Childhood & Early Life
Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born on 13 May 1842 in Lambeth, London. His father, Thomas Sullivan, a clarinetist, later became the bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. His mother was Mary Clementina née Coghlan. Born the younger of his parents’ two children, he had an elder brother named Fred.
From early childhood, Arthur showed a keen interest in music. By the time he was eight, he had not only learned to play every wind instrument in his father’s band, but had also become aware of their distinctive characteristics. Also at eight, he wrote an anthem, ‘By the Waters of Babylon’.
In 1854, while studying at a private school at Bayswater, Arthur was accepted as a member of the choir of the Chapel Royal. There he began to flourish under the guidance of Reverend Thomas Helmore, the master of the choristers. Very soon, he started serving as a soloist.
Helmore also discovered his gift as a composer and began to encourage him in this field, making arrangements for having his works performed. In 1855, he arranged to have Arthur’s composition ‘O Israel’ published. In 1856, Arthur was promoted to ‘First Boy’.
In 1856, he entered the Royal Academy of Music with its first Mendelssohn Scholarship. Initially granted for one year, the scholarship was extended in 1857. Concurrently, he continued to serve as a soloist at the Chapel Royal, earning a very small amount of pocket money for his services.
In 1858, when his scholarship was furthered extended, he moved to Germany to be trained in the ideas and techniques of Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Conservatoire. He studied there for three years, completing his education in 1861. For his graduation work, he wrote incidental music to ‘The Tempest’.
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In 1861, Arthur Sullivan returned to London and began his career as the organist at the St. Michael’s Church. Sometime thereafter, Henry F. Chorley, a well-known musical critic, held a private performance of ‘The Tempest’ at his home. It was attended by George Grove, the Secretary to the Crystal Palace.
Although Sullivan was till then an unknown composer and barely twenty years old, Grove was so impressed by the work that he arranged to have it performed at the Crystal Palace. Immediately, Sullivan began revising the work, extending it to twelve movements. Chorley wrote the linking narration.
’The Tempest’ was performed in full at a concert on 5 April 1862 at the Crystal Palace. It was such a huge success that it was repeated in the following week and overnight Sullivan’s reputation as a promising composer was established.
With his reputation being established, he now embarked on a career as a composer, undertaking many ambitious projects. However, he still needed to supplement his income and therefore continued as a church organist, working in that capacity until 1872. Concurrently, he also took up teaching for a short period.
In 1863, he started working on his first opera ‘The Sapphire Necklace, or the False Heiress’ in collaboration with Henry F. Chorley. To gain more insights into operas, he now contacted Sir Michael Costa, the music director of Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden.
Although he would take a few more years to complete ‘The Sapphire Necklace’, his contact with Sir Michael Costa helped him in other ways. At his suggestion, Sullivan began work as an organist at Royal Italian Opera. Very soon, Costa began to send commissions to him.
In 1864, commissioned by Costa, he wrote his first ballet, ‘L'Île Enchantée’. It was premiered at the end of Vincenzo Bellini's ‘La Sonnambula’ at Covent Garden on 16 May 1864. Later, it became a hit and had thirteen more performances.
In the summer of 1864, again being commissioned by Costa, he wrote a cantata titled, ’Kenilworth, A Masque of the Days of Queen Elizabeth’. Although it was well-received by the audience, many critics found it a little disappointing. He later withdrew it and did not allow it to be performed.
In 1866, he had four of his well-known works premiered. Among them was ‘Symphony in E’, a work he started in 1863 while touring Ireland. Also known as the ‘Irish Symphony’, it was premiered on March 10, 1866 and well received by the audience, being performed several times during his lifetime.
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Apart from the ‘Irish Symphony’, two others of his important works also premiered in 1866: ‘Overture in C, In Memoriam’ and 'Cello Concerto in D major'. Among them, the former was written in memory of his father, who had died in September. Both these works were very well-received by the audience and the critics.
In 1866, Sullivan also wrote a one-act comic opera called ‘Cox and Box’. Initially written for private performance, it was given a few charity performances in 1867. But it really gained in popularity once it was given a professional performance in 1869. Later, it ran for 264 performances and enjoyed many revivals.
In 1867, with the success of ‘Cox and Box’ behind him, Sullivan embarked on writing his next opera, 'The Contrabandista', this time in collaboration with F. C. Burnand. Premiered on 18 December 1867, this two-act comic opera was a great success, running for 72 performances.
