Arthur Sullivan 1842-1900
Arthur Sullivan
Arthur Sullivan

W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) & Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) created a string of operettas that dominated the English stage in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The collaboration inspired a three-way business partnership with their impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, who established an opera company and built the Savoy theatre, which was largely dedicated to G & S operettas. Gilbert meticulously supervised each new production; every detail, including stage direction down to facial expressions and hand gestures, choreography and style of delivery were protected by a strict and lucrative licensing system. The venture was so successful that it spawned two touring companies and endured until 1982.

Like their cultural descendants, Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, the pair could never get along. Periodic disputes and reconciliations (one even went to court.) eventually marred the venture. Sullivan staked his success and reputation on his “serious” music – now forgotten. More of a proper Victorian than his partner, he never completely accepted Gilbert’s acid librettos. Queen Victoria knighted Sullivan in 1883, but Gilbert, who was an equal opportunity insulter, had to wait until 1907 because the Queen “was not amused” by his cheeky libretti. Edward VII was definitely more broadminded.

After 14 operettas, the last two being significantly inferior to the others, the pair split up in 1893. Sullivan’s collaboration with Gilbert gained him long-lasting, worldwide popularity, but it rankled him that he was “joined at the hip” to Gilbert. Gilbert was equally miffed, especially by his partner’s knighthood.

The Mikado
The team’s biggest hit was The Mikado in 1885. It remains so because its satire is more general, its plot and dialogue funnier and less dependent on a knowledge of nineteenth-century British political and social issues. The unbelievably silly and complicated plot hangs on two imperial decrees and their effect on the people of the town of Titipu and the Mikado’s son and heir masquerading as a wondering minstrel: Flirting is punishable by decapitation; and a person “cannot cut off another’s head until he’s cut his own off” (see Wikipedia.)

It is interesting musically because Sullivan used an authentic Japanese melody, first heard in the Overture and later as the song welcoming the Mikado to Titipu. Example 1 The other numbers are typical G&S affairs, made funnier because the music sounds so incongruous coming from a cast done up in Japanese costumes:
1. Three little maids from school: The entrance of the heroine, Yum-Yum, and her two schoolmates (doing what was believed to be an authentic Japanese dance).

2. Here’s a how-de-do: The trio with Yum-Yum, Nanki-poo, the crown prince, and Koko, the lord high executioner, each bewailing the predicament caused by the Mikado’s edicts. Example 2

3. For he’s gone and married Yum-Yum: The final chorus after–believe it or not– everything gets sorted out.
H.M.S. Pinafore
A little less daunting in plot was H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), the operetta that put the team on the map, so to speak. A hawker of trinkets, Little Buttercup has in a former life been a one-woman adoption agency. In the classic dramatic device of infants exchanged in cradles, she has mixed up two orphans of opposite social stations: Ralph Rackstraw, a common sailor, and his commanding officer, Captain Corcoran. After the captain’s daughter and Ralph have been caught attempting to elope, Buttercup ex machina reveals her dirty secret, thereby reversing the social station of the two men and rendering the marriage legitimate by British social standards. In Act 1, she introduces herself as the more innocent I’m called Little Buttercup. Example 3

The Pirates of Penzance
Next up was Pirates (1879), which premiered in New York! Another swipe at the British class system and baby trafficking, Pirates recounts two fateful days in the life of Frederick, a young pirate, and Mabel, one of a chorus Major General Stanley’s daughters. Once again, a failed elopement is made right by the contralto, Frederic’s old, hearing impaired nurse, Ruth, now a “piratical maid of all work.” She inadvertently apprenticed Frederic to a pirate instead of a pilot. Turns out that the whole crew is made up of “noblemen who have gone wrong” and who, presumably, will be suitably reformed and married to General Stanley’s daughters. In Act 1, the girls fall into the hands of the pirates:
1. Climbing over rocky mountain: The chorus of daughters sings a hiking song.

