Tag Archive | Bab ballads

Gilbert and Sullivan – Together

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.

Even though it followed a very popular opera by Offenbach, La Perichole, the performance was an immediate hit, as this quote from Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography attests:

“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.



W.S. Gilbert the Recycler

Today I am plundering the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (which is moving soon to gilbertandsullivanarchive.org) to show how William S. Gilbert “recycled” some of his early literary ideas into the bases of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas we know today.

Before Gilbert began writing his comic operas, he was well-known for his witty magazine articles and for a series of comically grotesque poems, collectively known as The Bab Ballads. (“Bab” was William’s childhood nickname, and was the pseudonym he used for this series of poems.) You can find them all collected in the G&S archive here.

From “The Student” to “The Sorcerer

In 1865, Gilbert wrote a parody of  E.A. Poe’s The Raven, called The Student, who is an aspiring barrister:

Well, as I was sitting idly
On my pleasant window-sill,
Speculating vaguely, widely,
On my aunt’s unopened will,

I perceived a silent student
At a window, quite at home,
Stooping more than I thought prudent
Over a Tremendous Tome.

Although the verses in The Student mostly relate to law students at Gray’s Inn, in the following passage we can see a tiny glimpse of John Wellington Wells’ patter song in The Sorcerer:


Check out the similarity between the passage above and John Wellington Wells’ song, where he talks about

Barring tautology,
In demonology,
Mystic nosology,
Spirit philology,
High-class astrology,
Such is his knowledge, he
Isn’t the man to require an apology!


Breach of Promise: Edwin vs. Angelina, Trial by Jury

On 11 April 1868, Gilbert also wrote about a fictional Breach of Promise suit, which eventually morphed into the Bab Ballad called Trial by Jury (which is even described as an “operetta” )

Here is the opening of the Bab Ballad, which is identical to the operetta:

SCENE – A Court of Law at Westminster

Opening Chorus of Counsel, Attorneys, and Populace.

Hark! The hour of ten is sounding,
Hearts with anxious hopes are bounding,
Halls of Justice crowds surrounding,
Breathing hope and fear –
For to-day in this arena
Summoned by a stern subpoena
Shortly will appear!


This even later became the one act operetta “Trial by Jury” – the first Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration that has survived intact.


HMS Pinafore’s Bab Ballad origins

Ideas from Gilbert’s Bab Ballads also found their way into HMS Pinafore: The Ballad “Captain Reece” is the origin of Captain Corcoran, who was so kind and accommodating to his crew that he arranges for all of the men to be married to his female relatives:

You have a daughter, CAPTAIN REECE,
Ten female cousins and a niece,
A ma, if what I’m told is true,
Six sisters, and an aunt or two.

Now, somehow, sir, it seems to me,
More friendly-like we all should be
If you united of ’em to
Unmarried members of the crew.

Also, Little Buttercup was first brought to life in The Bumboat Woman’s Story,

Whenever I went on board he would beckon me down below.
“Come down, little Buttercup, (for he loved to come call me so),…”

So was the crew’s excessive politeness, although in the Ballad it was for a completely different reason (the crew of handsome Lieutenant Belaye’s gunboat, the Hot Cross Bun, was entirely made up of young maidens from Portsmouth who’d fallen in love with the man):

When Jack Tars meet, they meet with a “Messmate, ho! What cheer?
But here, on the Hot Cross Bun, it was “How do you do, my dear?”
When Jack Tars growl, I believe they growl with a big big D—
But the strongest oath of the Hot Cross Bun was a mild “Dear me!”


The Fairy Curate becomes Iolanthe

Gilbert’s delightful libretto “Iolanthe,” about the complications that arise after a fairy marries a mortal and gives birth to a half-mortal, half-fairy son, relies heavily on the Bab Ballad called “The Fairy Curate,” where a Bishop, not knowing that his curate Georgie has an immortal, eternally young mother, is disapproving:


“Who is this, sir, —
Ballet miss, sir?”
Said the Bishop coldly.
“‘Tis my mother,
And no other,”
GEORGIE answered boldly.
“Go along, sir!
You are wrong, sir,
You have years in plenty;
While this hussy
(Gracious mussy!)
Isn’t two-and-twenty!”

(Fairies clever
Never, never
Grow in visage older;
And the fairy,
All unwary,
Leant upon his shoulder!)


There are many more examples of Gilbert’s clever reworking of his older ideas. How do you feel about a writer or other creative making use of his ideas in multiple ways? Have you ever reworked an oldie but goodie into a newer creative piece? Let me know in the comments!