Conventional wisdom has it that W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan first met in July of 1870. Their mutual friend Fred Clay formally introduced them at a rehearsal for one of Gilbert’s early plays, Ages Ago.
Gilbert immediately challenged Sullivan with the following question of musical theory: Would the result be the same, he asked, whether one chose to play upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury, that knew no diatonic interval, or the elaborate dis-diapason (four tetrachords, and one redundant note), embracing in its perfect consonance all simple, double and inverted chords?
Apparently, this is a very elaborate piece of nonsense – something that Sullivan recognized right away (Gilbert once said of Sullivan that he always understood a joke immediately and never needed an explanation).
Sullivan thought about it for a moment, then told Gilbert, basically, that it was a very nice question and that he’d have to think about it before giving him a definite answer. (A typically smooth and diplomatic Sullivan response, I think!)
But was this the first time Gilbert and Sullivan had ever met? Probably not.
As a young writer and artist in 1860s London, W S Gilbert had an active social life which included parties, masquerades, impromptu theatricals, and balls. At the same time, the rising young composer Arthur Sullivan also enjoyed an active social life that included parties, amateur theatricals, and musical entertainments.
William and Arthur traveled in many of the same circles of London’s Bohemia – pre-Raphaelite artists, poets and playwrights, actors, singers and musicians, many of whom achieved great fame in their time.
So it seems very likely that they at least knew of one another; In 1867 Gilbert, as theater critic for Fun magazine, attended the first public performance of Cox and Box, for which Sullivan had written the music. In his review, Gilbert commented that “Mr. Sullivan’s music is, in many places, of too high a class for the grotesquely absurd plot to which it is wedded.”
Furthermore, their paths may have crossed very close indeed – the great Victorian actress Ellen Terry, in her autobiography The Story of My Life, has this to say:
Most people know that Tom Taylor was one of the leading playwrights of the sixties as well as the dramatic critic of the Times, editor of Punch, and a distinguished civil servant, but to us he was more than this – he was an institution! I simply cannot remember when I did not know him… Their house in Lavender Sweep was lovely ….
[Taylor] was an enthusiastic amateur actor, his favorite part being Adam in As You Like It, perhaps because tradition says this was a part Shakespeare played; at any rate, he was very good in it. Gilbert and Sullivan, in very far-off days, used to be concerned in these amateur theatricals. Their names were not associated then, but [my sister] Kate and I established a prophetic link by carrying on a mild flirtation, I with Arthur Sullivan, Kate with Mr. Gilbert!
So there you have it – before Gilbert and Sullivan became Gilbert and Sullivan, they came close enough to flirt with two sisters at the same amateur theatricals. It must have been a small world, where all the creatives knew everyone else.