"He was essentially the most broad-minded musician in perhaps the most narrow and unoriginal school of thought in musical history."
Ian Parrott on Arthur Sullivan
Born in London on 13 May 1842, Arthur Seymour Sullivan was a Child (choirboy) of the Chapel Royal. He was the first winner of the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which enabled him to study at the Royal Academy of Music and the Leipzig Conservatory. He returned to England in 1861 and a performance at the Crystal Palace the following year of his incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest made him an overnight celebrity.
Sullivan settled down to the life of a professional musician, teaching, playing the organ, editing and conducting, while at the same time broadening his activities as a composer. The 1860s saw a ballet, a ’cello concerto, a symphony, choral works, several overtures and a raft of chamber pieces, songs, partsongs and hymns. Sullivan’s first comic opera came in 1866 when he set Francis Burnand’s adaptation of John Maddison Morton’s Box and Cox. Originally written for private performance, Cox and Box was so successful that public performances followed, as did a second collaboration with Burnand, The Contrabandista (1867).
Sullivan’s reputation grew steadily, helped by the grand Festival Te Deum, written to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales from typhoid in 1872 and the following year’s massive oratorio The Light of the World. He first worked with W.S. Gilbert in 1871 on a Christmas pantomime, Thespis, which, although successful, did not lead anywhere. Sullivan and Gilbert were re-united in 1875 by Richard D’Oyly Carte for Trial by Jury, a one-act operetta which led to a more-or-less annual sequence of full-length pieces between 1877 and 1889. H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) and The Gondoliers (1889) have proved to be the most enduringly popular.
In the meantime Sullivan cemented his position as the country’s premier musician with the conductorship of the Leeds Musical Festival for whom he also wrote two major choral works,
The Martyr of Antioch (1880) and The Golden Legend (1886). He was knighted in 1883.
In 1891 his most ambitious work, the three-act romantic opera Ivanhoe, achieved the unprecedented success of a continuous run of 155 performances. A rift with Gilbert in 1890 led to collaborations with several other librettists during the '90s.
Towards the end of his life Sullivan had success with Victoria and Merrie England, a ballet for the Queen’s diamond jubilee and The Absent-minded Beggar, a song for the Boer War wives and children’s fund. He wrote a successful operetta, The Rose of Persia, to a libretto by Basil Hood and was working on a second Hood collaboration when he died on
22 November 1900.
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