Archive | January 2017

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,






W.S. Gilbert’s Childhood Family Drama

W. S. Gilbert

Children abducted, children hidden, children mixed up by their caretakers—in William S. Gilbert’s librettos, childhood was a dangerous time.

In H. M. S. Pinafore, two babies were mixed up by a careless “baby farmer” (day care provider). In The Pirates of Penzance, the young hero’s silly nursemaid apprenticed the boy to a pirate instead of a pilot, dooming him to a life of crime. In Iolanthe, the Lord Chancellor doesn’t know that he even has a son, much less that his child is the half-mortal, half-fairy Strephon. In The Gondoliers, the infant heir to the throne of Barataria was stolen by the Grand Inquisitor and raised in Venice as a gondolier.

Even though the “secret baby” trope is used in many story genres, Gilbert actually experienced scenes of family drama, revolving around child custody and kidnapping.

As discussed in this earlier blog post, Gilbert himself claimed to have been abducted by brigands in Naples when he was two years old. Although the truth of this story has been questioned (he was only a toddler at the time, so how could he remember it so clearly?), it still seems to have been part of their family’s storytelling.

And it seems that in January of 1845, when Gilbert was only 8 years old, he witnessed another tumultuous family scene involving the forcible separation of a parent from their children. It happened like this:

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

W.S. Gilbert’s father, William senior, had a brother named Joseph. Joseph married Catherine, and they had two sons. By 1841, Joseph had developed tuberculosis and died. His will made his wife, Catherine, the guardian of their children – and a few months before his death, Joseph added a codicil to appoint William Gilbert Senior as the second guardian of the boys. The codicil was not drawn up by the lawyers—it was undated and witnessed not by a solicitor but by William Gilbert’s two servants.

Why? Most likely because Catherine, still in her twenties, might want to marry again. Childhood mortality rates were very high in Victorian days. Catherine’s boys stood to inherit money from their grandfather, and without the codicil, their inheritance would go to Catherine and her new husband instead of to William senior.

At Christmas 1844 Catherine and her two surviving sons, Francis, age 7, and Joseph, age 5, came to stay with the William Gilberts through the new year. At this time, the young widow had become emotionally involved with a Captain Harman Baillie Hopper, and intended to marry him. So in January 1845, Catherine and the Captain left the boys with the Gilberts and went on a little vacation together.

While the couple were away, the boys told their Uncle William (and another relative, John Schwenck) about how they had seen Captain Hopper rubbing ointment on their mother’s leg. That, apparently, made the Captain very tired, and the two of them lay on her bed together talking.

Well, that was a shocker! William senior was so disturbed by this account that when Catherine came back on January 16 to pick up her children, John Schwenck and William Gilbert refused to hand them over.

Undaunted, Catherine came back the next day with her brother, John Francis, and a Bow Street officer. After an angry and tearful scene, she still wasn’t able to get her sons back.  William senior insisted that she had created an “immoral environment” which was unhealthy for her sons. The whole sordid thing wound up in the newspapers. Catherine applied for a writ of habeas corpus on January 20, and got her boys back in March 1845, having apparently proven that she was a fit mother after all.

Was young William S. Gilbert aware of all this drama? It’s likely that he knew about the unhappy situation, even if he might not have actually witnessed the struggle between the widowed sister-in-law and the judgmental and forbidding William senior.

As Andrew Crowther says in Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan: His Life and Character:

“Where is the warmth and affection that one would like to see in Gilbert’s family background? Gilbert himself tells us precious little in the way of reminiscence about his family: a sketch of a grandfather, a few passing comments about his father, practically nothing about his mother and sisters. We are left only with a vague feeling of coldness, darkness and isolation. Little wonder, then, that Gilbert looked instead towards the fantasy world of theatre to provide light, warmth and joy.”

Although there is no way to be sure that this ugly event from Gilbert’s childhood affected the stories he wrote as an adult, it’s possible that they might have been twisted and transmuted into the topsy-turvy scenarios he wrote later on. What do you think? Do the events of our childhood leave us, or do they become part of our “core story” as grownups?

Let me know in the comments!

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe


Cover of Ivanhoe CD

Which has more artistic merit: Drama or Comedy?