2. Oh, is there not one maiden breast: They come upon Frederic hanging around on the beach, who tells them that he wants to get out if the pirating business and find a nice young lady. Example 4

3. Poor wand’ring one: Mabel takes pity on him – and more.

4. How beautifully blue the sky: The rest of the girls sing about the weather in order to give the pair some privacy.

5. When the foeman bears his steel: In the finale to Act 1, the pirates, all parentless, however, have attempted to abduct the daughters, and General Stanley has managed to wheedle them back by claiming to be an orphan too. Example 5 Regretting his non-soldierly ruse, he enlists a bunch of feckless policemen to arrest the pirates.
The Gondoliers
Although the pair collaborated on two more operettas, The Gondoliers (1889) was their final success. The baby-changing device still worked for them, although here with a little twist. Marco and Giuseppe, two gondoliers, think they are brothers, but the Grand Inquisitor, the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, their daughter Casilda and their drummer, Luiz, have come to Venice because one of them is actually the king of Barataria. But which one? The two decide to share the throne and immediately institute a socialist monarchy in which everyone is equal. In the midst of this chaos, Meanwhile, Casilda and Luiz have an impossible relationship because of the differences in their social status. It turns out, however, that the true king can be recognized by a birthmark. And guess who has the birthmark. Once more gondolieri is the final chorus of the operetta, in which Marco and Giuseppe go back to their girlfriends and their gondolas.

Selections from Pineapple Poll
Arr. by Charles Mackerras

In 1950, when the 50-year copyright on Arthur Sullivan’s music expired, John Cranko, the choreographer of the Sadler’s Wells ballet, asked conductor Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) to make an arrangement of tunes from G & S operettas for a comic ballet based on W. S. Gilbert’s satirical ballad that was part of the source for the libretto of H.M.S. Pinafore. Generally Mackerras’ quotes are broad and obvious, but the sources of short transitional passages, sometimes only a few measures long, are tricky to identify even for aficionados.

The principal characters in the ballet are Pineapple Poll, a flower-seller, Jasper, the "pot boy" at the local tavern and the dashing Captain Belaye of the H.M.S. Hot Cross Bun, which has just docked in Portsmouth. All the girls in town vie for the attention of Captain Belaye, including Pineapple Poll – much to the dismay of Jasper, who has a serious crush on her. But Belaye's eye has been caught by Blanche, a local beauty chaperoned by her aunt, Mrs. Dimple. In the end, all the girls chasing the captain cross-dress as sailors and board the ship; after the usual mix up, everyone ends happy and Jasper gets Pineapple Poll.

For G & S aficionados, here are the sources in order of all today’s selections:
1. Overture: The Mikado, Example 10 Trial by Jury, Mikado, Patience, Trial, ? , The Gondoliers, ? , Trial.

2. Jasper’s Dance: Princess Ida Example 11

3. Finale: Mikado, Trial, Example 12 H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience, Princess Ida, The Pirates of Penzance, ? , The Yeomen of the Guard.
Trial by Jury
Homo sapiens is a litigious species; Perhaps legal settlement is our way of “civilizing” the fight instinct. But fashions change across time and geography. A $750 thousand suit against Starbucks for burns from a spilled cup of coffee to damages sought for a jilted lover sum up the judicial differences between current and Victorian practice. Of course, it’s all about money. A prospective bride or groom seriously considered how much hard cash or lifetime income her family “settled” on her.

Trial by Jury was the first full scale musical satire created between Gilbert and Sullivan. In one act, it shamelessly lampooned the British legal system. Angelina, the jilted fiancée, bring suit against Edwin for breach of promise of marriage. Before the trial commences, a chorus of courtroom mavens anxiously awaits, “with hope and fear” the arrival of the judge Example 6 while the court Usher admonishes the jury in song with the refrain: “From bias free of every kind this trial must be tried.” The verses are another story as he describes “the broken-hearted bride” and advises the jury to ignore anything the “ruffian” defendant says. Example 7

Before the gavel falls, the Judge gives an account of his career from starving barrister to Judge in a patter song, (a sub-genre requisite of all subsequent G & S librettos). Example 8 After all the principals have made their cases and an aborted settlement, Example 9 (spoiler alert!) the Judge slices through the Gordian knot and decides to marry Angelina himself – without, incidentally, consulting the jury.

Trial by Jury premiered in March 1875 and was an immediate success, with an initial run of over 130 performances.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015