Sullivan’s Dilemma

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Poor Arthur Sullivan! Though hailed as England’s answer to Mozart, honored with a knighthood at the relatively young age of 42, friend to the crowned heads of Europe and frequently ‘living large’ as a guest of royalty, happiness and health eluded him.

Beginning in 1872 when he was 30 years old, Sullivan suffered from kidney stones. Wikipedia describes the pain as “excruciating, intermittent pain that radiates from the flank to the groin or to the inner thigh,” and says it’s one of the strongest pain sensations known. Surgical removal of stones was the best-known procedure at the time, but it had a high risk of death from bleeding and infection. Apparently, Sullivan did not take that risk.

He lived in constant fear of a recurrence of the disease. As Hesketh Pearson put it in Gilbert and Sullivan, “the presence or near-presence of this disease drove him to work in a frantic effort to forget it, and its complete absence was such a relief that he would take advantage of the blessed interregnum and revel in the futilities of social life or dream away the hours in some rural retreat.”

The other problem that plagued Sullivan and diminished his happiness was of a spiritual sort – his dissatisfaction with the course his career had taken. He aspired to be taken seriously as a genius who wrote important musical compositions, but he was painfully aware that he was best known for his popular and commercially successful tunes. Pearson again: “He was secretly discontented with the serious work that he had already done, that he felt he ought to go on doing, that his friends were always begging him to do, and therefore a little ashamed of the fact that the lighter type of composition came to him with such frightening facility. It was the old story once again of the natural comedian who wanted to play Hamlet.”

It was a real dilemma: the money he earned from his commercially popular work enabled him to circulate in the aristocratic social circles he enjoyed most, but the very commercialism of working for money was anathema to those aristocrats – and made him less worthy in their eyes.

Between his terror of being unable to work when his disease flared up, and his reluctance to work when he felt ashamed of its lowbrow nature, Sullivan ended up cramming all of his composing into brief but intense periods of round-the-clock effort followed by near collapse.

I am convinced that many artists feel as Sullivan did, that working for a monetary reward is somehow doing a disservice to one’s art. Do you feel that way? Let me know in the comments.



Gilbert and Sullivan – Together

In the 1870s, Arthur Sullivan was a rising young composer whose reputation was growing steadily. At the same time, William S. Gilbert was a rising young dramatist whose plays were attracting an increasingly wider audience.

They lived in the same city, they had friends in common, and each probably knew of the other’s work—we know Gilbert had heard Sullivan’s music, because he had reviewed Sullivan and Burnand’s operetta, Cox and Box, as the theater critic for Fun magazine.

They had even collaborated on a Christmas entertainment, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. It was a successful venture in its limited way, but both men evidently considered the project a one-off. So neglected was it, that the music to Thespis has been lost except for a tune that Sullivan re-used for a chorus song in The Pirates of Penzance: “Climbing Over the Rocky Mountains.”

It was the impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte who brought the two together and encouraged the formation of the partnership that was to change the course of musical theater.

Gilbert had expanded his Bab ballad (comic poem) Trial By Jury for his friend Carl Rosa’s opera company to perform, and Rosa had agreed to write the music for it. Tragically, however, Rosa’s wife Euphrosyne, who had also been friends with Gilbert since childhood, died in childbirth at age 37 in January 1874. Carl Rosa no longer had the heart to continue his work, and the libretto had been returned.

The next year, D’Oyly Carte was trying to find a libretto for Sullivan to write the music for, and he persuaded Gilbert to take Trial by Jury to Sullivan.

It would have been hard to find two less likely collaborators. Everything about them, including their appearances, personalities, and preferences, were diametrically opposed. In his book Gilbert and Sullivan, Hesketh Pearson comments on how completely opposite the two men were:

“…the librettist, a tall military-looking gentleman with fair hair, rosy complexion, bright blue eyes and high massive forehead, who spoke quickly and jerkily in a deep hearty voice; and the composer, a short, plump, daintily-clad person, with a thick neck, dark hair and eyes, olive-tinted mobile face, sensuous lips and tender expression, whose voice was wistful and full of feeling.”

