1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sullivan, Sir Arthur Seymour

SULLIVAN, SIR ARTHUR SEYMOUR (1842–1900), English musical composer, was born in London on the 13th of May 1842, being the younger of the two sons of Thomas Sullivan, a cultivated Irish musician who was bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, from 1845 to 1856, and taught at the Military School of Music at Kneller Hall from 1857 till his death in 1866. His mother, née Mary Coghlan (1811–1882), had Italian blood in her veins. Arthur Sullivan was brought up to music from boyhood, and he had learnt to play every wind instrument in his father’s band by the age of eight. He was sent to school at Bayswater till he was twelve, and then, through Sir George Smart, he was, at his own persistent request, made a Chapel Royal chorister, and entered Mr Helmore’s school for Chapel Royal boys in Cheyne Walk. He had a fine treble voice, and sang with exceptional taste. In 1856 the Mendelssohn Scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music was thrown open for the first time for competition, and was won by Sullivan, his nearest rival being Joseph Barnby. At the Academy he studied under Sterndale Bennett, Arthur O’Leary and John Goss, and did so well that he was, given an extension of his scholarship for two years in succession. In 1858, his voice having broken, he was enabled by means of his scholarship to go to study at the conservatorium of Leipzig. There he had for teachers Moscheles and Plaidy for pianoforte, Hauptmann for counterpoint, Rietz and Reinecke for composition, and F. David for orchestral playing and conducting. Among his fellow-students were Grieg, Carl Rosa, Walter Bache, J. F. Barnett and Edward Dannreuther. Instead of the Mendelssohn cultus which represented orthodoxy in London, German musical interest at this period centred in Schumann, Schubert and the growing reputation of Wagner, whilst Liszt and Von Bulow were the celebrities of the day. Sullivan thus became acquainted for the first time with master-pieces which were then practically ignored in England. He entered enthusiastically into the spirit of the place, and after two years' hard study returned to London in April 1861. Before doing so, however, he had composed his incidental music for The Tempest, which he had begun as a sort of diploma work. Sullivan set himself to find converts in London to the enthusiasms he had imbibed at Leipzig. He became acquainted with George Grove, then secretary of the Crystal Palace, and August Manns, the conductor there; and at his instigation Schumann’s First Symphony was introduced at one of the winter concerts. Early in 1862 Sullivan showed Grove and Manns his Tempest music, and on the 5th of April it was performed at the Crystal Palace. The production was an unmixed triumph, and Sullivan’s exceptional gifts as a composer were generally recognized from that moment. He had hitherto been occupying himself with teaching, and he continued for some years to act as organist at St Michael’s, Chester Square, but henceforth he devoted most of his time to composition. By 1864 he had produced his “Kenilworth” cantata (remembered chiefly for the lovely duet, “How sweet the Moonlight”), the “Sapphire Necklace” overture, and the five beautiful songs from Shakespeare, which include “Orpheus with his Lute,” “Oh Mistress Mine” and "The Willow Song.” His attractive personality, combined with his undoubted genius and brilliant promise, brought him many friends. Costa, who was conductor at Convent Garden, gave him the post of organist, and in 1864 he produced there his L’Île Enchantée ballet. Some of his spare time was spent in Ireland, where in 1863 he began the composition of his (“Irish”) Symphony in E, which was produced at the Crystal Palace in 1866. The most important event, however, at this period, as bearing upon his later successes, was his co-operation with F. C. Burnand in the musical extravaganza Cox and Box, which first showed his capacity for musical drollery. This was acted privately in 1866, and was completed for public performance in 1867, in which year Sullivan again co-operated with Burnand in Contrabandista. Meanwhile he was in request as a conductor, and was made professor of composition at the Academy. His father’s sudden death in 1866 inspired him to write the fine “In Memoriam” overture, which was produced at the Norwich Festival. In 1867, besides producing his “Marmion” overture, he and Grove did a great service to their art by bringing to light at Vienna a number of lost Schubert MSS., including the Rosamunde music. About this time Sullivan induced Tennyson to write his song-cycle “The Window,” to be illustrated by Millais, with music by himself. But Millais abandoned the task, and Tennyson was not happy about his share; and the series, published in 1871, never became popular, in spite of Sullivan’s dainty setting. In 1869 he brought out his oratorio The Prodigal Son at Worcester, and in 1870 his overture “Di Ballo” at Birmingham.