I bet most people would say that Drama, being more serious, sheds more light on the human condition. They might add that Comedy is more entertaining but less illuminating.

This was the question Sir Arthur Sullivan faced around 1888 to 1891: Should England’s most highly lauded composer continue to write comic operas with W.S. Gilbert (the musical equivalent, one might say, of being a graphic novel illustrator who provides images that suit someone else’s story), or should he devote his time to Serious Music in the form of a grand opera (perhaps comparable to creating an original oil painting worthy of being hung in a museum)?

Despite the success of the more romantic and dramatic Yeomen of the Guard, by 1888 Sir Arthur Sullivan was ready to move on from comic opera. He was helped along the road to Serious Music by The Times’ review of his incidental music to Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth.

The Times wrote, a bit sniffily, “Self-restraint, subordination, and assimilation to a higher purpose become, in such circumstances, almost as important as creative genius; and these virtues Sir Arthur Sullivan has had every opportunity of practicing during his long association with Mr. Gilbert.”

This apparently was an extremely sore spot with Sullivan – the idea that, in his collaboration with Gilbert, the beauty of the music had to take a back seat to Gilbert’s topsy-turvy stories. Sure, audiences loved the words, but maybe any tune would do.

That really hurt.

So Sullivan decided that he was going to write a grand opera. Gilbert declined to provide a libretto, saying that if he were to try it, his work “would be, deservedly or otherwise, generally poo-poohed.” He suggested that Julian Sturgis was the best serious librettist of the day, and when Sturgis accepted the job, work on Ivanhoe began.

The climactic battle between Ivanhoe and Brian de Bois-Guilbert

What could be more English than Sir Walter Scott’s tale of the disinherited Saxon knight, Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, brave Crusader and loyal follower of Richard the Lionhearted? Scott’s story also is the basis for our popular idea of Robin Hood, who appears in the story along with his band of “merry men.” Victorian audiences would have known this story by heart – but it may be less well-known today, which is a pity since it’s a tremendous tale with chivalrous knights, beautiful damsels, villainous noblemen, jousting, archery, a witch trial and a daring rescue from a burning castle.

Between bouts of illness, Sullivan worked on Ivanhoe, which was finished in December 1890 and premiered on January 31, 1891.

Premiere program

The opening night was well attended by royalty including the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, and the cream of London society. Queen Victoria was at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, but her daughter Princess Louise wrote to Sullivan to congratulate him, saying that the Queen was particularly pleased since she believed that “it [was] owing to her own instigation that you undertook this great work.” The Queen had indeed suggested to Sir Arthur that he write a grand opera after she heard The Golden Legend.

Sullivan wrote back saying that it had indeed been the Queen’s encouragement to him that had inspired him to write the opera, and asked to be allowed to dedicate the opera to Queen Victoria. “If Her Majesty would graciously accept this tribute of my devotion and respect, I should look upon it as the crowning point of my career.”

Even W.S. Gilbert, who was in the middle of an extended quarrel with Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte at the time, went to see Ivanhoe and reported that he was not bored by it (“the highest compliment I ever paid a grand opera”).

Sullivan’s Ivanhoe ran for a total of 161 performances – a huge success for a grand opera, but nowhere near the popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore, which had 571 performances, The Gondoliers, performed 554 times, or The Mikado, which ran for an astonishing 672 performances.

At least in terms of enduring popularity, it seems that Comedy has won out over Drama in this case – but maybe it’s time to revisit Sullivan’s grand opera and decide for ourselves.

What do you think? Do you prefer Comedy or Drama? Let me know in the comments.

Sketches of scenes from the opera


References: Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography by Michael Ainger; Gilbert and Sullivan by Hesketh Pearson






W.S. Gilbert: For the Birds (and Beasts)

Gilbert’s home at Grim’s Dyke

W.S. Gilbert was known for his irascible disposition, quick temper and readiness to fight any person whom he thought deserved to be taken down. But he had a soft spot for animals and birds of all kinds, and his home of Grim’s Dyke was also home to a wide variety of creatures.

