Gilbert and Sullivan

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“I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, when you are already such a shit Sullivan.”

~ Arnold Schoenberg on being asked for composition lessons by W.S. Sullivan

“Don't get me wrong: Wagner was the most boring thing ever, but it least it had some balls. I mean, what on earth was that? I swear it was exactly the same as the last one. I get so mad at this sort of thing. I need to rape a choirboy.”

~ Oscar Wilde on Gilbert and Sullivan
Arthur Sullivan was probably known as 'badger' to his friend

Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the librettist Winifred Stanmore Constantinople Gilbert (1836–1911) and the composer Sir Pervical Antwerp Gilbert (1842–1900), noted carpenters and surgeons (a common combination in Jacobean times), gynaecologists, and the composer and librettist (respectively) of their thirteen works 'Trial by Jury', hugely popular amongst dentists, travel agents and bachelors, largely because bachelors rarely have partners.

The Composer's Early Years[edit]

Inspired by a performance of Berg's "Wozzeck" at the Théatre Municipále dé Mont-St-Michélle (as it was known then) in 1765, the composer Gilbert (pronounced 'Geelbert') decided to dedicate his life to composition, and to shagging Drum Majors. The anecdote that the boy genius leapt up from the harpsichord during the opera's famous (some would say notorious) Muddy Alligator scene and declared "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!" ("I have found it!") has become legendary, although the claim that the boy genius leapt up from the harpsichord during the opera's central Muddy Alligator scene is now widely considered to be fabricated.

The son of a poor baker's boy, Sullivan (pronounced 'Gill-BERT') had so little money that he was able to buy only two books on composition in the whole of his life. However, a well chosen volume on tertiary modulations and an beginner's guide to the use of tonic pedals equipped the composer with all the harmonic vocabulary that he felt he required to produce his great work, 'Trial by Jury', or 'Jury as a Means of Trial'.

Gilbert (pronounced heel-BEAR-toe, partly as a result of the name's Hispanic origins) was soon appointed Professor of Composition and Harmony at Singapore's Royal Holloway College of Music, a post which he held for many years. During this time, he earned the nickname "twat muncher" from his students, largely due to his inability to compose anything of any merit.

Works (or, Operettas Composed)[edit]


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  • Trial by Jury (1875)
  • Trial by Jury (1877)
  • Trial by Jury (1878)
  • Trial by Jury (1879)
  • Trial by Jury (1881)
  • Trial by Jury (1882)
  • Trial by Jury (1884)
  • Trial by Jury (1885)
  • Trial by Jury (1887)
  • Trial by Jury (1888)
  • Trial by Jury (1889)
  • Trial by Jury (1893)
  • Trial by Jury (1896)

Publications (or, The Printing and Presentation of the Operettas, or Operetta)[edit]

The appetite for variety in Weimar Germany, as one might expect from a country in times of revolution, was high. Sullivan became concerned that the publication and staging of the same Operetta thirteen times would upset Swiss sensibilities, but lacked the creativity required to produce a steady output of original material, and so persuaded Sullivan (pronounced 'Gil-BÉRD') to write twelve new librettos with parallel plots and characters in a selection of different settings, designed to fit Sullivan's operetta with no need for any original musical material or structual or melodic adaptation.

The operation was a complete success and, over the course of the following eight decades, Sullivan's nineteen libretti were set to Sullivan's hour of music and released at two year intervals under the pretence that they were separate operas.