In 1871 Sullivan had become acquainted with W. S. Gilbert (q.v.), and in 1872 they collaborated in a piece for the Gaiety Theatre, called Thespis; or, The Gods Grown Old, which was a great success in spite of the limited vocal resources of the performers. In 1875 R. D’Oyly Carte, then acting as manager for Selina Dolaro at the Royalty, approached Gilbert with a view to his collaborating with Sullivan in a piece for that theatre. Gilbert had already suggested to Sullivan an operetta with its scene in a law court, and within three weeks of his completing the libretto of Trial by Jury the music was written. The piece succeeded beyond all expectation; and on the strength of its promise of further successes D’Oyly Carte formed his Comedy Opera Company and took the Opera Comique Theatre. There in 1877 The Sorcerer was produced, George Grossmith and Rutland Barrington being in the cast. In 1878 H.M.S. Pinafore, was brought out at the Opera Comique. At first it did not attract large audiences, but eventually it became a popular success, and ran for 700 nights. In America it was enthusiastically received, and the two authors, with D’Oyly Carte, went over to the States in 1879, with a company of their own, in order to produce it in New York. To secure the American rights for their next opera, they brought out The Pirates of Penzance first at New York in 1879. In 1880, in London, it ran for nearly 400 nights. In 1881 Patience was produced at the Opéra Comique, and was transferred later in the year to the Savoy Theatre. There all the later operas came out: Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado—perhaps the most charming of all—(1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), The Gondoliers (1889). This succession of pieces by Gilbert and Sullivan had made their united names stand for a new type of light opera. Its vogue owed something to such admirable performers as' George Grossmith—famous for his “patter songs”—Rutland Barrington, Miss Jessie Bond, Miss Brandram, and later W. H. Denny and Walter Passmore; but these artistes only took advantage of the opportunities provided by the two authors. In place of the old adaptations of French opéra bouffe they had substituted a genuinely English product, humorous and delightful, without a tinge of vulgarity or the commonplace. But disagreements now arose between them which caused a dissolution of partnership. Sullivan’s next Savoy opera, Haddon Hall (1892), had a libretto by Sydney Grundy; and the resumption of Gilbert’s collaboration in 1893 in Utopia, Limited, and again in 1896 in The Grand Duke, was not as successful as before. Sullivan’s music, however, still showed its characteristic qualities in The Chieftain (1894)—largely an adaptation of Contrabandista; The Beauty Stone (1898), with a libretto by A. W. Pinero and J. Comyns Carr; and particularly in The Rose of Persia (1900), with Captain Basil Hood.

In the public mind Sir Arthur Sullivan (who was knighted in 1883) had during these years become principally associated with the enormous success of the Savoy operas; but these by no means exhausted his musical energies. In 1872 his Te Deum for the recovery of the prince of Wales was performed at the Crystal Palace. In 1873 he produced at the Birmingham Musical Festival his oratorio The Light of the World, in 1877 he wrote his incidental music to Henry VIII., in 1880 his sacred cantata The Martyr of Antioch, and in 1886 his masterpiece, The Golden Legend, was brought out at the Leeds Festival. The Golden Legend satisfied the most exacting critics that for originality of conception and grandeur of execution English music possessed in Sullivan a composer of the highest calibre. In 1891, for the opening of D’Oyly Carte’s new English opera-house in Shaftesbury Avenue he wrote his “grand opera” Ivanhoe to a libretto by Julian Sturgis. The attempt to put an English opera on the stage for a long run was doomed to failure, but Ivanhoe was full of fine things. In 1892 he composed incidental music to Tennyson’s Foresters. In 1897 he wrote a ballet for the Alhambra, called Victoria and Merrie England. Among his numerous songs, a conspicuous merit of which is their admirable vocal quality, the best known are “If Doughty Deeds” (1866), “The Sailor’s Grave” (1872), “Thou’rt Passing Hence” (1875), “I would I were a King " (1878), “King Henry’s Song” (1878) and “The Lost Chord” (1877). This last, hackneyed as it became, was probably the most successful English song of the 19th century. It was written in 1877, during the fatal illness of Sullivan’s brother Frederic, who, originally an architect, had become an actor, and by means of his fine voice and powers as a comedian (best shown as the Judge in Trial by Jury) had won considerable success. Among Sullivan’s many hymn tunes, the stirring “Onward, Christian Soldiers!” (1872) is a permanent addition to Church music. In 1876 he accepted the principalship of the National Training School of Music, which he held for six years; this was the germ of the subsequent Royal College. He received the honorary degree of Mus. Doc. from Cambridge (1876) and Oxford (1879). In 1878 he was a member of the royal commission for the Paris Exhibition. He was conductor of the Leeds Festivals from 1879 to 1898, besides being conductor of the Philharmonic Society in 1885. Apart from his broad sympathy and his practical knowledge of instruments, his work as a conductor must always be associated with his efforts to raise the standard of orchestral playing in England and his unwearying exertions on behalf of British music and British musicians. Sullivan liked to be associated in the public mind with patriotic objects, and his setting of Rudyard Kipling’s “Absent-minded Beggar” song, at the opening of the Boer War in 1899, was, with the exception of The Rose of Persia, the last of his compositions brought out in his lifetime. He died somewhat suddenly of heart failure on the 22nd of November 1900, and his burial in St Paul’s Cathedral was the occasion of a remarkable demonstration of public sorrow. He left unpublished a Te Deum written for performance at the end of the Boer War, and an unfinished Savoy opera for a libretto by Captain Hood, which, completed by Edward German, was produced in 1901 as The Emerald Isle.

