthur Wing Pinero and J. Comyns Carr) was another opera more serious than Sullivan or the Savoy were accustomed to, and it failed miserably. Finally, in The Rose of Persia (1899, libretto by Basil Hood), Sullivan returned to his comic roots, producing his most successful full-length opera apart from Gilbert. Another opera with Hood quickly went into preparation.


Sullivan, who had suffered from ill health throughout his life, succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 58 at his flat in London on November 22, 1900. He left his last opera, The Emerald Isle, to be completed by Edward German. His Te Deum for the end of the Boer War was performed posthumously.

A monument in the composer's memory 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.

Personal life

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 affair with Rachel's sister Louise (1841–1878). He eventually cooled on both girls, and the affairs were over by 1870. Some two hundred love letters from the two girls 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, born August 23, 1839, a woman three years Sullivan's senior. He met her in Paris around 1867, and the affair began in earnest at some point not long after she moved to London permanently around 1870–1. 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 (quoted in Jacobs 1992, p. 88).

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 (Jacobs, p. 161). It is thought that Fanny was pregnant, or believed herself pregnant, on at least two occasions (Jacobs, pp. 178, 203–204), and procured an abortion on at least one occasion. In the 1999 biographical film Topsy-Turvy, Sullivan and Fanny discuss 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" (Jacobs, p. 295), 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 (1975, p. 46) says that Sullivan had a relationship with the Duke of Edinburgh. It is undisputed that Sullivan and the Duke 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.

Sullivan was devoted to his parents, his brother Fred, and Fred's children. After Fred died, Sullivan did his best to provide for Fred's family, and he left the bulk of his estate to Fred's children.

Compositional style


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. 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.

Musical Quotations

To the delight of his generally well educated Savoy Theatre audiences, Sullivan often quoted or imitated famous themes and passages from well-known composers or popular tunes.

He also liked to evoke familiar musical styles, such as his " madrigals" in The Mikado, Ruddigore and Yeomen, " glees" in H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado and " gavottes" in Ruddigore and The Gondoliers. The exotic sounds of the Far East are evoked in The Mikado, with the composer even trying to replicate a popular war song in "Miya Sama". In The Sorcerer, there is a country dance and folksy duet between the men and women's chorus in "If You'll Marry Me." In several of the operas, the style of a hornpipe or sea chanty is woven into the music, or the military sound of the fife and drum is quoted.

In early pieces, Sullivan took a page out of the Offenbach playbook in spoofing the idioms of Italian opera, such as in the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. Later, the influences of Handel, Schubert and especially Mendelssohn can be heard in Sullivan's work.

In the Major-General's Act II song "Sighing softly to the river" from The Pirates of Penzance, Sullivan imitates Schubert’s partsongs for male voices. The chorus "With catlike tread" from the same opera is an imitation of Verdi's " Anvil Chorus" from Il Trovatore. Sullivan also quotes the theme of Schubert’s song " Der Wanderer" in the choral entry of the family ghosts in Act II of Ruddigore.

In Iolanthe, Sullivan imitates a Bach fugue; this occurs on three occasions when the Lord Chancellor enters, including at the beginning of his "Nightmare" patter song. Likewise, in Iolanthe there is a Wagnerian style in the Fairy Queen's music in the finale of Act I ("All the most terrific thunders in my armoury of wonders"), as well as the fairies' music during Iolanthe's self-revelation. Iolanthe enters to an oboe solo quoting "Die alte Weise" from Tristan und Isolde. The strings over Phyllis' "heart that's aching" passage play virtually the same notes as the theme of desire (sometimes called "yearning") from Tristan.

In Princess Ida, there is a strong Handelian flavour to Arac's song in Act III, and in The Gondoliers, there is a Mozartean quintet, "Try we lifelong". Also in The Gondoliers, there is the Spanish cachucha, the Italian saltarello and tarantella, and the Venetian barcarolle. In "My Object All Sublime," when the Mikado mentions "Bach interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven," the bassoon quotes from the fugue subject of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 (the subject is itself evidently a quote from Reincken).

