Archive | November 2016

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,


W.S. Gilbert vs. Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Gilbert-clowning“If you promise me faithfully not to mention this to a single person, not even to your dearest friend,” W.S. Gilbert confessed to his actor friend George Grossmith, “I don’t think Shakespeare rollicking.”

Wait, what? Shakespeare, not a laugh-a-minute dramatist? What about all those zany jesters like Touchstone and Feste? Dogsberry, not funny? Just because Victorians, who were centuries away from to the Tudors, found some of Shakespeare’s in-jokes incomprehensible doesn’t mean that audiences shouldn’t laugh at the right places, if they pretend to be cultured individuals.

However, Gilbert being Gilbert, what do you think he did?

He wrote a parody of Hamlet, of course!

Gilbert’s play was called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even that severe critic Hesketh Pearson in W. S. Gilbert: His Life and Strife considered that it was just about “the best parody of the poet ever written.”

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, King Claudius has a secret, but it’s not what you might think. Claudius confesses to Gertrude that when he was a young man, he wrote a five-act tragedy that was so awful it was laughed off the stage. Mortified, he decreed that anyone who even mentioned the play would be subject to the death penalty.

“Was it, my Lord, so very, very bad?” asks Gertrude.

“Not to deceive my trusting Queen, it was,” Claudius replies.

Ophelia would rather marry Rosencrantz, but she can’t. She was betrothed against her will to Hamlet, the moody Danish prince who may or may not be mad. His mother Gertrude worries about Hamlet’s alarming tendency to soliloquize and the fact that, even though he’s an eleventh-century Dane, he always dresses like King James the First.

Ophelia explains, “Hamlet is idiotically sane with lucid intervals of lunacy.”

But life isn’t all that easy for poor Hamlet. Every time he starts to say, “To be, or not to be,” he gets interrupted. How rude!

Rosencrantz’s friend Guildenstern suggests that they talk Hamlet into mounting a production of the five-act tragedy “Gonzago.” Using reverse psychology, they convince the stubborn and contrary Hamlet by telling him not to do it – but they don’t tell him who wrote the work, or that his life will be forfeit if he puts the play on.

The play is performed for the King, who almost immediately recognizes his own awful work. As the conspirators planned, the King condemns Hamlet to death.  Hamlet is horrified, because as a philosopher he constantly thinks about death but he certainly doesn’t want to go there. Luckily, Ophelia has an idea. As the King pulls his dagger out to kill Hamlet on the spot, she stops him.

Why not banish Hamlet instead, Ophelia suggests.  Send him to the island beyond the sea known as Engle-land, where the natives might appreciate Hamlet. England, of course!  The King agrees, saying, “They’re welcome to his philosophic brain.”

And so all ends happily, with Ophelia united with Rosencrantz and Hamlet taking his “philosophic brain” to England, where he’s been admired for centuries.

You can check out the entire play here.

Let me know in the comments if you enjoyed it as much as I did!




W.S. Gilbert’s Political Snarkiness

"Iolanthe" American music cover from

“Iolanthe” American music cover from

W.S. Gilbert lampooned Victorian politics in Iolanthe, a topsy-turvy tale in which a troupe of fairies take over Parliament after their Fairy Queen is insulted by the Lord Chancellor. He mistook her for the Headmistress of a Ladies’ Seminary, and in revenge the fairies use their powers to pass all the laws the House of Peers can’t stand to see on the books.

All the political “hot potato” issues of the day are blithely passed into law — from Marriage to Deceased Wife’s Sister to making a Dukedom attainable by Competitive Examination, the fairies ruthlessly suppress all objections from the peers. How can the legislators rescue themselves and the nation from this quandary?

The premise gave Gilbert the chance to satirize Victorian notions of status, privilege, the two-party system, and the laws and lawmakers of the day (I’m feeling very political these days, so it pleases me to share with you the master’s snarkiness, even if it doesn’t apply directly to our own government).

In Iolanthe, the Peers of the House of Lords enter singing,

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,

Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,

Tantantara! Tzing, boom!


Later on, the Chorus of Peers try to woo the beautiful Arcadian shepherdess Phyllis by singing,

High rank involves no shame —

We boast an equal claim

With him of humble name

To be respected!


One of the most famous politically-minded songs from the opera is Private Willis’ song, in which the lonely guard offers his philosophical musings on politics, including the idea that every child is born “a little liberal or a little conservative.” (As a side note, I was thrilled when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted that lyric in a recent interview. Awesome!)

Private Willis also adds, if I’m reading the lyrics right, that it’s probably a good thing that politicians have to vote as their parties tell ‘em to, because it would be too frightening if they all started thinking for themselves. Read the song’s lyrics and decide for yourself:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!


When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!


Isaac Asimov, in his The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, called the bombastic “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” one of Gilbert’s most patriotic songs, but I think the lyrics sound ironic.