Sullivan was the one really popular English composer of any artistic standing in his time; and his celebrity as a public man has somewhat interfered with a definite judgment as to his place in the history of English music. In his own time, English musical taste developed in a very remarkable degree; and musical criticism in serious quarters was a little disinclined to do justice to what was “popular.” One of the most agreeable companions, broad-minded, and free from all affectation, he was intensely admired and loved in all circles of society; and though his health was not robust, for he suffered during many years at intervals from a painful ailment, he was a man of the world who enjoyed the life which his success opened out to him without being spoilt by it. He was always a devoted and an industrious musician, and from the day he left Leipzig his influence was powerfully exerted in favour of a wider and fuller recognition of musical culture. He was accused in some quarters of being unsympathetic towards Wagner and the post-Wagnerians, yet he had been one of the first to introduce Wagner’s music to English audiences. He was keenly appreciative of new talent, but his tastes were too eclectic to satisfy the enthusiasts for any particular school; he certainly had no liking for what he considered uninspired academic writing. Serious critics deplored, with more justification, that he should have devoted so much of his great natural gift not merely to light comic opera, but to the production of a number of songs which, though always musicianly, were really of the nature of “pot-boiling.” Sullivan was an extremely rapid worker, and his fertility in melody made it easy for him to produce what would please a large public. Moreover, it must be admitted that his great social success, so early achieved, was not calculated to nourish a rigidly artistic ideal. But when all is said, his genius remains undisputed; and it was a genius essentially English. His church music alone would entitle him to a high place among composers; and The Golden Legend, Ivanhoe; the In Memoriam overture, the “Irish” symphony and the charming “incidental music” to The Tempest and to Henry VIII. form a splendid legacy of creative effort, characterized by the highest scholarly qualities in addition to those beauties which appeal to every ear. Whether his memory will be chiefly associated with these works, or rather with the world-wide popularity of some of his songs and comic operas, time alone can tell. The Savoy operas did not aim at intellectual or emotional grandeur, but at providing innocent and wholesome pleasure; and in giving musical form to Gilbert’s witty librettos Sullivan showed once for all what light opera may be when treated by the hand of a master. His scores are as humorous and fanciful quâ music as Gilbert’s verses are quâ dramatic literature. Bubbling melody, consummate orchestration, lovely song’s and concerted pieces (notably the famous vocal quintets) flowed from his pen in unexhausted and inimitable profusion. If he had written nothing else, his unique success in this field would have been a solid title to fame. As it was, it is Sir Arthur Sullivan’s special distinction not only to have been prolific in music which went straight to the hearts of the people, but to have enriched the English repertoire with acknowledged masterpieces, which are no less remarkable for their technical accomplishment.

See also Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life-story, Letters, and Reminiscences, by Arthur Lawrence (London: Bowden, 1899). Besides being largely autobiographical, this volume contains a complete list of Sullivan’s works, compiled by Mr Wilfrid Bendall, who for many years acted as Sir Arthur’s private secretary.  (H. Ch.)