Still, Gilbert was not the kind of businessman to leave an unproduced manuscript around to gather dust if he could help it. On a cold, snowy February 20, 1875, Gilbert went to visit Sullivan at Albert Mansions in Victoria Street.

Sullivan recalled the event for his biographer, Arthur Lawrence, in Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences  :

“It was on a very cold morning,” Sir Arthur tells me, “with the snow falling heavily, that Gilbert came round to my place, clad in a heavy fur coat. He had called to read over to me the MS of ‘Trial by Jury.’ He read it through, as it seemed to me, in a perturbed sort of way, with a gradual crescendo of indignation, in the manner of a man considerably disappointed with what he had written. As soon as he had come to the last word he closed up the manuscript violently, apparently unconscious of the fact that he had achieved his purpose so far as I was concerned, inasmuch as I was screaming with laughter the whole time.”

Less than five weeks later, the music had been written, the cast rehearsed, and the new one-act operetta was ready for opening night.

Even though it followed a very popular opera by Offenbach, La Perichole, the performance was an immediate hit, as this quote from Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography attests:

“To judge by the unceasing and almost boisterous hilarity which formed a sort of running commentary on the part of the audience,” said The Times, “Trial by Jury suffered nothing whatever from so dangerous a juxtaposition. On the contrary, it may fairly be said to have borne away the palm.”  The sheer enjoyment the audience experienced came not from the words or the music alone but from the unusually happy combination of the two, a point that was seized on by the critics as exceptional: “so completely is each imbued with the same spirit,” commented the Daily News, “That it would be as difficult to conceive the existence of Mr. Gilbert’s verses without Mr. Sullivan’s music, as of Mr. Sullivan’s music without Mr. Gilbert’s verses. Each gives each a double charm.”

And so the partnership was born.

Though both were moderately successful in their separate spheres, and in later years, both Gilbert and Sullivan would feel that they each had limited their own talents in deference to the other’s artistic needs, the truth is that it took both of them together to create their extraordinary works.

I think it’s impossible to choose one over the other. What do you say? Do you prefer the music or the words? Let me know in the comments.



The Sullivan – Edison Connection

Sir Arthur Sullivan

The advent of sound recording both astonished and terrified Arthur Sullivan – astonished by its wonderful power, and terrified that “so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.”

For this comment, which has been put on record forever, we can thank George Edward Gouraud, an American war hero and a 19th century technology wonk.

George’s father, a French engineer, came to America in 1839 to introduce daguerreotype photography to the United States. Young George was born in 1842, and he was orphaned when both his parents died five years later. He fought for the U.S. Army in the American Civil War, and received the Medal of Honor for his bravery as a captain with the 3rd New York Volunteer Cavalry. He was later brevetted as a Lieutenant Colonel. After the War he became affiliated with famed inventor Thomas Edison, who was based in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

In 1873 George moved his family to England, to be Edison’s agent in Europe. Gouraud loved all the new electric inventions – he had so many electric marvels installed in his house at Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood, in South London that it became known as “Little Menlo,” after Edison’s place.

One of the cool new electric gadgets that Edison created was the “Perfected Phonograph” – perfected after more than a decade of experimentation (1877-1888) by Edison and a number of rival inventors (including Alexander Graham Bell), who worked to discover ways to capture and play back sounds. The “records,” as the wax cylinders were called then, were developed by both the Gramophone company and Edison. A patent-sharing arrangement allowed both to market the cylinders.

Gouraud received the Perfected Phonograph from Edison in 1888, and on August 14, 1888 he held a press conference at Little Menlo to introduce this latest technological advance to London. The event included a performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord” on piano and cornet – one of the first musical recordings ever made.