Asimov added this fun little story: “In 1909, some of the Liberals campaigning against the House of Lords’ power of veto after its rejection of Lloyd George’s radical budget of that year asked Gilbert for permission to quote this verse:

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


Isaac Asimov continues: “He [Gilbert] replied rather pepperily: “I cannot permit the verses of Iolanthe to be used for electioneering purposes. They do not at all express my own view. They are supposed to be the views of the wrong-headed donkey who sings them.”

Asimov also reported that “with or without the help of Iolanthe however, the Liberal reformers achieved their aims and in 1911 the Parliament Act was passed, curtailing the House of Lords’ power to veto legislation already passed by the Commons. Since them noble statemen have largely withheld their legislative hand and contented themselves with moving amendments to Bills sent up from the Lower House.”

Here is the complete text of the song:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!



Yes Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!


When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!



Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!


And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!



As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


And so the political pendulum swings back and forth. Satirists throughout the years have found plenty to mock in a nation’s leaders, but W.S. Gilbert managed to poke fun at the House of Lords and still have them laughing at themselves.

As Gilbert wrote in Yeomen of the Guard, “he who’d make his fellow … creatures wise/ should always gild the philosophic pill.”

"Bab" drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

“Bab” drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

Jilted Brides and “Trial By Jury”

tbyj-judgeDuring the Victorian era, only a woman could break off an engagement without suffering any consequences. A romantic relationship wasn’t over until the woman said it was over.

This was mostly the result of Victorian views about the proper roles of men and women: Men were supposed to be strong and protective, while women were weak and emotional. (See more on Gender Roles here)

Because Victorian women required protection, when a man offered or promised such protection, he had to honor that promise. The breach of promise suit – a legal claim that allowed a jilted person to obtain financial damages from their intended – grew into the standard remedy for a female who had suffered when a relationship that should have resulted in the security and stability of marriage went sour.

“Though seldom helpful to women in the criminal courts, the assumption of manly responsibility for providing, promise-keeping, and sexuality was a great asset to female plaintiffs in the civil tribunals,“ comments an article in Nineteenth Century Studies.

Also, according to this article, during the mid-Victorian years, as many as 100 men a year were sued in court by their former fiancées.

Denise Bates, author of Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores, mentioned in her guest post here  that the disappointed brides often won their cases, and sympathetic juries often awarded them substantial sums of around 100 pounds (maybe 10,000 pounds today).

In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, the ambitious engineer Paul Montague had an affair with a woman named Mrs. Hurtle.  They lived together in America, but she ditched him at the altar, and he returned to England thinking she was out of his life. However, she suddenly showed up in his life and insisted that because she had “given him all a woman had to give,” it was up to her to say whether their affair was over. Her weapon was the breach of promise of marriage suit.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by JuryAngelina, the jilted bride, passionately tells the jury:


Oh, see what a blessing,

What love and caressing

I’ve lost, and remember it pray,

When you I’m addressing,

Are busy assessing

The damages Edwin must pay,

He must pay!


With real life, literature and music all telling them to beware of making hasty promises, Victorian men were very careful about breaking off their relationships with women!

I believe that in real life, Arthur Sullivan had this problem with respect to his painful and protracted relationship with Rachel Scott Russell.

Rachel Scott Russell was the daughter of a wealthy engineer, socially far above the promising but penniless young musician that Arthur Sullivan was at the time. Sullivan had begun to get favorable notices from the music critics, and he had powerful friends, but his income was spotty and depended upon selling the occasional piece of parlor music.

Passionately in love, Rachel “gave him all a woman has to give,” in Trollope’s words. In Rachel’s view, she and Arthur were married in every way that mattered. But Arthur’s income wasn’t good enough for Rachel’s parents. When the young couple went to ask permission, her mother forbade the marriage and demanded that they stop seeing one another.

So why didn’t they just stop seeing one another?

I think that because of the Victorian value system, Arthur couldn’t leave her.  She had to leave him — and Rachel didn’t want to end the relationship.

So, they kept writing to one another in secret. They met in secret too. We know some of how the affair went, because Arthur saved all of Rachel’s letters, although he made her promise to destroy his letters to her, which she did.

Rachel argued and complained in her letters, but she never released him.

Rachel asked Arthur to get a steady job as a clerk in a bank. He refused to give up his musical career.

What’s a Victorian man to do?

According to Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, Sullivan began a love affair with Rachel’s sister Alice. Was he hoping that Rachel would find out about the affair and break things off with him permanently?

If that was the case, it didn’t work. The painful and prolonged relationship between Sullivan and Rachel dragged on for several years, before her parents finally married her off to another man and she moved to India.

The affair between Alice and Arthur faded out, too.

Arthur later found pleasure and companionship in his relationship with his married lover, Mrs. Ronalds. But he never did marry!








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.