Hesketh Pearson says in W.S. Gilbert, His Life and Strife:
“His estate became a sort of zoological gardens… In his idyllic oasis of lawns, flowers, trees, bracken, rhododendrons, fruit gardens, ferns and beehives, he had made a lake of one-and-a-half acres, and the whole place was a sanctuary for birds and animals, many of which were quite at home in his house as well.”

In Gilbert and Sullivan, Pearson adds:

“Compared with the average sportsman Gilbert was a softhearted humanitarian. For all his longing to be a despot, he had no real malevolence in him at all. He adored children and animals and could not bear the infliction of pain on either. “Deer stalking,” he once said, “would be a very fine sport if only the deer had guns.”

And when William Archer mentioned the theory that the fox enjoyed his little run with the hounds, Gilbert broke in, “I should like to hear the fox on that point. The time will no doubt come when the sport of the present day will be regarded very much as we regard the Spanish bullfight or the bearbaiting of our ancestors.”

He was not a fanatic on the subject of taking life, but he could not outrage his own sensibilities. To understand his nature we must contrast the figurative cruelty in his poems with a fond following personal confession: “I have a constitutional objection to taking life in any form. I don’t think I ever wittingly killed the black beetle. It is not humanity on my part. I am perfectly willing that other people should kill things for my comfort and advantage. But the mechanism of life is so wonderful that I shrink from stopping its action. To tread on a black beetle would be to me like crushing a watch of complex and exquisite workmanship.”

Gilbert’s library, which had French windows that were usually open. The animals strolled in and out.

His home at Grim’s Dyke was shared with a wide variety of animals: Dogs, cats, a pet fawn, a donkey named Adelina (after Adelina Patti, the famous singer), monkeys, lemurs, pigeons, turkeys, parrots, and – one summer – a bee that wandered in an open window and stayed. Gilbert fed it sugar-water, gave it a little box to rest in, and called it Buzfuz.

For several years he kept a number of monkeys, building a large house for them. His favorites were a pair of lemurs. Pearson says that on September 26, 1905, Gilbert made the following announcement:

“[There has been] a most interesting occurrence in our household. A baby, quite unexpectedly, has been born – to whom do you think? – to our two lemurs! It is the rarest possible thing for ringtail lemurs to breed in captivity. The Sec. to the Zoological Gardens… tells me that such a thing has not happened since 1881.”

Gilbert loved birds, too, and all were safe from being hunted on the grounds of Grim’s Dyke. Pearson reported that:

“The air was full of the song of birds, or to quote an invitation Gilbert once issued, “the gooseberry bushes are thickly hung with stomach aches; and while the cuckoo delights by day, the nightingale and the screech owl do their best to make the night lovely.”

Fantail pigeons occasionally hopped into the library to see what they could pick up, being partial to cigar ends, and when he smoked out-of-doors several of them would sit on his shoulder and peck at his cigar. Once half a dozen turkeys, bored with the farmyard, strolled through the French windows and took up their positions on chairs, tables and desk. Gilbert’s arrival caused their tumultuous departure with some damage to the ornaments in the room.

At one time he formed an intimacy with a robin, which came to him from any distance within call, fed from his hand, and perch twittering on his head as he moved about the garden. Siberian cranes occasionally stalked into the library, though their presence was not encouraged.”

Gilbert was a practical joker, and Pearson reports on a joke he played on his wife, Lucy:

A bullfinch, probably like the one(s) Gilbert used to play a trick on his wife

“A piping bullfinch which he had given to his wife became very tame, but one morning she noticed that it was nervous and piped dissimilar notes. Later in the day it was tame again and back to its usual musical form. This went on for more than a week, timidity and a different song alternating with friendliness and the old one.

She remained in a state of the perplexity until she found three bullfinches in the library, each closely resembling the other and each in a cage of exactly the same pattern. It was one of her husband’s little practical jokes, which he contrived with as much thought and care as he gave to the stage-management of the Savoy operas. The butler had been taken into his confidence, and one cage was substituted for another with a different bird at regular intervals.

For ten days he kept up the mystery, to his amusement and her amazement.”

(Because it fits in with my fictional stories, I like to think that Gilbert did it because he knew Lucy loved to solve mysteries. So he gave her this little mystery to solve – but that’s merely my surmise!)

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2017 bring you all the good things you desire!



Bullfinch by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,