Archive | August 2016

W.S. Gilbert – Kidnapped!

Sometimes real life imitates art. Or it inspires art.

William S. Gilbert’s plots involving stolen babies were inspired by his own life: As a baby, he was kidnapped by bandits.

When Gilbert was not yet 2 years old (as the story goes), and a few months before his sister Jane was born in October 1838, his parents were traveling around the Continent and they stopped in Naples, Italy.

In Naples, his parents had hired a maid to look after their young son. As the maid and baby were out on a walk, a couple of men approached her and said that the “English gentleman” wanted his child returned to him right away. The foolish nursery-maid handed the boy over, and the brigands took off with “Bab.”

1024px-Napoli6Many years later, Gilbert said he remembered riding in front of a mounted man along a street toward some mountains. As a grown man, he identified that street as the Via Posillipo, a main road through one of Naples’ residential areas, which is high enough on the hillside overlooking the Bay of Naples to provide a clear view of Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

His parents paid a ransom of £25, and a detachment of carabinieri returned the boy to his no doubt frantic parents.

What a great story! But is it true? Nobody is sure – no official record of the event has turned up. We only know about it because Gilbert himself told his first biographer the tale, when he was 70 years old. At the very least, the story had probably been told and re-told in the Gilbert family for years.

But whatever might have happened originally, there is no doubt that the story had a profound influence on Gilbert’s story-telling: think of Ruth, the foolish nursery-maid in the Pirates of Penzance, who apprenticed her small charge to a pirate instead of a pilot. Or think of The Gondoliers, which centers on the problem of identifying the heir to the throne, who was kidnapped as a baby and raised as a gondolier.

In The Gondoliers, Don Alhambra sings:

I stole the Prince, and I brought him here,
And left him gaily prattling
With a highly respectable gondolier,
Who promised the Royal babe to rear,
And teach him the trade of a timoneer*
With his own beloved bratling.

(*a helmsman; someone who steers a ship)

Gilbert's drawing of the baby's abduction in The Gondoliers.

Gilbert’s drawing of the baby’s abduction in The Gondoliers.

The Gondoliers was Gilbert and Sullivan’s twelfth opera together, and was the last of the G&S operas that would achieve wide popularity. It opened on December 7, 1889 at the Savoy Theater and ran for 554 performances.

First night reviews of The Gondoliers were glowing, and even Queen Victoria enjoyed the show when the entire company went to Windsor Castle for a command performance.

Despite Gilbert’s obvious love of topsy-turvy plots, the notion of a kidnapped baby might have seemed even more logical to Gilbert than some of his other plot devices. Whether or not the story was true as he told it to his biographer, or if it had undergone some modifications over the years of repeated telling, it still is a fascinating little story.

Sullivan and Dickens


Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

One man was a mere 20-year-old, a musician and composer of modest origins. The other, at 60, was one of the most celebrated writers of his time. Yet it’s not surprising that young Arthur Sullivan could count Charles Dickens as a friend.

Sullivan has been called a “born courtier,” so charming and delightful to be with that he could make friends with anyone. And his friendships with influential people over the years boosted his career amazingly – from his violin-playing friend Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, to the composer Rossini, to famous soprano Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale). Even Queen Victoria admired him; she conferred a knighthood upon him in 1883 when he was just 41 years old – his collaborator W.S. Gilbert had to wait almost another quarter-century, until 1907, to be so honored.

Below are some quotes from Sullivan’s close and personal view of Charles Dickens that I really enjoyed. How much fun would it have been, to listen to Arthur Sullivan telling fun stories and gossip!

Sullivan and Dickens in Paris

Arthur Sullivan met a lot of prominent people through his friend H. F. Chorley, the eccentric critic of the Athenaeum. Towards the end of 1862, Sullivan made his first visit to Paris, in company with Charles Dickens, Chorley, and Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Lehmann.