More generally, beyond his use of particular styles or the quotation of actual compositions, Sullivan also gave each opera, or elements in each opera, a thematic core style, motif or mood using particular orchestrations, key sequencing and rhythmic settings. For instance, in The Yeomen of the Guard, a strong rhythmic brass figure usually evokes the Tower of London. In The Pirates of Penzance, the policemen always enter to a signature theme. The Sorcerer is filled with lyrical, pastoral string and woodwind figures appropriate to a country manor setting. Princess Ida's two settings are contrasted, with the militaristic men's court separated from the dreamy, fairytale setting of the women's university. Likewise, in both Iolanthe and Patience, military or government officers march to a far different beat than that of aesthetically etherealized women or fairies, and so forth.


The overtures from Sullivan's comic operas remain popular, and there are many recordings of them. Most of them are structured as a potpourri of tunes from the operas. They are generally well orchestrated, but not all of them were composed by Sullivan. However, even those delegated to his assistants were probably based on an outline he provided, and in many cases incorporated his suggestions or corrections. One can certainly presume that he approved of them, since he invariably conducted on opening night.

Those Sullivan wrote himself include Cox and Box, Thespis, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, and The Grand Duke. Sullivan's authorship of the overture to Utopia Limited cannot be verified with certainty, as his autograph score is now lost, but it is likely attributable to him, as it consists of only a few bars of introduction, followed by a straight copy of music heard elsewhere in the opera (the Drawing Room scene). Thespis is now lost, but there is no doubt that it had an overture and that Sullivan wrote it.

Of those remaining, the overtures to H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance are by Alfred Cellier; to The Sorcerer, The Mikado and Ruddigore are by Hamilton Clarke (although Geoffrey Toye's 1920 Ruddigore overture has largely replaced Clarke's); and to Patience is by Eugene d'Albert.

Most of the overtures are in three sections: a lively introduction, a slow middle section, and a concluding allegro in sonata form, with two subjects, a brief development, a recapitulation and a coda. However, Sullivan himself didn't always follow this pattern. The overtures to Princess Ida and The Gondoliers, for instance, have only an opening fast section and a concluding slow section. The overture to Utopia Limited is dominated by a slow section, with only a very brief original passage introducing it.

In the 1920s, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company commissioned its musical director at the time, Geoffrey Toye, to write new overtures for Ruddigore and The Pirates of Penzance. Toye's Ruddigore overture entered the general repertory, and today is more often heard than the original overture by Clarke. Toye's Pirates overture, however, did not last long and is now lost.

Sir Malcolm Sargent devised a new ending for the overture to The Gondoliers, adding the "cachucha" from the second act of the opera. This gave the Gondoliers overture the familiar fast-slow-fast pattern of most of the rest of the Savoy Opera overtures, and this version has competed for popularity with Sullivan's original version.

Reputation and criticism

Early career

When the young Arthur Sullivan returned to England after his studies in Leipzig, critics were struck by his potential. His incidental music to The Tempest received an acclaimed premiere at the Crystal Palace on April 5, 1862. The Athenaeum wrote:

It was one of those events which mark an epoch in a man's life; and, what is of more universal consequence, it may mark an epoch in English music, or we shall be greatly disappointed. Years on years have elapsed since we have heard a work by so young an artist so full of promise, so full of fancy, showing so much conscientiousness, so much skill, and so few references to any model elect. (Quoted in Jacobs 1992, p. 28).

His Irish Symphony of 1866 won similarly enthusiastic praise:

The not only by far the most noticeable composition that has proceeded from Mr. Sullivan's pen, but the best musical work, if judged only by the largeness of its form and the number of beautiful thoughts it contains, for a long time produced by any English composer.... (The Times, quoted in Jacobs, p. 42).