Sir Arthur Sullivan himself visited Little Menlo on 5 October 1888, as a guest at one of Gouraud’s “phonograph parties” for members of high society. After dinner, Sullivan recorded a speech to be sent to Thomas Edison, saying, in part:

I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: 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. But all the same I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery.

In the years following, George Gouraud made several recordings of contemporaries, including Tennyson reading the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Florence Nightingale addressing her “dear old comrades of Balaclava.”

You may listen to the recordings online at

Experts tell us that technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace. It is amazing to me that almost 130 years ago, there was no way to record the sounds of the world around us. My aunt lived to be 100 years old, and her husband, my uncle, lived to 102 – so the invention of sound recording was made barely more than one long human lifetime ago.

Today, we can capture not only sounds but moving pictures as well with a press of a button on our phones.

What technologies have developed within your lifetime? Let me know in the comments.





Credits: Phonograph by Norman Bruderhofer, – own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg), CC BY-SA 3.0,

George Gouraud by Carlo Pellegrini – Published in Vanity Fair, 13 April 1889.This version from, Public Domain,


Uncle Tom’s Cabin – The Power of the Pen

Harried Beecher Stowe

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Supposedly, this is what Abraham Lincoln said when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862.  In any event, her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a deep and lasting impact on the public not only in America but around the world, according to the Harriet Beecher Stowe center. From that source I learned:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin originally appeared in installments published in an anti-slavery newspaper, The National Era, in 1851. The next year it was published as a two-volume book. It sold 300,000 copies in its first year, and became the second best-selling book of the 19th century after the Bible. A best-seller in the US, Britain, Europe and Asia, it was eventually translated into 60 languages.

Because the book personalized the political and economic arguments about slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped many 19th-century Americans determine what kind of country they wanted.  Frederick Douglass wrote of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.”

Eliza escapes across the frozen Ohio River, carrying her baby and herself to freedom.

The book had as many critics as supporters. The poet Langston Hughes called the novel, “the most cussed and discussed book of its time.”

Southerners claimed that the stories were wildly exaggerated, which led Beecher Stowe to publish a second book, called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she detailed the first-hand accounts that she had collected and on which she based the events in her novel, including the runaway slave Eliza’s dramatic escape from slave-hunters by leaping from ice floe to ice floe across the winter-bound Ohio River.

I would guess that W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan might have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or at least heard of it. The first London edition of the book came out in May, 1852, and sold over one million copies. By the time both men had reached their adult years (in the 1860s), the book was widely known and there were even stage adaptations of the work.

According to the Gilder Lehrman history site, even Queen Victoria had a copy of the book.

On the eve of publication, Stowe presented a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. In this accompanying letter addressed to Prince Albert, Stowe acknowledged that England had made some strides since the “less enlightened days” in their treatment of an “oppressed race.” She then appealed to the sympathetic hearts of the British people and their queen, writing “the author is encouraged by the thought that beneath the royal insignia of England throbs that woman’s and mother’s heart.”

Slavery had been abolished in England in 1807, and in the British colonies in 1833 (albeit gradually; The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 legally freed 700,000 in the West Indies, 20,000 in Mauritius, and 40,000 in South Africa, but not in the territories controlled by the East India Company and Ceylon).

The fugitives were safe.

On  Friday, September 3, 1852 the London Times published an article entitled “The English Opinion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at every railway book-stall in England, and in every third traveler’s hand. The book is a decided hit. It takes its place with “Pickwick,” with Louis Napoleon, with the mendicant who suddenly discovers himself heir to £20,000 a year, and, in fact, with every man whose good fortune it has been to fall asleep Nobody, and to awake in the morning an institution in the land. It is impossible not to feel respect for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

I hadn’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin before, so even though I considered some of the portrayals of the characters to be problematic, I was struck by how exciting the story was. It is clear to me why Uncle Tom’s Cabin left such an indelible mark on history.

Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments.