“Lalla Rookh” poster

In one of his letters from Paris, the 20-year-old Sullivan writes: “I am to play the ‘Tempest’ (with Rossini) on Friday…  We called upon Dickens, and then all dined together (the Dickens, Lehmanns, and selves) at the Cafe Brebant and then went on to the Opera Comique to see [Félicien] David’s new opera, ‘Lalla Rookh.’ It is very pretty, but rather monotonous.”

Note: Set in Kashmir and Samarkand, the opera tells the love story between Nourreddin, the King of Samarkand, and the Mughal princess Lalla-Roukh. Her name means “tulip-cheeked,’ a frequent term of endearment in Persian poetry. Lalla-Roukh was very popular in its day, but sank into obscurity in the 20th century.

“The particular purpose of our visit,” Sullivan later told his biographer Arthur Lawrence in Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences, “was to hear Madame Viardot in Gluck’s ‘Orfeo.’ She was intensely emotional and her performance was certainly one of the greatest things I have ever seen on the stage. Chorley, Dickens, and I went together, and I remember that we were so much moved by the performance, and it was of so affecting a character, that the tears streamed down our faces. We vainly tried to restrain ourselves.”

Pauline Viardot as Orphee

Pauline Viardot as Orphee

Note: The opera Orfeo ed Euridice, or in English, Orpheus and Eurydice, was composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck, based on the myth of Orpheus. It’s Gluck’s most popular work. When the opera was first performed in 1762, Orpheus was sung by a castrato. However, it was revised a number of times over the following years and by the time Sullivan heard it, the role of Orpheus was being sung by the contralto Pauline Viardot.)

I really like Sullivan’s comments about Charles Dickens. Despite the fact that they belonged to completely different generations, the young composer clearly enjoyed the company of the famous writer:

“I went about a good deal with Dickens. He rushed about tremendously all the time, and I was often with him. His French was not particularly good. It was quite an Englishman’s French, but he managed to make himself understood, and interviewed everybody. Of course he was much my senior, but I have never met anyone whom I have liked better. There was one negative quality which I always appreciated. There was not the least suspicion of the poseur about him. His electric vitality was extreme, but it was inspiring and not overpowering. He always gave one the impression of being immensely interested in everything, listening with the most charming attention and keenness to all one might say, however youthful and inexperienced one’s opinion might be. He was a delightful companion, but never obtruded himself upon one. In fact, he was the best of good company.”

Arthur Sullivan’s personality may not be as generally well-known as that of his long-time collaborator and librettist.  William S. Gilbert was loud, vivid, irascible and opinionated, while Arthur Sullivan seems to have been more inclined to dissolve tensions with a sympathetic laugh and a clever story. But Sullivan was brilliant, too – and quite the careful observer of the human condition.

Which kind of person are you? Do you like stirring the pot or pouring oil on troubled waters? Leave me a comment and let me know if you’d rather be like Gilbert, or like Sullivan.

Which Came First, the Music or the Words?

GilbertAndSullivanWhen writing a song, what does a composer start with – the tune, or the lyrics? Do you come up with words to fit a particular melody, or do you read the words and imagine a tune that would fit the words?

The answer is, different composers and lyricists work in different ways. For Gilbert and Sullivan, the journey from musical idea to finished song took an interesting path:

  • Gilbert would write lyrics that fit a popular tune he had in mind.
  • Then he would give the words to Sullivan, without telling him what song he’d used.
  • Sullivan would study the rhythm of the words and come up with a tune that fit them.

Interestingly, it’s nearly impossible to guess a melody simply by listening to someone else tap it out (a rhythm, yes, but not a melody). So their process worked!

But how did they arrive at this method? It started with the way that Gilbert learned his craft.


Gilbert and Victorian Burlesque Theater

In Victorian England, a “burlesque” performance was something quite different from what might be expected in a French or an American playhouse. On the British stage, wordplay and clowning replaced sexual innuendo – the idea was to be funny and silly, not suggestive. Also, as with a Ballad Opera (like the eighteenth-century work, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay), sometimes songs were added, with new words set to popular tunes, including opera arias, church hymns and folk songs.

