In the 1870s, Arthur Sullivan was a rising young composer whose reputation was growing steadily. At the same time, William S. Gilbert was a rising young dramatist whose plays were attracting an increasingly wider audience.
They lived in the same city, they had friends in common, and each probably knew of the other’s work—we know Gilbert had heard Sullivan’s music, because he had reviewed Sullivan and Burnand’s operetta, Cox and Box, as the theater critic for Fun magazine.
They had even collaborated on a Christmas entertainment, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. It was a successful venture in its limited way, but both men evidently considered the project a one-off. So neglected was it, that the music to Thespis has been lost except for a tune that Sullivan re-used for a chorus song in The Pirates of Penzance: “Climbing Over the Rocky Mountains.”
It was the impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte who brought the two together and encouraged the formation of the partnership that was to change the course of musical theater.
Gilbert had expanded his Bab ballad (comic poem) Trial By Jury for his friend Carl Rosa’s opera company to perform, and Rosa had agreed to write the music for it. Tragically, however, Rosa’s wife Euphrosyne, who had also been friends with Gilbert since childhood, died in childbirth at age 37 in January 1874. Carl Rosa no longer had the heart to continue his work, and the libretto had been returned.
The next year, D’Oyly Carte was trying to find a libretto for Sullivan to write the music for, and he persuaded Gilbert to take Trial by Jury to Sullivan.
It would have been hard to find two less likely collaborators. Everything about them, including their appearances, personalities, and preferences, were diametrically opposed. In his book Gilbert and Sullivan, Hesketh Pearson comments on how completely opposite the two men were:
“…the librettist, a tall military-looking gentleman with fair hair, rosy complexion, bright blue eyes and high massive forehead, who spoke quickly and jerkily in a deep hearty voice; and the composer, a short, plump, daintily-clad person, with a thick neck, dark hair and eyes, olive-tinted mobile face, sensuous lips and tender expression, whose voice was wistful and full of feeling.”
Still, Gilbert was not the kind of businessman to leave an unproduced manuscript around to gather dust if he could help it. On a cold, snowy February 20, 1875, Gilbert went to visit Sullivan at Albert Mansions in Victoria Street.
Sullivan recalled the event for his biographer, Arthur Lawrence, in Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences :
“It was on a very cold morning,” Sir Arthur tells me, “with the snow falling heavily, that Gilbert came round to my place, clad in a heavy fur coat. He had called to read over to me the MS of ‘Trial by Jury.’ He read it through, as it seemed to me, in a perturbed sort of way, with a gradual crescendo of indignation, in the manner of a man considerably disappointed with what he had written. As soon as he had come to the last word he closed up the manuscript violently, apparently unconscious of the fact that he had achieved his purpose so far as I was concerned, inasmuch as I was screaming with laughter the whole time.”
Less than five weeks later, the music had been written, the cast rehearsed, and the new one-act operetta was ready for opening night.
“To judge by the unceasing and almost boisterous hilarity which formed a sort of running commentary on the part of the audience,” said The Times, “Trial by Jury suffered nothing whatever from so dangerous a juxtaposition. On the contrary, it may fairly be said to have borne away the palm.” The sheer enjoyment the audience experienced came not from the words or the music alone but from the unusually happy combination of the two, a point that was seized on by the critics as exceptional: “so completely is each imbued with the same spirit,” commented the Daily News, “That it would be as difficult to conceive the existence of Mr. Gilbert’s verses without Mr. Sullivan’s music, as of Mr. Sullivan’s music without Mr. Gilbert’s verses. Each gives each a double charm.”
And so the partnership was born.
Though both were moderately successful in their separate spheres, and in later years, both Gilbert and Sullivan would feel that they each had limited their own talents in deference to the other’s artistic needs, the truth is that it took both of them together to create their extraordinary works.
I think it’s impossible to choose one over the other. What do you say? Do you prefer the music or the words? Let me know in the comments.