Eliza: By A.S. Seer’s Union Square Print., N.Y. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fugitives Safe: Public Domain,
Harriet Beecher Stowe by Painter Alonzo Chappel (1828–1887); Engraver: Unknown – Modified version of public domain image. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-10476 (3-18), Public Domain,

Entertaining house guests, Victorian-style

Before the Internet—even before television and radio—beamed professional entertainment directly into our homes, what did people do for fun?

Our Victorian ancestors, especially those of the middle and upper classes, had plenty of leisure time to fill. One way to enjoy oneself was to invite friends over to stay for a while—three days was the standard visit. But once you had your circle of intimates gathered at your country home, what were you to do with them?

Welcoming your guests

The proper time for arrival was mid-afternoon, around teatime. Guests often arrived by train, so a good host would arrange for the guests to be met at the train station. Servants would convey the trunks, suitcases and other baggage to the house, and a carriage would be waiting to bring the guests themselves to the house.

Once at the house, the guest rooms would be all ready with everything they might need—toiletries, needles and pins, brushes, writing paper and pens, and entertaining reading materials.


Reading aloud – tableau with WS Gilbert, Maud Tree, “the Playwright”, and Beerbohm Tree

A good host and hostess would have put some thought into providing entertainment for the guests. Outdoors, there might be opportunities for hunting, or horseback riding, or hiking. In good weather, croquet matches might be held on the lawn. Indoors, options included reading, working jigsaw puzzles, and other quiet activities.

Also, groups of guests might like to indulge in conversation or dancing. Someone could read aloud, or if a guest was good at singing or playing an instrument, they might give a recital. The most active guests could dress up in costume and present a “tableau vivant.”

Tableau vivants

From the French phrase meaning “living picture,” a tableau vivant was when a person or group of people recreated a scene from a famous painting, a moment from a book or a play, or even an idea.

Using costumes, props, and backdrops, the participants would pose in the proper attitudes of the original scene. A curtain would be drawn back revealing the models, who stayed silent and frozen for about thirty seconds. Sometimes a poem or music accompanied the scene, and there might even be a large wooden frame placed around the scene, giving it the appearance of a painted canvas inside a picture frame.

With the advent of photography, the scenes could then be photographed and preserved. Julia Margaret Cameron created a number of fantasy images featuring friends and family dressed in medieval or legendary costumes. No doubt this was big fun for the Victorians, since many of them seemed to enjoy fancy-dress (costumes).

Arthur Sullivan belonged to a group of friends who called themselves the Moray Minstrels and met at Moray Lodge, the home of Arthur James Lewis.  Just for fun, they would hold musical evenings on a monthly basis – they put on the very first performance of Sullivan’s “Cox and Box,” on which he collaborated with writer F.C. Burnand.

Here is a photograph of the costume-wearing Moray Minstrels, plus sisters Kate and Ellen Terry – both were actresses; Kate was married to Arthur James Lewis.  Arthur Sullivan is seated on the far left; the woman seated closest to him is Ellen Terry, the other woman in the picture is Kate Terry, and seated on the floor in front is cartoonist George Du Maurier.

Moray Minstrels, from “Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World” by Christopher Hibbert


Sir Arthur Sullivan – A Knight of the Realm

Sir Arthur Sullivan

The year 1882 had brought financial reverses and difficulties to Arthur Sullivan. His physical health was declining, but he started the new year knowing he would have to work hard to regain his financial security. What would 1883 bring to him?

In February, he signed a five-year contract with D’Oyly Carte and William S. Gilbert, which would provide him with one-third of the Savoy Theater’s net profits “after deducting all expenses and charges of producing the said operas.”

By the spring of that year, Sullivan was involved with the preparations for the formal opening of the Royal College of Music. This school was to be a conservatory where top-notch musicians could be trained. Sullivan’s friend George Grove would be the first director.

