10 Fun Facts about Gilbert and Sullivan

NOTE: I corrected some erroneous information in this post, which was pointed out to me by an alert reader! Thanks for the heads-up.

  1. WSGilbertSir William Schwenk Gilbert, born 18 November 1836, originally trained to become a barrister. He was elected to the Northern Circuit and prosecuted his first case in Liverpool in March 1866, against an Irish woman accused of stealing a coat. His account of the proceedings, from Gilbert and Sullivan A Dual Biography, by Michael Ainger, went as follows:

“No sooner had I got up than the old dame, who seemed to realise that I was against her, began shouting, ‘Ah, ye divil, sit down. Don’t listen to him, yer honour! He’s known in all the slums of Liverpool. Sit down, ye spalpeen! He’s as drunk as a lord, yer honner – begging yer lordship’s pardon.’ Whenever I attempted to resume my speech, I was flooded by a torrent of the old lady’s eloquence, and I had at last to throw myself on the protection of the Recorder, who was too convulsed with laughter to interfere.”

  1. sullivanSir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, born 13 May 1842 into a musical Irish-Italian family, began playing piano when he was 4 or 5 years old. In 1856, at age 14, he was the youngest of seventeen candidates for a new Mendelssohn Scholarship – and he won a year’s tuition at the Royal Academy of Music and another year at the Leipzig Conservatory. He was proficient on a wide variety of musical instruments.  Sullivan was sometimes described by his admirers as “England’s Mozart.”
  1. In 1861, H. J. Byron, the editor of Fun magazine, invited Gilbert to provide a regular column and a half-page drawing on a weekly basis. Initially astonished by the offer, Gilbert soon began to provide weekly stories and drawings. It was the birth of his writing career. He wrote reviews of plays, funny short stories, and the comic poems now known as the Bab Ballads. These were accompanied by his own drawings, signed “Bab,” which was his childhood nickname.
  1. In addition to his well-known collaborations with Gilbert, Sullivan composed hymns, songs, cantatas, oratorios and other musical works (like the Overture in C  (In Memoriam, which he wrote in honor of his father).  The most well-known of the hymns he composed is Onward Christian Soldiers. His first operatic collaboration was with writer F. C. Burnand. Together they wrote the very amusing Cox and Box, which features a lovely lullaby to a rasher of bacon.
  1. When Gilbert met Sullivan in July 1870, he immediately challenged the composer with a very complicated – but nonsensical – question on whether “the simple tetrachord of Mercury” was the same as “the elaborate dis-diapason.” Sullivan understood immediately that it was a joke, and  told Gilbert that he’d have to think about it and get back to him. According to Gilbert and Sullivan A Dual Biography, was the perfect reply: “Over the years there would be many other challenges that [Gilbert] would set Sullivan; Sullivan would answer them all, and then in his turn start to challenge Gilbert and get the best out of him.”
  1. Gilbert and Sullivan’s first opera together, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, was about what happened when the Greek gods on Mount Olympus decided to take a holiday and let a traveling theatrical troupe take over their jobs. The libretto still exists, but the music has been lost – except for “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain,” which was used in The Pirates of Penzance. The duo wrote twelve operas together.
  1. Early in his dramatic career, Gilbert wrote several operatic burlesques. These were musical entertainments in which serious operas were re-told in a comic way, with songs that joined clever lyrics with well-known tunes. Thus, Donizett’s L’Elisir d’Amore became Dulcamara! Or the Little Duck and the Big Quack, and Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable became Robert the Devil, or The Nun, The Dun and the Son of a Gun.
  1. When Sullivan was traveling through the American West to visit his nieces and nephews in California after the death of his sister-in-law, he stopped at a hotel along the way. That evening, a huge, hulking bruiser of a man came to the hotel demanding to fight Sullivan. The composer nervously came to the lobby to find out what the problem was. The big challenger stared at him in astonishment and complained, “You’re not John Sullivan!” Sullivan had to explain to the disappointed man that he was Arthur S. Sullivan the composer, not John L. Sullivan, the famous boxing champion.
  1. Arthur Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883. He traveled in very exclusive social circles – He was friends with the Prince of Wales and many european heads of state. On a 1881 trip to Kiel, the then-22-year-old Prince William of Prussia (later known during WWI as Kaiser Wilhelm) greeted Sullivan by singing, “He Polished Up the Handle of the Big Front Door,” from H.M.S. Pinafore.
  1. William S. Gilbert was knighted in 1907 – but he was the first person to be knighted for his plays alone; other dramatist knights had also performed political and other services. Gilbert was sharp-tongued, intolerant of injustice or hypocrisy, and did not suffer fools at all, but he was also kind-hearted and generous to those in need.

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5 thoughts on “10 Fun Facts about Gilbert and Sullivan

  1. It always gives me great pleasure when I come across someone who enjoys G&S – especially if they’re not a Brit. Their work seems so very, very English that it surprises me that anyone outside these borders should get any fun from them. I know you are very well versed and I was wondering how it all started.

    That trial, btw, sounds absolutely hilarious. Do you know how it finished?

    • According to Gilbert and Sullivan, Their Lives and Times by Leslie Baily, “she was sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour, whereupon she hurled a heavy boot at him.” LOL!
      My interest in the duo was sparked by Mike Leigh’s film “Topsy-Turvy,” which was just brilliant. But of course I’m not alone in my admiration for them. They were so popular in the US that at one point newspapers across the country forbade their reporters from using “What, never? No, never — well, hardly ever” in their stories.

  2. Erm…being a pedant here, but Sullivan would’ve been surprised to know that he wrote numerous symphonies…there was just one…and just two oratorios: The Prodigal Son (which, all things being equal, is kind of appropriate!) and The Light of the World.

    He visited CA in 1885 to secure the future of his nieces and nephews. His sister-in-law had died, so again, he’d’ve been surprised to encounter her!

    • Well, you’re right on both counts! I stand corrected. While Sullivan wrote a wide variety of musical pieces, the only symphony appears to be the Symphony in E, the Irish, for Orchestra, in 1866. And he went to California in 1885 because his sister-in-law had just passed away several months before.

  3. I am young but I admire the plays that Sir. William S. Gilbert & Sir. Arthur S. Sullivan wrote, sang, and played. Especially “The Slave of Duty” Pirates of Penzance.

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