So Gilbert’s earliest practice in song-writing came as he wrote new words for the music of the pantomimes and the operatic burlesques he wrote – such as his parody of Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” about a shady doctor peddling a love potion, which Gilbert turned into “Dulcamara! Or the The Little Duck and the Great Quack,” or the same composer’s “La Figlia del Reggimento,” which became “La Vivandière, or True to the Corps.” (Gilbert loved puns! I can just imagine your groans if you know that a vivandière is a woman who sells groceries to the troops.)


Sullivan and Tennyson

No doubt Arthur Sullivan, tasked with setting Gilbert’s clever wordplay to music, appreciated the rhythmic qualities of the librettist’s words despite the fact that he didn’t want to know what basic tunes were used.

In an article by Arthur H. Lawrence titled, “An Illustrated Interview With Sir Arthur Sullivan“, Sullivan said that in setting Gilbert’s (or anyone else’s) words, “I decide on [the rhythm] before I come to the question of melody. … I mark out the metre in dots and dashes, and not until I have quite settled on the rhythm do I proceed to actual notation.”

This method of tune-building meant that it was really important for Sullivan that the words have a regular rhythm in each verse – something that poets aren’t often that concerned with when writing a poem. The great poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a friend of Sullivan’s, and he asked the composer to set a number of his poems to music, which Sullivan did in The Window; or, The Songs of the Wrens.

This led to the following confession by Sullivan, which Arthur Lawrence describes here :

Sir Arthur has told me that he always felt that Tennyson “was the one great man whose personal appearance seemed to correspond with his work. He always appealed to me as being the rugged old prophet Isaiah of this country. I really owed much to his gentleness and patience. I actually had the audacity to lecture him about rhythm! ‘Don’t mix up your iambics and spondees’ I would tell him, and then continue my dissertation in pretty much the same strain!

Of course one reason of his good-nature in this matter was that he knew that I was not discussing his verse from the point of view of a critic of poetry, but merely in regard to certain musical difficulties. You see he would write a simple song or ballad wherein the music to each verse should be the same, but which really required a separate setting, and would make strong accents in one verse, where in the corresponding place in another verse he would place a weak one, so that the ballad became most difficult for setting to music. It is a glaring fault with most hymn-writers also.”


The time they broke their rule

"I have a song to sing, O!"

“I have a song to sing, O!”

The only time that Sullivan asked Gilbert to tell him what song he’d based his rhyme-scheme on was in writing “I Have a Song to Sing, O!” from The Yeomen of the Guard. The difficulty was that each stanza gets longer and longer, like the nursery rhyme “The House That Jack Built.”

Stumped by how to solve the musical problem of making the song the same but longer with each verse, Sullivan asked Gilbert what he’d had in mind. Gilbert, aware that he was no singer but naturally eager to help, hummed a few bars of the traditional Cornish sea-shanty that had inspired him – and Sullivan stopped him.

“That’s it! That enough, thanks, I’ve got it now,” the composer said, and away he went to finish the song.

So that is the only time that Gilbert contributed both the words and the music to one of their comic operas.

Now, if you want, tell me: How would you write a song – words first, or music first?




How Sullivan’s promotion made “HMS Pinafore” a Success

H.M.S. Pinafore, the beloved Gilbert and Sullivan opera, was almost a flop.

sullivanPinafore opened on May 25, 1878, at a London playhouse called the Opera Comique. The production was well-received, but within a week or two London was engulfed in a summer heat wave. Nobody wanted to sit in a hot, stuffy theater in their Victorian wool suits or tight corsets, so people began to stay home in droves. Box office profits dropped precipitously.