But as Jacobs notes, "The first rapturous outburst of enthusiasm for Sullivan as an orchestral composer did not last." A comment that may be taken as typical of those that would follow the composer throughout his career was that "Sullivan's unquestionable talent should make him doubly careful not to mistake popular applause for artistic appreciation" (Jacobs, p. 49).

Sullivan was also occasionally cited for a lack of diligence. For instance, of his early oratorio, The Prodigal Son, his teacher, John Goss, wrote:

All you have done is most masterly – Your orchestration superb, & your effects many of them original & first-rate.... Some day, you will, I hope, try another oratorio, putting out all your strength, but not the strength of a few weeks or months, whatever your immediate friends may say...only don't do anything so pretentious as an oratorio or even a Symphony without all your power, which seldom comes in one fit. (Letter of December 22, 1869, quoted in Allen 1975a, p. 32).

The transition to opera

By the mid-1870s, Sullivan had turned his attention mainly to works for the theatre, for which he was generally admired. For instance, after the first performance of Trial by Jury (1875), the Times said that "It seems, as in the great Wagnerian operas, as though poem and music had proceeded simultaneously from one and the same brain" (quoted in Allen 1975b, p. 30). But by the time The Sorcerer appeared, there were charges that Sullivan was wasting his talents in comic opera:

There is nothing whatever in Mr. Sullivan's score which any theatrical conductor engaged at a few pounds a week could not have written equally well.... We trust Mr. Sullivan is more proud of it than we can pretend to be. But we must confess to a sense of disappointment at the downward art course Mr. Sullivan appears to be now drifting into.... [He] has all the ability to make him a great composer, but he wilfully throws his opportunity away. A giant may play at times, but Mr. Sullivan is always playing.... He possesses all the natural ability to have given us an English opera, and, instead, he affords us a little more-or-less excellent fooling. (Figaro, quoted in Allen 1975b, pp. 49–50).

Implicit in these comments was the view that comic opera, no matter how carefully crafted, was an intrinsically lower form of art. The Athenaeum's review of The Martyr of Antioch expressed a similar complaint:

It might be wished that in some portions Mr Sullivan had taken a loftier view of his theme, but at any rate he has written some most charming music, and orchestration equal, if not superior, to any that has ever proceeded from the pen of an English musician. And, further, it is an advantage to have the composer of H.M.S. Pinafore occupying himself with a worthier form of art. ( October 25, 1880, quoted in Jacobs, p. 149).

The operas with Gilbert themselves, however, garnered Sullivan high praise from the theatre reviewers. For instance, The Daily Telegraph wrote, "The composer has risen to his opportunity, and we are disposed to account Iolanthe his best effort in all the Gilbertian series" (quoted in Allen 1975b, p. 176). Similarly, the Theatre would say that "the music of Iolanthe is Dr Sullivan's chef d'oeuvre. The quality throughout is more even, and maintained at a higher standard, than in any of his earlier works.... In every respect Iolanthe sustains Dr Sullivan's reputation as the most spontaneous, fertile, and scholarly composer of comic opera this country has ever produced." (William Beatty-Kingston, Theatre, January 1, 1883, quoted in Baily 1966, p. 246).

Knighthood and maturity

Sullivan was knighted in 1883, and serious music critics renewed the charge that the composer was squandering his talent. The Musical Review of that year wrote:

Some things that Mr Arthur Sullivan may do, Sir Arthur ought not to do. In other words, it will look rather more than odd to see announced in the papers that a new comic opera is in preparation, the book by Mr W. S. Gilbert and the music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. A musical knight can hardly write shop ballads either; he must not dare to soil his hands with anything less than an anthem or a madrigal; oratorio, in which he has so conspicuously shone, and symphony, must now be his line. Here is not only an opportunity, but a positive obligation for him to return to the sphere from which he has too long descended. (Quoted in Baily, p. 250).

In Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sir George Grove, who was an old friend of Sullivan's, recognised the artistry in the Savoy Operas while urging the composer to bigger and better things: "Surely the time has come when so able and experienced a master of voice, orchestra, and stage effect—master, too, of so much genuine sentiment—may apply his gifts to a serious opera on some subject of abiding human or natural interest" (quoted in Baily, p. 250).

The premiere of The Golden Legend at the Leeds Festival in 1886 finally brought Sullivan the acclaim for a serious work that he had previously lacked. For instance, the critic of the Daily Telegraph wrote that "a greater, more legitimate and more undoubted triumph than that of the new cantata has not been achieved within my experience" (quoted in Jacobs, p. 247). Similarly, Louis Engel in The World wrote that it was:

one of the greatest creations we have had for many years. Original, bold, inspired, grand in conception, in execution, in treatment, it is a composition which will make an "epoch" and which will carry the name of its composer higher on the wings of fame and glory. The effect it produced at rehearsal was enormous. The effect of the public performance was unprecedented. (Quoted in Harris, p. IV).

Hopes for a new departure were evident in the Daily Telegraph's review of The Yeomen of the Guard, Sullivan's most serious opera to that point:

The accompaniments...are delightful to hear, and especially does the treatment of the woodwind compel admiring attention. Schubert himself could hardly have handled those instruments more deftly, written for them more lovingly.... We place the songs and choruses in The Yeomen of the Guard before all his previous efforts of this particular kind. Thus the music follows the book to a higher plane, and we have a genuine English opera, forerunner of many others, let us hope, and possibly significant of an advance towards a national lyric stage. (Quoted in Allen 1975b, p. 312).

The 1890s

The advance the Daily Telegraph was looking for would come with Ivanhoe (1891), which opened to largely favourable reviews, but attracted some significant negative ones. For instance, J. A. Fuller-Maitland wrote in The Times that the opera's "best portions rise so far above anything else that Sir Arthur Sullivan has given to the world, and have such force and dignity, that it is not difficult to forget the drawbacks which may be found in the want of interest in much of the choral writing, and the brevity of the concerted solo parts." (Quoted in Jacobs, p. 331).

In the 1890s, Sullivan's successes were fewer and far between. The ballet Victoria and Merrie England (1898) won praise from most critics:

Sir Arthur Sullivan's music is music for the people. There is no attempt made to force on the public the dullness of academic experience. The melodies are all as fresh as last year's wine, and as exhilarating as sparkling champagne. There is not one tune which tires the hearing, and in the matter of orchestration our only humorous has let himself run riot, not being handicapped with libretto, and the gain is enormous.... All through we have orchestration of infinite delicacy, tunes of alarming simplicity, but never a tinge of vulgarity, and a total absence of the cymbal-brassy combination which some ballets never do without. (Quoted in Tillett 1998, p. 26).

After The Rose of Persia (1899), the Daily Telegraph said that "The musician is once again absolutely himself," while the Musical Times opined that "it is music that to hear once is to want to hear again and again" (quoted in Jacobs, p. 397).

In 1899, Sullivan composed a popular song, "The Absent-Minded Beggar", to a text by Rudyard Kipling, donating the proceeds of the sale to "the wives and children of soldiers and sailors" on active service in the Boer War. Fuller-Maitland disapproved in The Times, but Sullivan himself asked a friend, "Did the idiot expect the words to be set in cantata form, or as a developed composition with symphonic introduction, contrapuntal treatment, etc.?" (quoted in Jacobs, p. 396).

Death and posthumous reputation

If the musical establishment never quite forgave Sullivan for condescending to write music that was both comic and popular, he was, nevertheless, the nation's de facto composer laureate. Sullivan was considered the natural candidate to compose a Te Deum for the end of the Boer War, which he duly completed, despite serious ill-health, but did not live to see performed.