As Michael Ainger reports in Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography:

Sullivan noted in his diary on 29 April that the Prince of Wales had said on shaking hands, “I congratulate you on the great honor we have in store for you.” – I suppose he means he is going to place me on the Council of the R.C. of Music! What an honor!” thought Sullivan. The following week, on Monday 3 May, Sullivan received a letter from the prime minister offering him a knighthood, “in recognition,” wrote Gladstone, “of your distinguished talents as a composer and of the services which you have rendered to the promotion of the art of music generally in this country.” Sullivan humbly accepted.

What a thrill for Sullivan! An even greater honor than he had imagined. The Prince of Wales announced Sullivan’s knighthood at the Royal College of Music’s opening ceremony the next week, on May 7, 1883.

Ainger continues:

On 22 May, Sullivan went down “by special train” to Windsor Castle to be knighted along with George Grove, then aged 63, and George Macfarren, age 70. He recorded the event in his diary in formal terms, leaving aside the emotion of the occasion. “I bowed low – then knelt down – the Queen took the Equerry’s sword & laid it first on right then on left shoulder – said softly “Sir Arthur” & gave me her hand to kiss – then I rose – bowed low again & backed out.”

Just six months earlier, his friend and investment manager E.A. Hall had informed Sullivan that he’d lost his entire life’s savings. Now, Sullivan’s latest collaboration with Gilbert was a huge financial success, he was firmly part of the highest social circles in England, and he had been made a Knight of the Realm at the young age of 41.

What a difference six months can make! Good thing Sullivan didn’t give up when the going got tough, or he would have missed all the good stuff that was coming his way.





Photo of Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice by Mary Steen –, Public Domain,






Arthur Sullivan and The Golden Legend

Cover art for a present day recording of The Golden Legend, available on Amazon.

Even successful artists like Sir Arthur Sullivan struggle with procrastination, goal-setting, and getting things done!

In 1886, 44-year-old Arthur Sullivan was at the top of his career. He’d been knighted in 1883 for his services to music, his collaborations with WSGilbert had brought him a lot of success and financial reward, but success brought increasing pressure into his life.

First, there was the pressure to write “serious music,” not comic operas or other popular stuff.  High-minded critics thought that an ordinary tunesmith could write a comic opera, but a Knight of the Realm had to compose masterpieces, music for the ages. Second, success at any level comes with its own increasing momentum, and the artist or composer has to start running just to keep up.

At the beginning of the year 1886, Sullivan promised to write a cantata for the Leeds Festival, to be premiered in October. The cantata would be a large-scale choral work, The Golden Legend, based on a poem by Longfellow. This is how it all worked out:

By the end of January, Sullivan had dinner with his friend Joseph Bennett, and confided that he could write the music, but he just couldn’t figure out how to put together a libretto.

In February, a story in the press announced that Sullivan was hard at work on The Golden Legend! Since Sullivan hadn’t yet reported back to the Leeds Festival committee on his progress, they were pretty annoyed that the papers knew more than they did. Sullivan was annoyed, too – he hadn’t made any progress yet, no matter what the papers said, and he didn’t need questions from the committee at this stage of the work.  But he assured them he was hard at work on the cantata.

Then other commitments got in his way.

In March, he had to conduct one of his earlier works, The Martyr of Antioch, with the Bath Philharmonic. He also had to work on a new comic opera for the Savoy Theater. Rupert D’Oyly Carte wanted Sullivan to write the comic opera first, before working on the The Golden Legend. Between the cantata and the comic opera and the conducting gigs, Sullivan’s life was picking up speed.

In April, the Prince of Wales asked Sullivan to write a piece of music for the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, on the 4th of May. Of course, he couldn’t turn down the Prince. Now this new work had to be squeezed in before Sullivan could even think about the comic opera and The Golden Legend.

“How am I to get through this year’s work?” Sullivan complained to his diary.

The rest of April was full of social engagements – receptions for Liszt, newly arrived from Paris; the opening of the spring season at Epsom; receptions at Grosvenor Gallery; and more concerts. Very little time was left for writing music.

May was equally busy: Conducting the music he’d written for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, which was opened by Queen Victoria herself; conducting his symphony on his birthday at St. James’ Hall; then sparkling social engagements like Derby Day at Epsom, followed by Ascot Week.