In July, one of the Opera Comique’s directors, Edward Bayley, wrote complaining to theatrical manager Rupert D’Oyly Carte, “I hope you will get Gilbert & Sullivan’s agreement in writing to a break at once. I do not care to go on as a company without it. I object to putting my head in a noose.” But taking a break could have doomed the production entirely—the energy and excitement of the first run would have evaporated, and it is likely that H.M.S. Pinafore never would have recovered from the interruption.

pinafore-1Luckily, that summer, Arthur Sullivan was hired to conduct an eight-week season of “Promenade Concerts” at Covent Garden. In an inspired move, he included in the program a medley of Pinafore’s breezy, tuneful songs.  The strategy worked.

On Saturday August 24, The Times reported, “the chief attraction [of the Promenade Concert] was a highly effective selection from Mr. Sullivan’s comic opera HMS Pinafore … comprising some of its most striking melodies—such as the opening chorus, Josephine’s first song, the songs of Sir J. Porter and Captain Corcoran, that of “little Buttercup,” and a large portion of the finale to Act I.”

The Promenade Concerts were a success, and after several performances of the Pinafore medley, the success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera was assured. The initial run of the opera lasted an impressive 571 performances.

pinafore-2It seems to me that Arthur Sullivan was a savvy promoter in his own right – when people got a taste of the ‘bright and popular” music of H.M.S. Pinafore, they very likely went home humming the songs. And having enjoyed the musical samples they got at the concert, their interest in seeing the entire comic opera may have been piqued. And the rest is theatrical history.

So would you call that “word of mouth” promotion?

Or maybe “word of ear”?





W.S. Gilbert’s Family History…Look, a Squirrel!

gilbert-tartanWhat was Sir William Gilbert’s family background? Was he a descendant of a distinguished and noble family line that included the Elizabethan navigator, Sir Humphrey Gilbert? Or was he the descendant of a Hampshire yeoman who moved to London and found prosperity through his corner grocery store?

During his life, W. S. Gilbert’s family legend was that the original Gilberts came from Cornwall. The most notable member of the family was Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583) who was Sir Walter Raleigh’s half-brother (they had the same mother, Catherine Champernowne). Sir Humphrey was an adventurer, explorer, member of parliament, a soldier serving under the reign of Queen Elizabeth and a pioneer of the English colonial empire in North America and the Plantations of Ireland.

The relationship to Sir William Raleigh’s half-brother was also strengthened by the description of Sir Humphrey Gilbert as a man ‘of higher stature than of the common sort, and of complexion cholerike’.  Naturally, that sounded very much like W.S. Gilbert himself, who was also a tall man well known for his hot temper.

arms_gilb2And so, Gilbert adopted the Gilbert family crest, described as: ‘Argent, on a chevron sable, three roses argent. Crest, on a wreath of the colours, a squirrel sejant erect gules, holding a nut. Motto: Mallem Mori Quam Mutare’   (Death rather than change)

Personally, I adore the crest with its red squirrel holding a nut. I’d be totally in favor of a family heritage that included such a brilliant element in its heraldry.

But alas, a legend is all that was – according to biographer Michael Ainger, who wrote Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, Gilbert was actually descended from a family of Hampshire yeomen.  His great-grandfather, also William Gilbert, born in 1746, and after serving his apprenticeship to a shopkeeper set out for London to make his fortune. He established a grocery shop in Westminster. He prospered, had many sons, and eventually retired a wealthy man. His son took over the family business and by the time W.S. Gilbert’s father was born, the connection to trade had been superseded and Gilbert’s father was able to consider himself a “gentleman.”

For further reading, check out this essay on Gilbert’s genealogy at the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive.

Family ties were very important to the Victorians, and Gilbert was not unusual in his desire to connect himself with a long and distinguished lineage. Nowadays, especially among Americans, a family background is not considered as essential to an individual’s success.

What about you? Have you ever researched your own family history? Do you value your heritage? Tell me about it in the comments!