Gian Andrea Mazzucato would write this glowing summary of his career in The Musical Standard of December 16, 1899:

As regards music, the English history of the 19th century could not record the name of a man whose 'life work' is more worthy of honour, study and admiration than the name of Sir Arthur Sullivan, whose useful activity, it may be expected, will extend considerably into the 20th century; and it is a debatable point whether the universal history of music can point to any musical personality since the days of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whose influence is likely to be more lasting than the influence the great Englishman is slowly, but surely, exerting, and whose results shall be clearly seen, perhaps, only by our posterity. I make no doubt that when, in proper course of time, Sir Arthur Sullivan's life and works have become known on the continent, he will, by unanimous consent, be classed among the epoch-making composers, the select few whose genius and strength of will empowered them to find and found a national school of music, that is, to endow their countrymen with the undefinable, yet positive means of evoking in a man's soul, by the magic of sound, those delicate nuances of feeling which are characteristic of the emotional power of each different race. (Quoted in the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society Journal, No. 34, Spring 1992, pp. 11-12).

Over the next decade, however, Sullivan's reputation sank considerably. Shortly after the composer's death, J. A. Fuller-Maitland took issue with the generally praiseworthy tone of most of the obituaries, citing the composer's failure to live up to the early praise of his Tempest music:

Among the lesser men who are still ranked with the great composers, there are many who may only have reached the highest level now and then, but within whose capacity it lies to attain great heights; some may have produced work on a dead-level of mediocrity, but may have risen on some special occasion to a pitch of beauty or power which would establish their claim to be numbered among the great. Is there anywhere a case quite parallel to that of Sir Arthur Sullivan, who began his career with a work which at once stamped him as a genius, and to the height of which he only rarely attained throughout life?....
Though the illustrious masters of the past never did write music as vulgar, it would have been forgiven them if they had, in virtue of the beauty and value of the great bulk of their productions. It is because such great natural gifts – gifts greater, perhaps, than fell to any English musician since the time of Purcell – were so very seldom employed in work worthy of them.... If the author of The Golden Legend, the music to The Tempest, Henry VIII and Macbeth cannot be classed with these, how can the composer of "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Absent-Minded Beggar" claim a place in the hierarchy of music among the men who would face death rather than smirch their singing robes for the sake of a fleeting popularity? (Eden 1992, quoting Cornhill March 1901, pp. 301, 309).

Edward Elgar, to whom Sullivan had been particularly kind, rose to Sullivan's defence, branding Fuller-Maitland's obituary "the shady side of musical criticism... that foul unforgettable episode" (quoted in Young 1971, p. 264). In his History of Music in England (1907), however, Ernest Walker was even more damning of Sullivan:

After all, Sullivan is merely the idle singer of an empty evening; with all his gift for tunefulness, he could never raise it to the height of a real strong melody of the kind that appeals to cultured and relatively uncultured alike as a good folk-song does – often and often on the other hand (but chiefly outside the operas) it sunk to mere vulgar catchiness. He laid the original foundations of his success on work that as a matter of fact he did extremely well; and it would have been incalculably better for the permanence of his reputation if he had realised this and set himself, with sincerity and self-criticism, to the task of becoming – as he might easily have become – a really great composer of musicianly light music. But anything like steadiness of artistic purpose was never one of his endowments, and without that, a composer, whatever his technical ability may be, is easily liable to degenerate into a mere popularity-hunting trifler. (Walker 1907, quoted in Eden 1992).

Fuller-Maitland would incorporate similar views in the second edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which he edited, while Walker's History would be re-issued in 1923 and 1956 with his earlier verdict intact. As late as 1966, Frank Howes wrote:

Outside the Savoy operas, little enough of Sullivan has survived... Yet a post-mortem is a valuable form of inquest, not only to ascertain the cause of death, but to discover why Sullivan's music as a whole had not in it the seeds of the revival that was on the verge of taking place. The lack of sustained effort, that is artistic effort proved by vigorous self-criticism, is responsible for the impression of weakness, the streaks of poor stuff among the better metal, and the consequent general ambiguity that is left by his music. His contemporaries deprecated his addiction to high life, the turf, and an outward lack of seriousness. Without adopting the simplified morality of the women's magazines, it is possible to urge that his contemporaries were really right, in that such addiction implied a fundamental lack of seriousness towards his art. (Howes 1966, quoted in Eden 1992).

