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"I have a song to sing, O!"

"To end on a happy note, one can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale, full of words and music and signifying — nothing."
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Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (18 November 1836 - 29 May 1911) and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (13 May 1842 - 22 November 1900) were a Victorian duo who together wrote a number of hugely popular and influential comic operas, which served as forerunners of The Musical (most people today think of them as musicals), Gilbert writing the book and lyrics (what's known as a librettist, because he writes the libretto, or "little book" in English), and Sullivan the scores. Their most famous works are the so-called Savoy operas (from the Savoy Theatre where their operas were produced by entrepreneur Richard D'Oyly Carte), stretching from Thespis in 1871 to The Gondoliers in 1889. The partnership then broke up, partly because of the legendary irascibility of Gilbert, partly because Sullivan (encouraged by none other than Queen Victoria!), wished to devote himself to serious music, mostly over a carpet. Two later works, Utopia, Ltd. and The Grand Duke, came after the reunion of the team; they have not generally been considered successes.

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The Savoy operas were a reaction, in part, to the scandalous operettas popular in mid-19th century Europe, particularly France (as most famously done by Jacques Offenbach). Gilbert and Sullivan wanted to write family-friendly light operas that were just as uproariously funny and deliciously satirical as the raunchier productions that preceded them. They succeeded.

The Savoy operas are characterised by the topsy-turvy logic of their plots, which often achieve their dénouement on the basis of some paradoxical ("Gilbertian") legalistic quibble (Gilbert had trained as a lawyer), as well as by their satire of English institutions. Gilbert's lyrics are masterpieces of complicated and difficult rhymes, often employing obscure and topical allusions, as well as three or four foreign languages; Sullivan's serious and romantic music adds emotional depth and tenderness to their often cynical frivolity.

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The operas tend to include a number of characters intended to show off what might be called the Savoy's "stock company": a light baritone playing a (generally not very pleasant) character who wishes (usually without success) to marry the heroine and who will almost certainly at some point sing a Patter Song; a soprano heroine, sometimes sympathetic, but often selfish and scheming; a pompous bass-baritone; and a contralto (with, as the great Anna Russell described her, "a voice like a foghorn"), whose attempts to marry a man who desperately does not want to marry her form the basis of quite a few of Gilbert's jokes. However, these roles are also regularly subverted: For example, in half the operas note , the contralto's love interest is in love with her from the start, and in Ruddigore, she has two men after her.

Though both of the pair were eventually knighted, Queen Victoria refused the honour to Gilbert (possibly having been offended by one of his works, but more likely simply because she thought knighthood more suitable for Serious Business like Sullivan's (now mostly forgotten) serious works such as Ivanhoe). This was likely a contributory cause to their quarrel. The honours would eventually be evened by King Edward VII, who made Gilbert the first playwright ever to be knightednote . Their royal patronage was not restricted to Britain, either; reportedly Kaiser Wilhelm II knew The Mikado by heart, and on the one occasion Sullivan met him, he regarded him as a Loony Fan.

If you want see how the team was in action, see the film Topsy-Turvy, which depicts how they almost broke up until they were inspired to create The Mikado.


A complete list of their works together:

There are also three parlour ballads:

  • "The Distant Shore" (1874)
  • "The Love that Loves Me Not" (1875)
  • "Sweethearts" (1875)

Arguably, The Martyr of Antioch (1880, sacred cantata), Sullivan's setting of a poem by Millman, could also be included in this list, as Gilbert abridged and rearranged it, wrote some new material (including a couple of songs) to replace what was cut and simplify over-long scenes, and generally worked to make the libretto count as a good example of Adaptation Distillation.

Added to the canon is Pineapple Poll, a lovely comic ballet scored in 1950-51 by Sir Charles Mackerras. Mackerras wove melodies from the first twelve G+S collaborations with a bit of Cox and Box and some of Sullivan's "Overture di Ballo" to the story of Gilbert's Bab Ballad "The Bumboat Woman's Tale" to create a delightful work of nautical silliness that pays loving tribute to the duo's best work.

Solo Works

Only a few of their solo works are regularly read or performed; the most often performed (or read) of these are:

Gilbert

  • The Bab Ballads: Collection of illustrated comic poetry largely written between 1861 and 1871. Many of the poems can be seen as first drafts of plots, incidents, or characters in his work with Sullivan.
  • Engaged (1877, three act farce without music. Has had several professional productions in recent years. Inspired Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest)

Gilbert also wrote about one or two hundred other works, mainly plays and short stories, not counting ephemera for magazines (e.g. brief satire of current events, a lengthy troperiffic series of parodies of bad plays, and so on). Many of these works—including ephemera—were actually trial balloons for his collaborations with Sullivan, seeing how certain ideas would play with the public and so on.

Sullivan

  • Cox and Box; or, the Long Lost Brothers (1866, Sullivan's first successful comic opera, with lyrics by F. C. Barnard. One act)
  • Onward, Christian Soldiers (hymn, 1871)
  • The Zoo (1875, one-act comic opera with B. C. Stephenson, thought lost until 1966)
  • The Lost Chord (song, 1877)
  • The Prodigal Son (oratorio, 1869) was the first sacred music setting of the Biblical parable.

