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Gilbert and Sullivan was the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and the operatic/musical works they created together, becoming arguably, the fathers of the modern-day blockbuster musical loved by enthusiastic fans worldwide.

The comic operas they wrote are both witty and satirical and remain as funny now as they were when first written. The librettos (words) were written by Sir William Gilbert, and the music by Sir Arthur Sullivan for Richard D’Oyly Carte. Although Arthur Sullivan is primarily remembered for his comic operas with W S Gilbert, he is also known for his choral music and drawing-room ballads. The best-known of his hymns is “Onward, Christian soldiers,” but he wrote many dozens of others. Nearly all of them date from before 1875 (the year of Trial by Jury), with 1874 the most common year. Not coincidentally, he edited the SPCK’s Church Hymns and Tunes during that year.[1]

Gilbert and Sullivan

Best Gilbert & Sullivan Songs
Gilbert and Sullivan make up one of the best-known composer/lyricist pairings in operatic history. They collaborated on 14 operas during their partnership, the most famous of which are The MikadoPirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. Their output was prodigious, with many of the songs being extremely popular in their own right. If you’re unfamiliar with the pair, you can learn more about the operatic duo and their world-famous comic operas in the ENO’s Beginner’s Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan[2].

Who were Gilbert and Sullivan?

  • William Gilbert was born in London in 1836, the son of a naval surgeon. Two years later, he was kidnapped in Italy – payment of the ransom money (£25) secured his release and safe return to his parents. He started his adult working life by studying law, became a barrister, but his interests lay elsewhere – in drama, drawing, music and poetry.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was the most brilliant dramatist of Victorian England. He was also a prolific journalist and humorous poet, and he achieved worldwide fame through his long collaboration with Arthur Sullivan on the Savoy Operas. To many, he seemed difficult and quarrelsome, but to others, he showed both kindness and generosity[3].

  • Arthur Sullivan was also born in London – six years after Gilbert. His father, a theatrical musician, later became bandmaster at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst. From an early age, young Arthur was encouraged to take an interest in music – so much so that by the age of eight, he was a good singer and a proficient musician in several instruments.

W. S. Gilbert once described Arthur Sullivan as “incomparably the greatest English musician of the age.” Besides contributing witty operatic parodies and a string of effervescent melodies to the Savoy operas, he wrote, amongst other works, cantatas, oratorios, concert overtures, incidental music to plays, numerous songs and a grand opera. He was the conductor of the Leeds Festival for almost twenty years, a friend of Royalty and a keen follower of the turf[4].

Picture Credit: “HMS Pinafore 12” by Thwaites Theatre Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Richard D’Oyly Carte 

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Attribution: Photo of Richard D’Oyly Carte by Ellis & Walery, scanned from page 6 of the 1914 edition of Cellier & Bridgeman’s Gilbert and Sullivan and Their Operas. File URL:

This image is in the public domain because it is a mere mechanical scan or photocopy of a public domain original, or – from the available evidence – is so similar to such a scan or photocopy that no copyright protection can be expected to arise.

Richard D’Oyly Carte was born in London in May 1844 and became an English talent agent, theatrical impresario, composer and hotelier during the latter half of the Victorian era. He was a successful businessman and built two of London’s theatres and a hotel empire. His opera company ran continuously for over a hundred years, and his management agency represented some of the leading artists of the day. D’Oyly Carte brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and nurtured their collaboration in the Savoy Operas series. He founded the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and built the state-of-the-art Savoy Theatre to host the Gilbert & Sullivan operas.

Richard D’Oyly Carte’s father, Richard Carte, was a flautist and manufacturer of musical instruments. The “D’Oyly”, a Norman French name, came from the maternal side of the family. He remains a shadowy figure in the background of the Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte partnership. Little about his life or personality is known. Yet Richard D’Oyly Carte was a man of extraordinary vision, a talented musician and his business acumen set up a company that made him a wealthier man than his partners. He died on 3rd April 1901.[5]

The Savoy Theatre

London - Savoy HotelPicture Credit:London – Savoy Hotel” by Colin Smith is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

A Snapshot of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas
A brief description of each of the G&S operas is as follows:

