Lesson 22: Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert and Sullivan:

Sir William S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) were Englishmen who collaborated for 20 years on 14 comic operas, also called operettas. Gilbert was the humorist who wrote the libretto (words), and Sullivan wrote the music. They weren't really friends and did a lot of their work by correspondence. What they had in common was their humor, their hard work, and their dedication to high quality on the stage. Gilbert and Sullivan became very successful and wealthy.

Their operettas were extremely popular when written and are still popular and performed today. We can see now that they were a transition from the grand operas of the past (think Mozart and Rossini) to the modern musical (think Rogers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber). Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas were comical with light-hearted songs and had spoken dialogue rather than recitative (speech-singing).

H.M.S. Pinafore opened in London in 1878. It was their first big "hit" and became as popular in America as it was in England. The story is common to several other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The two young people who fall in love are thwarted since her father is expecting her to marry someone else. The setting is on the ship the H.M.S. Pinafore. See if you can recognize the satire in the performances below that Gilbert and Sullivan loved to make on British society, government, fashions, and art.

Here is the full operetta:

The Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York City in 1879 and in London in 1880. It tells the story of Frederic who has been an apprentice to a band of pirates. He has finally reached the age of 21 and is now able to leave them. Even though the pirates are softhearted and never attack orphans, he doesn't like their pirate crimes and tells them he plans to destroy them. They land on shore, and Frederic sees young ladies for the first time, a group of sisters. He falls in love with Mabel. The pirates come to take the girls, but their father sings a song about being a "Modern Major General." He tells the pirates he is an orphan, so they leave. Further complications arise when Frederic realizes that since he was born on February 29, he hasn't had 21 birthdays and is still bound in contract to stay with the pirates and serve them. Furthermore, the pirates find out that the Major General isn't really an orphan after all. In 1982, The Pirates of Penzance was performed on Broadway with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt in the lead roles. They also made a movie of it in 1983, which I would recommend watching. (Check your library or streaming service.)

Here are some scenes from The Pirates of Penzance:

"I am a Pirate King"

"Poor Wandering One"

"Modern Major General"

"When the Foeman Bares"

"With Cat Like Tread"

"The Leap Year Paradox"

Below is a full live performance of The Pirates of Penzance:

The Mikado opened in London in 1885. The setting was in Japan and allowed a technique of Gilbert's to more freely satirize British politics and institutions. G.K. Chesterton said, "I doubt if there is a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese. But all the jokes in the play fit the English." The story tells of two young people who fall in love, but they are each engaged to another person.

Sir Arthur Sullivan also wrote the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers":

“I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening's experiment. Astonished at the wonderful form you have developed and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music will be put on record forever.” –Arthur Sullivan [in 1888 to Thomas Alva Edison referring to his invention of the phonograph]

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