Sullivan also wrote several symphonies, song cycles, cantatas, incidental music, hymns, and other short pieces.


Tropes used by Gilbert and Sullivan include:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Gilbert used this trope repeatedly, with both genders.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The Martyr of Antioch, one of Sullivan's attempts to be the great "serious" composer everyone wanted him to be, had Millman's poem expertly trimmed, adjusted, and tweaked into a viable libretto by Gilbert.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Gilbert tended to try out ideas with a short story, poem, or the like, sell that, then expand it out into a longer work if he liked the result. Later, he began actively mining his early poems for ideas as well.
  • Anachronism Stew: Not frequently in the originals, but there is a proud tradition of rewriting parts of the (now public domain) dialog to include jokes that are relevant to modern audiences, even if they make no sense for the time period. G&S would probably be happy to see the updates—so long as you don't mess with the music!
    • Contemporary cracks at the contemporary Liberal Party are often updated to be aimed at the modern Liberal Democrats — which works surprisingly well as both have a reputation of accepting members regardless of political principles, or not possessing any.
  • The Annotated Edition: One was written by Isaac Asimov, no less, covering all fourteen of the musicals and going very deep into Gilbert's literary references and allusions.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Granted, Gilbert was writing in the Victorian Era, which this trope usually parodies. However, much of Gilbert's dialogue and lyrics were designed to sound humorously overblown and antiquated even by Victorian standards.
  • Bowdlerization: Bowdlerization itself is alluded to in Thespis.
  • Catchphrase: Catchphrases are common in the operas.
  • Deus ex Machina: There is usually a twist or revelation at the end of the story that allows all to live happily ever after (barring The Yeomen of the Guard).
  • Either/Or Title: All but two of the operas have one.note  In most cases, the alternate title is more informative than the primary, although Princess Ida's alternate title is just as cryptic as the primary.
  • Exact Words: In several of their operas, the resolution of the story's final conflict hinges on an unexpected interpretation of a previously established rule's wording; this is a reflection of Gilbert's legal experience.
  • Happily Ever After
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Real Life example - Gilbert died saving a girl from drowning.
  • High-Class Glass: At least three major characters, along with Sullivan himself!
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Lots of Gilbert's misanthropic characters are at least well-intentioned.
  • Large Ham: Almost everyone.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: In most of the operas.
  • The Mel Brooks Number: Arguably could be considered the Gilbert and Sullivan Number, with their combination of straight music and hilarious lyrics.
  • Melodrama: Parodied incessantly.
  • Missing Episode: The score for Thespis is all but gone.
  • Motor Mouth: Any character who sings a Patter Song! (Many of these roles were written for comic actor George Grossmith, a famous Patter-song performer.)
  • My Card: Jupiter presents it in Thespis
  • New Media Are Evil: Sullivan was recorded on Thomas Edison's early phonograph at a demonstration in 1888. He joked that recorded music could put artists out of business (Older Than They Think) and also that it would lead to the recordings of dreadful musicians being preserved forever rather than forgotten.
  • No Fourth Wall
  • Opening Chorus: With the single exception of The Yeomen of the Guard, this is a staple of every G & S collaboration.
  • Patter Song: In every show.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: All the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas entered the public domain in the 1950s.
  • Really Gets Around: Pretteia, according to Nicemis in Thespis
  • Refrain from Assuming: As was common at the time, effectively every song is named after its first line, not its refrain. The only exceptions are the ones where the refrain doubles as the first line (such as "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General").
    • However, Gilbert himself, in his 1890 collection of lyrics, Songs of a Savoyard, gave each song a short descriptive title instead, e.g., "The Major General's Song" (for "I am the very model of a modern major-general") or "Eheu Fugaces—!" (for "Time was when Love and I were well acquainted").
  • Royal Blood
  • Rule of Funny: Everything. You can bet if any of these tropes is invoked, it's likely just because it's funny.
    • Maaaayybe in terms of the libretto and music. As far as stage business goes, Word of God explicitly bars Rule of Funny. George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko in The Mikado, protested having a gag cut because he got a big laugh - Gilbert replied "So you would if you sat on a pork pie."
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Gilbert's libretti lean heavily toward the cynical side, with idealism often mocked or subverted (his non-musical poems and plays are even more cynical), while Sullivan leaned toward idealism, providing genuinely touching and heartfelt music even for the most absurd characters. The contrast in their approaches is often cited as a reason their partnership was so successful, but also as a reason why they were prone to huge disagreements about what kind of stories to tell.
  • Sliding Scale of Silliness vs. Seriousness : Gilbert and Sullivan's famous operas are very much on the silly end of the scale.
  • Tenor Boy: Invoked in most, averted in Iolanthe, Patience, and sort of in Ruddigore, lampshaded like hell in Utopia Limited.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: The main antagonists of Gilbert and Sullivan operas tend to be Anti-Villains at worst.
  • Write What You Know: Gilbert began his career studying law before he made it big as a writer, and his courtroom experience is evident in a lot of his satire (most notably Trial by Jury).

Alternative Title(s): Arthur Sullivan, William Gilbert, WS Gilbert, Gilbert And Sullivan

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