Cover of the score of The Golden Legend

When, oh, when, was he going to find time to write The Golden Legend?

Finally, toward the end of July, Sullivan was able to escape the city and work on The Golden Legend at Stagenhoe Park. It was finally finished on August 25, 1886.

By then, of course, it was too late to do anything about the comic opera for the Savoy – In a meeting in September, Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte decided to postpone the new opera until November. This still didn’t leave Sullivan a lot of time, because now the rehearsals for The Golden Legend would have to begin right away, so the soloists and choir members would be ready for the October premiere.

Would everything come together in time for The Golden Legend to go off without a hitch?

The Golden Legend premiered on October 15, 1886. As Michael Ainger writes in Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, “Most of the press were ecstatic in their praise: “cheer after cheer rang through the hall,” said the Liverpool Mercury, “the audience were excited and the choristers simply crazy. The girls pelted the composer with flowers. Such a frenzy of congratulations has surely never before rung in the ears of any living man as that amid which Sir Arthur left the platform.”

The Times was more restrained: “The Leeds Festival may boast of having given life to a work which, if not of genius in the strict sense of the word, is at least likely to survive till our long expected English Beethoven appears on the stage”.

According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, the premiere “was received with delirious enthusiasm. The audience yelled themselves hoarse and pelted him with flowers. He turned to bow his acknowledgments to the choir, who also pelted him with flowers. The newspapers agreed with the audience and choir. The World called him ‘the Mozart of England,’ and said that though it was difficult to claim a place in the foremost ranks of composers for the author of The Pirates of Penzance, the case of the author of The Golden Legend rested on a very different basis. It still does.”

Drawings of the premiere at Leeds in 1886

Finally, Sullivan had received the recognition he’d so long coveted—to be ranked alongside the greatest composers of serious music, and not regarded simply as a popular tunesmith.

Even royalty approved. When Queen Victoria heard The Golden Legend, she told Sullivan that he ought to write a grand opera. “You would do it so well,” she said.

Sullivan did write a grand opera, based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It’s not often performed these days. And, although The Golden Legend was one of the most-performed cantatas of the 1880s and 1890s after Handel’s Messiah, the work is not very often performed these days. Ironically, it is those light-hearted comic operas which have endured.

But it gives me hope to know that Sir Arthur struggled to meet his commitments, and that he managed to achieve success despite all the obstacles he faced, such as a busy life, other  work to do, new projects that pop up unexpectedly and all the rest. I’ll take the thought of Sir Arthur’s own challenges with me as I face the projects I hope to accomplish in 2017.

How about you? Do you worry about finishing every job you’ve got on your plate?  Let me know in the comments.

Sullivan and the Crowned Heads of Europe

sullivan-young-manI love the old Victorian phrase, “the crowned heads of Europe” as a description of the members of the various royal families. It reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz, where the wizard’s little wooden trailer is decorated on the side with the following legend:


Dorothy, of course, can’t help but read this boast, and since she wants to get away from Kansas, she pleads:


DOROTHY: Oh, please, Professor, why can’t we go with you and see all the Crowned Heads of Europe?

PROFESSOR: Do you know any?  Oh, you mean the thing – Yes, well, I – I never do anything without consulting my crystal first.


Arthur Sullivan did know a fair few crowned heads of Europe. One was Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son. The two men had music in common. Alfred studied violin at Holyrood, Edinburgh, and sometimes Arthur Sullivan played as his accompanist.

prince_alfred_1865In the Summer of 1881, Arthur Sullivan was invited by the Duke of Edinburgh to join him on the HMS Hercules for the Reserve Fleet’s annual maneuvers in the Baltic Sea.

Sullivan wrote to his mother, “I have a lovely cabin in the Admiral’s quarters at the stern of the ship, and am very luxuriously lodged altogether. … The officers seem pleasant fellows, the ship is splendid, the sea like glass & the weather heavenly, and I have nothing to do.”