In 1868, he composed his most famous part song, ‘The Long Day Closes’. He had published six other part songs that very year, but ‘The Long Day Closes’, with its poignant meditation on death, became especially popular during funeral services.
His last major work in the 1860s was an oratorio titled ‘The Prodigal Son’, written on a commission for the Three Choirs Festival. The premier, held on 10 September 1869, was a great success and the work continued to find place in the standard choral repertory until the World War I.
In 1870, Sullivan wrote one of his most enduring works, ‘Overture di Ballo’. Premiered in August 1870 at the Birmingham Triennial Festival, the work was both critically and popularly successful.
In 1871, Sullivan published ‘The Window’, his only song cycle. Two other important works of this year were a dramatic cantata called ‘On Shore and Sea’ and a hymn titled ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’
Collaboration with Gilbert
Towards the end of 1871, Arthur Sullivan was commissioned to work on ‘Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old ‘, a burlesque-style comic opera, in collaboration with librettist William Schwenck Gilbert, by John Hollingshead. Although their first venture was quite successful, they separated soon after its completion.
After ‘Thespis’, Sullivan continued to produce a number of great works including ‘Festival Te Deum’ (1872) and ‘The Light of the World’ (1873). His incidental music for ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ (1874) was also a great hit.
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In 1875, commissioned by Richard D’Oyly Carte, then manager of the Royalty Theatre, Sullivan and Gilbert resumed their collaboration, writing a comic opera titled ‘Trial by Jury’. Originally shown as an afterpiece to Offenbach’s ‘La Périchole’, it became an unexpected hit and continued to be performed throughout the year.
Encouraged by the success of ‘Trial by Jury’, Carte established Comedy Opera Company for presenting full-length operettas by Sullivan and Gilbert, commissioning them to write another opera. The duo’s next collaboration, ‘Sorcerer’, was premiered on 17 November 1877 in London, where it ran for 178 performances.
’Sorcerer’ was followed by ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ (1878) and ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ (1879, New York City; 1880, London), taking their fame to international level. Meanwhile, Sullivan continued to work independently, writing incidental music to plays, choral and orchestral works.
During the 1870s, Sullivan received several conducting appointments and a teaching position at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1876, he became the first principal at National Training School for Music, but left it in 1881 to concentrate on composing, collaborating with Gilbert on internationally acclaimed operas like ‘The Mikado’ (1885).
In 1890, the collaboration between Sullivan and Gilbert broke down over a minor business deal concerning Carte. Thereafter, Sullivan continued to work independently, writing ‘Ivanhoe’, his only grand opera, in 1891. It ran for 155 consecutive performances, earning good reviews for its music.
In 1892, the collaboration between Sullivan, Gilbert and Carte was resumed once again, leading to the production of ‘Utopia, Limited’ (1893). ’The Grand Duke’, premiered on 7 March 1896 at Savoy Theatre, was their next work, after which the partnership broke down irrevocably.
Even before the final dissolution of his collaboration with Gilbert, Sullivan had started working independently, producing ‘Chieftain’ (1894) with Burnand, basing the work on their earlier production, ‘The Contrabandista’. After the dissolution, he started working on a grand ballet, ‘Victoria and Merrie England’ (1897), commemorating Queen Victoria’s sixty years of reign.
In 1899, he set to music ‘Absent Minded Beggar’ by Rudyard Kipling for raising money for the benefit of the soldiers of the Boer’s War and their families. It was an instant hit and raised an unprecedented amount of £300,000 for the cause.
Also in 1899, he collaborated with Basil Hood to write his last complete opera, ’Rose of Persia’. Thereafter, they started working on ‘The Emerald Isle’; but Sullivan died before he could complete it. In the last months of his life, he composed another great hit, ’Te Deum Laudamus—A Thanksgiving for Victory’.
Among Sullivan’s collaborations with Gilbert, ‘The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu’ is perhaps the most famous. Premiered on 14 March 1885 at the Savoy Theatre, this comic opera ran for 672 performances, and by the year end, it was being performed by at least 150 companies throughout Europe and America.
Among his serious works, ‘The Golden Legend’ is considered the greatest and most successful. The cantata, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem of the same name, was premiered in October 1886. Soon it began to be performed so frequently that he was compelled to declare a moratorium on its performance.
His most popular hymn was ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. The words were written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865 as a processional hymn, but it did not gain in popularity until Sullivan composed and set it to tune in 1871. Later, it was adopted by the Salvation Army as their favored processional tune.