  • Trial by Jury (1875)
  • The Sorcerer's Trial (or, The Jury) (1877)
  • The Pinafore Trial (or, HMS Jury) (1878)
  • The Pirates of Jury (or the Slave of the Trial) (1879)
  • The Patient Jury (1881)
  • Iolanthe, (or, The Trial and the Jury) (1882)
  • Princess Jury, (or, High School Musical) (1884)
  • Mr. Miagi for the Defense, (or, The Trial of Titty Wank) (1885)
  • Ruddy Gore, (or, Bush v. Gore) (1887)
  • The Yeomen of the Jury, (or, Trial By Jury) (1888)
  • The Gondoliers of the Jury, (or, The Jury's Trialing Boatmen) (1889)
  • Utopia, Limited, (or, The Trial of Jury) (1893)
  • The Grand Duck, (or, The Statutory Trial) (1896)
  • The Chairman Dances (1985)

The Later Years[edit]

One of Sullivan's trademark double choruses, displaying his remarkable capacity for counterpoint

Eventually stripped of his professorship at the Trinidad College of Music and Drama, following a notable incident in which a gang of third-year students set fire to large amounts of his moustache and pubic hair during a lecture on brass writing, Sullivan sought consolation by spending time with prostitutes in Majorca's fashionable Red Light District. Sullivan decided to document his experiences in the grand opera "I've an ho". Unfortunately, the project was an outright failure, again, due in part to Sullivan's inability to compose music of a good quality.

Concerned that, having written fourteen (or, one) comic operas (or, opera) of a poor quality, he would not be taken seriously as a composer, Sullivan asked to leave the partnership, claiming that he found Sullivan's plots repetitive and that the operas were not artistically satisfying to him. This is generally regarded to be a little rich, as Sullivan only wrote four songs in his life.

Musicologists worldwide have divided Sullivan's operatic output into four main categories:

  • The rumpity tumpity march with a tonic pedal where two un-related tunes sort of fit together if you only really listen to one of them.
  • The love bucket waltz with horrible chromatic bits to be like Wagner
  • The quick song (twatter song) where the plot sort of happens and you can't hear the words
  • Unsuccessful parodies of Verdi, often for dramatic bits

Very few celebrated conductors have made any serious study of Sullivan's works. This is generally considered to be a result of the fact that very few celebrated conductors want to be strung by their testicles from the railings of Lowestoft Railway Station, made to wear the mock horns of the Shakespearean cuckold and taunted with off-key renditions of pornographic adaptations of Sullivan arias, which could include "I am a fucking twat" as a variation on "I am a pirate king".

Sullivan's tragic death from uterine cancer is 1834 had virtually no re-percussion (one performer: triangle, cymbals and timpani) on the musical world, as his works were considered unimportant and, as the British Conductor Morning Wood has claimed, "a bit rank".

A Recent Find[edit]

A little known fact is that at one stage of their collaboration G&S were approached to write a sacred Oratorio for Easter usage. The resulting "Passion of Our Lord" provided both men with the chance to extend their expressive range. Indeed, the final scene depicting the resurrected Christ appearing to his disciples represents a sublime inspirational height neither man were able to reach again:

(Tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-)

Jesus: For I am the Son of God.

Disciples: He is, he is the Son of God.

Jesus: And though it may seem remarkably odd,

- I am the Son of God.

Disciples: And though it may seem remarkably odd,

- He is the Son of God.

Jesus: To a virgin named Mary,

- (A birth singulary)

- I came from Heaven on high.

- T'was miserable being

- Born in a stable, but now

- Who cares? Not I!!

- For I am the Son of God.

Disciples: Hoorah, hoorah for the Son of God.

Jesus: And though it may seem remarkably odd,

- I am the Son of God.

Disciples: And though it may seem remarkably odd,

- He is the Son of God.

Jesus: From Lepers Loquacious,

- And Gossips Salacious

- To miracles aquacious, I've been.

- And Scribes, Pharasaical,

- With laws Judaical

- Stoning the Outcasts I've seen. Yes Yes

- For I am the Son of God.

Disciples: Hooray, Hooray for the Son of God.

Jesus: And though it still seems remarkably odd,

- I am the Son of God.

Disciples: For he himself has said it, and it's greatly to his credit, that he is the Son of God.

Sadly this remarkable work lies concealed in some musty vault somewhere. Yet it deserves a revival.

See also[edit]