Nothing to do but enjoy himself in the finest company, it seemed.

When the ship arrived in Copenhagen, Sullivan was among the dinner guests of King Christian IX and his queen. Then they stopped in St. Petersburg and stayed in a villa near Czar Alexander’ III’s villa. When the fleet departed, the czar and czarina saw them off, with guns firing royal salutes as they sailed away.

To me, the most remarkable encounter of the trip was when they docked at Kiel and were met by Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, the eldest son of Queen Victoria’s daughter Victoria, who would eventually grow up to become Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, during World War I.

wilhelm_ii_of_germanyHowever, that war was many decades in the future when the 22-year-old Prince Wilhelm greeted Sullivan by singing, “He Polished Up the Handle of the Big Front Door,” from HMS Pinafore.

“I burst out laughing,” Sullivan reported, “and so did everyone. It was too funny.”

It’s interesting to think that despite the rigid class structure of the Victorian era, some individuals whose lives began in very humble circumstances were able to climb to the very pinnacle of society.

So I have to wonder what Sullivan was thinking as he watched a Prince sing for him.

Fourteen years earlier, snobbish Mrs. Scott Russell forbade her daughter Rachel from marrying Sullivan, because she thought the poor musician and composer wouldn’t rise very high on the social scale.

If Mrs. Scott Russell could have seen him then!




By Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Winterhalter and the courts of Europe, Public Domain,

By Uploaded from en:Image:KaiserBill2.JPG, contributed by en:User:Infrogmation, 19:47, 4 Nov 2002., Public Domain,


Young Arthur Sullivan, the Choirboy

Young Arthur Sullivan in his gold braided coat (Scanned in from Carl Brahms, Gilbert and Sullivan, 1975)

Young Arthur Sullivan in his gold braided coat

Arthur Sullivan’s parents were poor but loving – his Irish father Thomas Sullivan was a music teacher and bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and his mother, Maria Clementina Coghlan, was the granddaughter of Joseph Righi, an Italian from what was then the Kingdom of Sardinia.

Having experienced financial difficulties, Thomas and Clementina hoped that both their sons would enter into stable and respectable professions that would allow them to live comfortably. Their hopes never exactly turned out the way they planned! The older son, Frederick, started out as an architect but switched to acting and eventually made a name for himself as an actor and singer.  In fact, he created the role of the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury, singing music composed by his brother. And despite his parent’s hopes that he would develop an interest in chemistry, Arthur Sullivan was devoted to music from a very young age.

Later in his life, Arthur Sullivan said that from the age of 5, music was all he cared about. At 8 years old, he composed his first anthem, “By the waters of Babylon.” By the time he was sent to a private school in Bayswater at age 9, he could play all the wind instruments in his father’s band at Sandhurst.

It took Sullivan three years to convince his parents to give him the education of his choice, as a chorister of the Chapel Royal. The famous composer Purcell had been a chorister, and Sullivan aimed to follow in those distinguished footsteps. Eventually, he convinced his father to take him to Rev. Thomas Helmore, the master of her Majesty’s Chapel Royal.

Convincing Helmore was not easy. First of all, Helmore had a rule that he would accept no student older than age 9 – and Sullivan was 12. Second, Sullivan’s family lived too far away for the boy to be able to commute during the vacations to sing at St. James’ Palace, which the choristers did even when school was out.

But Sullivan’s good looks and charming nature were already working in his favor. Helmore was impressed by the boy’s excellent voice, his knowledge of the catechism, and his musical expertise. Once Sullivan’s family agreed to let young Arthur stay at the school at Cheyne Walk during vacations, he was ready to take the first step toward his musical career.