Yet, there were other writers who rose to praise Sullivan. For example, in an entire chapter of his 1928 book, Sullivan's Comic Operas, titled "Mainly in Defence," Thomas F. Dunhill wrote:

It should not be necessary to defend a writer who is so firmly established in popular esteem that his best works are more widely known and more keenly appreciated over a quarter of a century after his death than they were at any period during his lifetime.
But no critical appreciation of Sullivan can be attempted to-day which does not, from the first, adopt a defensive attitude, for his music has suffered in an extraordinary degree from the vigorous attacks which have been made upon it in professional circles. These attacks have succeeded in surrounding the composer with a kind of barricade of prejudice which must be sweat away before justice can be done to his genius. (Dunhill 1928, p. 13).

Gervase Hughes (1959) would pick up the trail where Dunhill left off:

Dunhill's achievement was that of a pioneer, a preliminary skirmish in a campaign whose advance has yet to be implemented. Today there may be few musicians for whom — as for Ernest Walker — Sullivan is merely 'the idle singer of an empty evening'; there are many who, while acknowledging his great gifts, tend to take them for granted.... The time is surely ripe for a comprehensive study of his music as a whole, which, while recognising that the operettas 'for his chief title to fame' will not leave the rest out of account, and while taking note of his weaknesses (which are many) and not hesitating to castigate his lapses from good taste (which were comparatively rare) will attempt to view them in perspective against the wider background of his sound musicianship. (Hughes 1959, p. 6).

Recent views

In recent years, Sullivan's work outside of the Savoy Operas has begun to be re-assessed. It has only been since the late 1960s that a quantity of his non-Savoy music has been professionally recorded. The Symphony in E had its first professional recording in 1968; his solo piano and chamber music in 1974; the cello concerto in 1986; Kenilworth in 1999; The Martyr of Antioch in 2000; The Golden Legend in 2001. In 1992 and 1993, Naxos released four discs featuring performances of Sullivan's ballet music and his incidental music to plays. Of his operas apart from Gilbert, Cox and Box (1961 and several later recordings), The Zoo (1978), The Rose of Persia (1999), and The Contrabandista (2004) have had professional recordings.

In recent decades, several publishers have issued scholarly critical editions of Sullivan's works, including Ernst Eulenburg (The Gondoliers), Broude Brothers (Trial by Jury and H.M.S. Pinafore), Oxford University Press (Ruddigore), and R. Clyde (Cox and Box, Overture "In Memoriam", Overture di Ballo, and The Golden Legend).

In a 2000 article for the Musical Times, Nigel Burton wrote:

We must assert that Sullivan has no need to be 'earnest' (though he could be), for he spoke naturally to all people, for all time, of the passions, sorrows and joys which are forever rooted in the human consciousness. He believed, deeply, in the moral expressed at the close of Cherubini's Les deux journées: that the human being's prime duty in life is to serve humanity. It is his artistic consistency in this respect which obliges us to pronounce him our greatest Victorian composer. Time has now sufficiently dispersed the mists of criticism for us to be able to see the truth, to enjoy all his music, and to rejoice in the rich diversity of its panoply. Now, therefore, one hundred years after his death, let us resolve to set aside the `One-and-a-half-hurrahs' syndrome once and for all, and, in its place, raise THREE LOUD CHEERS.

Sullivan on recorded music:

After hearing a demonstration of Edison's wax cylinder recording technology on October 5, 1888, Sullivan wrote, "For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening's experiment -- astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever."

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