  • Thespis: The Gods on Mount Olympus are old and weary, so they decide to take a vacation to Earth while a troupe of actors take their place. (1871)
  • Trial by Jury: A woman sues her would-be husband for Breach of Promise of Marriage. (1875)
  • The Sorcerer: A young couple about to be married decide to share their happiness with the whole village by hiring a sorcerer to make a love potion to make everyone fall in love. Naturally, this doesn’t work out as planned. (1877)
  • HMS Pinafore or The Lass that Loved a Sailor: A lowly sailor and his Captain’s beautiful daughter find their love thwarted by their differences in rank, an evil shipmate, and an incompetent Lord. (1878)
  • The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty: Young Frederic, finally free of his apprenticeship to a band of pirates, falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of a Major-General. But, the Pirate King, and the nurserymaid he scorned, take advantage of his sense of duty to keep him from enjoying his newfound happiness for long. (1879)
  • Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride: The dragoons love the ladies, but all the ladies love Bunthorne, the self-absorbed Aesthetic – except for Patience, the milkmaid he loves. Until, of course, an even more Aesthetic Aesthetic comes along and steals them away. (1881)
  • Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri: Iolanthe, a fairy, is allowed to return after being banished for the crime of marrying a mortal. Unfortunately, her half-human/half-fairy son is having some difficulty with the Lord Chancellor, who will not grant permission for him to marry Phyllis. But the fairies agree to help him, despite the opposition of the entire British Parliament. (1882)
  • Princess Ida or Castle Adamant: Prince Hilarion and his father, King Hildebrand, await the arrival of Princess Ida (to whom he was betrothed as an infant) and her father, King Gama. But Gama arrives without his daughter – she has founded a university for women and has given up the Company of men. But Hilarion and his friends decide to infiltrate the University, dressed as women. (1884)
  • The Mikado or The Town of Titipu: The son of the Mikado of Japan is disguised as a wandering minstrel to escape his father’s order to marry the elderly Katisha. He finds that the girl he loves is engaged to be married to the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. But that’s the least of his worries when his father at Katisha show up searching for her intended. (1885)

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Picture Attribution: Cover of Vocal Score, c. 1895

Cover of an 1895 Chappell & Co. vocal score for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, arranged for pianoforte by George Lowell Tracy. The score is undated, but gives the cast for the performance of the Mikado on 6th November 1895 – the Second London Revival, and does not include the note – found universally after 1911 in G&S scores – claiming its rights under the 1911 Copyright Act. As it emphasises the revival, a date nearer 1895 seems most likely. Some very mild cleanup was done, mainly to remove a few cat hairs and other dust spots that had got on the scanner bed. This UK artistic or literary work, of which the author is unknown and cannot be ascertained by reasonable enquiry, is in the public domain.

  • Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse: Young Robin Oakapple and Sweet Rose Maybud are in love but are too shy to tell each other until Robin’s foster-brother, Richard Dauntless (a sailor), woos Sweet Rose himself. But Young Robin is secretly none other than Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, Baronet of Ruddigore, the latest in a noble line cursed to do an evil deed every day or be tortured to death by the ghosts of his ancestors. (1887)
  • The Yeomen of the Guard or The Merryman and his Maid: Colonel Fairfax, sentenced to die in an hour on a false charge of sorcery, marries Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer. But then he escapes, causing complications. In the end, Elsie’s boyfriend, Jack Point, dies of a broken heart. Or does he? (1888)

Picture Attribution: The Yeoman of the Guard
Page URL:
See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

  • The Gondoliers or The King of Barataria: Two Venetian gondoliers marry – then learn that one of them is the King of Barataria and was married in infancy to Casilda, daughter of the Duke of Plaza-Toro. Unfortunately, nobody knows which of them is the king. (1889)
  • Utopia, Limited or The Flowers of Progress: Princess Zara of the Kingdom of Utopia returns from England, bringing the Flowers of Progress to teach the naive Utopians how to make their country as great and glorious as England. Yet, somehow, everything doesn’t quite seem right. (1893)
  • The Grand Duke or The Statutory Duel: As a leading comedian, Ludwig prepares to marry the soubrette, Lisa. Their Company achieves an opportunity to act on their conspiracy to overthrow the Grand Duke of Pfennig-Halbfennig, and Ludwig becomes the Grand Duke. Unfortunately, several other women have a prior claim on the Grand Duke’s hand in marriage. (1896)
Sources and Further Reading

A group of people standing on a stage Description automatically generated with medium confidenceAcknowledgement/Attribution: Screenshot of (the Major-General’s Song) from the video of Pirates of Penzance at:

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