Nevertheless, the young choirboy did not have it easy! According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, a Biography, Helmore did not spare the rod when educating his students:

Helmore believed in the wisdom of Solomon and implanted knowledge with the aid of a stick. Sullivan’s charm did not soften the master’s heart, and since he could not be caned … for not knowing the meaning of fortissimo, he earned his stripes by a want of interest in Latin and Euclid. … Worse still, he “had the gospel to write out 10 times for not knowing it,” though, in his letter home recording the fact, he did not specify the evangelist.

Also, choirboys of the Chapel Royal had other difficulties to contend with. The school at Cheyne Walk was located a couple of miles from St. James’ Palace, where the boys sang twice on Sundays and on every major feast day.  Having to make the 5-mile round trip, wearing a heavy scarlet gold-braided coat, wore Sullivan out so much that he would have to lie down and rest in between.

To make matters worse, those gaudy, gold-covered coats made the boys stand out like sore thumbs as they trudged to St. James’ Palace and back. At the time, Chelsea Embankment had not yet been built and Cheyne Walk ran along the shore of the Thames, a broad road with taverns and coffee shops.  Local street boys and hooligans often hooted and jeered at the unescorted young choirboys, sometimes throwing stones or otherwise harassing them.

Pearson adds, somewhat snarkily, “Once [the choirboys] were violently assailed by a crowd of urchins near Buckingham Palace and might have been severely handled in spite of their desperate defense if a man had not taken their part. Sullivan’s comment, “I managed to get home safely,” rather suggests that he left the honor of the choir in more capable hands and took to his heels.”

Sullivan was known as a charming and upbeat fellow, but his childhood was not entirely idyllic. Between family poverty, canings from his teacher and abuse from street hooligans, he knew adversity. Despite this background, he rose high in society, befriending Queen Victoria’s son Alfred, hanging out at the court of Napoleon and Eugenie in France, and laughing at jokes with the future Kaiser of Germany. It’s truly a rags-to-riches story.








A Composer in the Wild, Wild West

sullivan-young-manWhen I think about the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, I see the courtier who entertained the crowned heads of Europe, playing the piano as an accompanist to Prince Albert’s violin, joking with the future Kaiser Wilhelm, or rubbing elbows with Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie in France.

But Sir Arthur Sullivan also traveled across the American continent in 1885, heading for California to visit his brother’s children. This was during the wild, wild days of the Old West, and as he told his biographer Arthur Lawrence, along the way he had a little adventure at one particular stagecoach stop:


Well, … some of my experiences have been very curious. Amongst them was one I will relate to you if you will permit me, in which arose a most curious case of mistaken identity, more or less gratifying to me as a musician.

I was traveling on a stage in rather a wild part of California and arrived at a mining camp, where we had to get down for refreshments.

As we drove up, the driver said, “They are expecting you here, Mr. Sullivan.”

I was much pleased, and when I reached the place I came across a knot of prominent citizens at the whiskey store.

The foremost of them came up to a big burly man by my side and said, “Are you Mr. Sullivan?”

The man said, “No!” And pointed to me.

The citizen looked at me rather contemptuously, and after a while said, “Why, how much do you weigh?”

I thought this was a curious method of testing the power of the composer, but I at once answered, “About one hundred and sixty-two pounds.”

“Well,” said the man, “That’s odd to me, anyhow. Do you mean to say that you gave fits to John S. Blackmore down in Kansas City?”

I said, “No, I did not give him fits.”

He then said, “Well, who are you?”

I replied, “My name is Sullivan.”

“Ain’t you John L. Sullivan, the slugger?”

I disclaimed all title to that and told him I was Arthur Sullivan.

“Oh, Arthur Sullivan!” he said. “Are you the man as put Pinafore together?” – rather a gratifying way of describing my composition.

I said “Yes.”

“Well,” returned the citizen, “I am sorry you ain’t John Sullivan, but still I am glad to see you anyway – let’s have a drink.”


What a great story! If I were to give a dinner party, Arthur Sullivan would be right at the top of my guest list! He had some remarkable experiences, and such an entertaining story-telling manner.

What about you? Are there any Victorian notables that you’d like to invite to a sparkling dinner party? Let me know.